Storm Prediction Center
By Ariel Cohen (SPC) and Keli Pirtle (NOAA Public Affairs)
Q: How did you get into weather?
A: I have always been interested in weather as far back as I can remember as a child.
Probably the first memory I have of weather is a severe weather event in the middle of the night.
I was awakened by my parents, and we headed to the basement.
Evidently, a tornado hit very close to the house. But beyond that event,
I've always been interested in the winter weather aspect of meteorology,
especially winter storms and their effect on whether or not I would have school the next day.
Weather was just always something that was near and dear to me.
Q: Describe your career path to the SPC.
A: As far back as I can remember, I have always dreamed of being a lead forecaster for
the SELS unit in Kansas City, which is now called the SPC.
After attending college in St. Louis, I worked at Channel 2 there for a while.
Then, a few weeks after graduation I was lucky enough to get a job at the National
Weather Service in Charleston, West Virginia, and interned there for two years.
I was involved with a few computer programming projects there that got my name known,
so when a job opened at SELS, I was able to get it.
Since then, I've been in this unit, but worked multiple jobs.
I became a meso-forecaster in 1995, and then a lead forecaster in 2000.
Q: Is it pretty common for forecasters to work at field offices like Charleston before coming to the SPC?
A: Yes. Almost all forecasters at the SPC have come from NWS field offices.
However once forecasters arrive here, they commonly stay a long time.
So while many forecasters at the SPC don't have very much recent experience in the field,
we all came from field offices in one way or another.
Q: What educational background helped you get to your career today?
A: I attended Parks College of Saint Louis University and earned a Bachelor's degree in meteorology.
I was fortunate that particular school focused on operational aspects of meteorology.
I got a background in the standard theoretical parts of the science, but we also studied operational tools and hand analysis.
I found hands-on things like that very useful as I moved into working for the National Weather Service.
Beyond that, I also had a great interest in computer programming and took a related course or two in high school,
and took a course or two in college.
But I'd have to say, more than anything, computer programming was self-taught and just came from a desire I had.
Q: What is it about your job that interests you?
A: I have always enjoyed severe weather and the challenge of forecasting severe weather.
My personality demands rapidly changing things, and I get bored easily with mundane tasks.
As a lead forecaster, I like the idea that there is a tangible risk of failure every single day.
I find the extreme challenge of rare-event forecasting, and of high-risk forecasting, appealing.
I very much enjoy the challenge of not blowing the whistle too often -- only alerting those
people who need it -- but being willing to hit the button hard on those days it is needed.
Q: Is there a day in your career that has stuck out to you more than others?
A: I have worked a lot of big events and hope to work a lot more. But if I had to name one event
for which I feel I provided the most utility to the public,
it would probably be the September 2001 tornado event in the Washington, D.C. area.
It was a very unusual situation.
Tornadoes were not originally expected, but we were able to identify a risk over parts of Virginia and Maryland.
There ended up being a violent tornado not that far from Washington, D.C., and tornadoes were visible from the Washington Mall.
On that particular day I feel like I did my job pretty well.
Q: Among other things, you are known for the computer programs you created that run forecast tools
used by forecasters at the SPC and around the National Weather Service.
How did you develop these programming skills, and which skills have you found to be the most beneficial in your job today?
A: Computer programming is something I got involved in during eighth grade.
That would have been in the early 1980s, so you can imagine there were not many computers then.
My parents spent $150 to get a tiny personal computer, and I played with it virtually every night.
It didn't even have a hard drive.
So, I would type in a program, play with it for a few hours, and unplug it.
Every day I would re-type the code, so that I could play whatever game I was playing.
So, computer programming is more than something I just learned in college.
It was something I've always enjoyed and always wanted to get better at.
Knowing how to program and being fluent in programming languages is very useful.
It allows you to build tools that are helpful to others.
However, I think the most valuable thing I bring to the table is that I am a forecaster and I see what the needs are.
When you merge the ability to see the forecaster’s need and fill this need,
you're able to build tools that are most effective.
If I were just a programmer or just a forecaster, that wouldn't be possible.
Q: Tell us something most people don't know about you.
A: My primary hobby is gold prospecting.
I own several gold claims in Colorado and usually spend at least a couple weeks of the year at the
bottom of the river in the high elevations of Colorado running a gold dredge.
I'm usually lucky enough to be out there with family and friends.
It's a great escape and not a very common hobby.
Q: What advice would you provide to the up-and-coming meteorologists out there?
A: I would say it's getting harder and harder to get into the National Weather Service.
It's just a fact, and so you're going to have to do things that set yourself apart from everyone else.
If you want to do research, if you want to teach, or maybe if you're interested in the broader science
and not just meteorology, there will probably always be jobs for you.
If you want to be a forecaster, get involved early with student training work,
and see if you can volunteer at a National Weather Service office.
You're going to have to be able to show on paper that you have done things that separate you from everyone else,
and, in my opinion, a very important part of that is learning to write computer code.
Learn to program.
That way, you can build a skill set that is very useful and vital to operational meteorology,
but is not widely known.
That, in and of itself, could open a door that would otherwise be shut.
Q: What is the most memorable experience of your career?
A: Probably the most memorable occurrence is working the biggest outbreak of my career,
which was April 27, 2011.
The ramp up to that event was well done by all my co-workers.
So, I walked into an event everyone knew was going to be very large.
But as a team, we were able to identify the right areas, issue products very timely,
and hit them as hard as we've ever hit any forecast.
From an SPC forecaster perspective,
that one checks all the boxes in terms of what you hope for if you're going to work the biggest event in 20 or 30 years.
I feel we did a reasonable job at it.
Q: You mentioned the term “team.” How important is teamwork here at the SPC?
A: Teamwork is vital to the work we do at the SPC.
More than anything, my job is to work within the team -- make sure everyone is on the same page,
to get everyone's opinion, and to issue watches and coordinate the outlooks so we all agree.
It's an amazingly talented group of people.
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