Chief of Forecast Operations
Storm Prediction Center
By Ariel Cohen (SPC) and Keli Pirtle (NOAA Communications)
Q: How did you get into weather?
My interest in weather began at an early age, after experiencing the effects of the remnants of Hurricane
Camille in eastern Virginia.
After a few more hurricanes, nor'easters and a particularly severe thunderstorm affected my hometown,
I knew I wanted to become a meteorologist and work for the National Weather Service.
As a teenager I would visit the local Weather Service Office often, and spent quite a bit of time talking
with the staff and the TV meteorologists who would stop by to get the latest maps and information.
This was well before the Internet era!
Q: Describe the path leading up to your job at the SPC. How did it develop your interest in severe storms forecasting?
Severe thunderstorms have always been one of my primary interests and, after a couple of years early
in my NWS career in the northeast United States, I've spent the majority of my career at Weather Forecast
Offices in the central states.
During that time I was a forecaster at the Oklahoma City/Norman (Oklahoma) Weather Forecast Office,
the warning coordination meteorologist at the Kansas City/Pleasant Hill (Missouri) WFO,
and the meteorologist-in-charge at the WFO in Fort Worth (Texas).
Since most of my career has been in the Central and Southern Plains, I've gained quite a bit of experience
forecasting severe storms and issuing tornado, severe thunderstorm, and flash flood warnings.
These experiences prepared me well for my current position at the Storm Prediction Center.
Q: What educational background helped you get to your career today?
I attended Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and transferred to the University of Oklahoma,
graduating with a bachelor's degree in meteorology and psychology.
While at OU, I had the opportunity to participate in the Toto (Totable Tornado Observatory) Project in the early 1980s.
Helping with several tornado intercept missions gave me a different perspective on severe storms
and the challenges in forecasting them.
Being in such close proximity to tornadic storms during this project prepared me well for issuing
severe weather warnings based in part on storm spotter reports.
It was also beneficial when I became responsible for developing and presenting spotter training sessions,
and could use my own experiences to provide training sessions that would benefit storm spotters.
Q: What is it about your job that interests you?
Every day is unique, and the importance of what we do here is a reminder that we not only have to
produce the highest quality forecasts, but also develop the tools that will lead to even better forecasts in the future.
We have an incredibly talented group of scientists and support personnel, and I enjoy the daily interactions
with our staff, the operational forecast shifts, and being involved with projects where decisions are
made on how our services will evolve over time.
There is a history of innovation at the SPC, in both the development of new forecast capabilities and
in providing forecasting tools to the weather community.
It's great to now be a part of that tradition.
Q: What do you consider to be the greatest accomplishment of your career?
I have been fortunate to have been involved in a number of significant initiatives during my career,
many related to the NWS Modernization in the late 1980s and 1990s.
One project that really stands out, however, was my involvement with a small group that organized and
facilitated a series of Warning Decision Making workshops in Norman, Oklahoma, and Boulder, Colorado, between 1998 and 2003.
These workshops emphasized the importance of human factors issues in NWS operations,
and especially warning operations during high-impact events.
Experts spoke on a variety of topics that included understanding differences in decision making styles,
the importance of developing and maintaining situational awareness, and new forecasting and Doppler radar
The feedback we received from the students over the course of these workshops was very gratifying,
and I still occasionally hear from colleagues who were thankful for the opportunity to participate.
Q: Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I am one of four SPC employees who are drummers (no singing, though!), and also enjoy nature and landscape photography.
Q: What advice would you provide to the up-and-coming meteorologists?
Take advantage of every opportunity to learn and to participate in activities that will build your
experience level and increase your visibility to people who may be in a position to hire you for future job openings.
I was very fortunate early in my career to have had a mentor who opened the door to opportunities and
experiences that made me more competitive for jobs.
He gave me encouragement and occasional constructive criticism that made me a better person and meteorologist.
As I've progressed through my career I've realized just how much that meant to me,
and I try to pay it forward by doing the same with the next generation of meteorologists.
Q: What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
I want to remain at the SPC and continue in the same role.
Even though the job title remains the same, advancements in the science of meteorology and in the tools
we use to make forecasts and communicate weather information require us to constantly evolve.
It keeps the job fresh and challenging, and is the perfect work environment for me.
Q: What is the most memorable experience of your career?
During the course of my career, I've worked several major weather events.
These include blizzards, floods, and tornado outbreaks.
The one day I'll never forget, though, was Saturday, February 1, 2003, the day the Space Shuttle
Discovery disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana.
The tragedy was captured on Doppler radar, and within an hour we had media interest from around the world
calling or setting up cameras in the Ft. Worth weather office.
I was giving a morning spotter talk, and raced back to the office to assist the staff with interviews,
forecasts for field crews involved in recovery efforts, and even using our communications capabilities
to warn the public to stay away from debris due to health concerns.
It was a powerful reminder that even when weather isn’t the cause of a disaster, timely weather
information is essential to effective response.
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