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Image of Elizabeth Leitman, Mesoscale Assistant/Fire Weather Forecaster

Elizabeth Leitman
Mesoscale Assistant/Fire Weather Forecaster
Operations Branch
Storm Prediction Center

 

By Ariel Cohen (SPC), Keli Pirtle (NOAA Communications), and James Murnan (NOAA Communications)

 

Q: How did you get into weather?

A: My interests in weather extend well back into my early childhood. When I was a young kid, I would stand out on the pool deck in the back of our family house, where I had my own weather observation station. My parents would get mad at me for using up numerous rolls of film for taking pictures of clouds. For fun, I used to make my own forecasts when I was a kid, and I just knew that this was exactly what I wanted to do when I grew up. Believe it or not, when I was a little kid, I was actually really afraid of thunderstorms. When I was around five or six years old, my mom took me to the local library to check out children’s books about weather that explained what it’s all about to help me get over my fears. There were also a few substantial weather events that impacted areas around the location where I grew up in the mid Mississippi Valley, which influenced my interests. Probably, the biggest one was the Mississippi River flooding of 1993, which really piqued my interest in weather.

Q: Were there any major thunderstorm events that took place during your childhood you vividly remember?

A: I don't remember exact dates, but I do remember one time, when my sister and I were staying with our grandmother while my parents were on vacation, a tornado touched down in our town. The tornado tore off the roof of the old hockey arena. We were out grocery shopping when we heard about the Tornado Warning on the radio and my grandma quickly got us into the car to drive home. We were looking out the back window of the car and could see the funnel cloud coming into town. By that time, I was not as frightened about storms, and I wanted to run out on the front porch to see what was happening when we got home, despite my grandma yelling for me to get in the basement.

Q: Would you describe your career path to the SPC?

A: I would say the track to my current career here at the SPC started in high school, when I knew for sure that I wanted to work somewhere in the National Weather Service (NWS). During my senior year, I came to visit the University of Oklahoma (OU) as a prospective student. I also visited the Norman Weather Forecast Office, the National Severe Storms Laboratory, and the SPC, and I realized then I wanted to work at the SPC.

During my sophomore year at OU, I was really worried about being able to find a job following graduation. I talked to one of my professors about my concerns, and he put me in touch with the Meteorologist-In-Charge of the Norman Forecast Office. I volunteered there for the last two years of college, which gave me experience that was very beneficial in preparing me to work as an operational meteorologist. Almost immediately after I graduated, I became a Meteorologist Intern at the Weather Forecast Office in Billings, Montana, where I worked for a couple of years before I became a General Forecaster at the Forecast Office in Louisville, Kentucky. Then, I was fortunate to have been hired to work here at the Storm Prediction Center – my dream job.

Q: How do you incorporate all of your recent experience at Weather Forecast Offices to your job here at the SPC?

A: I think these experiences have helped me better understand the perspective of a forecaster at the field offices of the NWS. I keep in mind some of the differences between national center perspectives and local NWS office perspectives whenever I’m issuing different products that affect local forecasters. I feel it helps me do my job better here by being able to more effectively put myself in the shoes of a local forecaster.

Q: Given your various experiences in the NWS, what would you consider to be some of the differences between the perspectives of a local Weather Forecast Office forecaster and a national center forecaster?

A: Here at the SPC, we issue products that are intended to precede the warning phase of organized severe thunderstorm events. Local offices focus on issuing products that are of shorter duration during these events, such as warnings that cover the size of a few counties or parishes. We at the SPC are essentially looking at meteorological conditions over a broader area. We monitor the evolving environments that would potentially support severe storms, and intend to issue products prior to the development of organized severe weather events. We essentially act as a heads up for Forecast Offices whose areas of responsibility are much smaller in size than the area over which we focus at the SPC. So the main differences in perspectives come down to a difference between the sizes of the areas over which we monitor, as well as the time periods of concern.

Q: What interests you about your job?

A: As you can probably tell, I love forecasting and studying severe weather, and those are essentially what we get to do all year long! Aside from that, the part I find most interesting is learning how our products and what we do impact different user groups, including the public, television meteorologists, Emergency Managers or other NWS forecasters who use the information we provide. I want to know if we are providing the services that they need, how our information is used, how we can better provide useful and timely information, and in what formats this information could be packaged to make their jobs easier and better.

Q: What are some of the results you have found through studying user groups of SPC products?

A: One of the main results that we have found amongst a variety of user groups is that everyone wants something different, though we have no one-size-fits-all type of product here at the SPC. I'm not sure if it's even actually possible to create such a product, so some of the work we're doing right now is to identify the various needs of the user groups. We do this to find the best ways we can disseminate information to engage our customers, be easily understood by the public, and to help emergency managers and other decision makers make faster and more accurate decisions. We're exploring different graphical and audio-visual media, as well as social media, and sources to make our information more customizable for our varied user community. This could afford them the opportunity to personally select what information they would need or want to know during hazardous severe weather situations in a customizable, more user friendly format.

Q: Can you provide a specific example of a tool or platform that you're investigating for implementation?

A: One area we have recently been working to improve is our website. We have added overlays to our outlook products, so that, for example, people can see population and interstate highway maps overlaid on the Convective Outlook. These maps have been provided so people can get a better frame of reference regarding where they are in relation to areas of severe weather potential. We have also included population statistics for the various risk areas.

Q: What would you say is your greatest career accomplishment?

A: I think some of the coolest stuff I've done since I've been here at the SPC has been mentoring a few students doing different research projects. I proudly mentored a high school science student for a science fair project that eventually was featured at the Intel science fair. I think those are some of the more humbling moments of my job, because these are students who, I know, have the same interests and passion that I did when I was in their position.

Q: Can you tell us something most people don't know about you?

A: Two of my favorite hobbies are baking and debating. As far as debating goes, I’m very interested in following current events and arguing about different topics affecting society today. My parents joke that I would have made a fantastic lawyer. Regarding my interest in baking, I just really love to bake different food items, I find it relaxing.

Q: Have you had the chance to apply your passion for debating in your job?

A: While the act of debating, alone, isn't an integral part of the job, it is very useful to be able to make an argument and justify it in writing within the products we issue. We regularly do this in Mesoscale Convective Discussions, Convective Watches, and Convective Outlooks, in which we make a forecast and scientifically substantiate it.

Q: What has been the most memorable experience of your career?

A: A lot has happened in my relatively short career, thus far. I worked some of the biggest wildfire events in Montana when I worked at the Billings NWS office. There were some substantial flooding and ice storm events when I worked at the Louisville office. However, the events that have had the biggest impact on me were some of the severe weather events that occurred during the past few years that I've worked at the SPC, including the April 27, 2011 severe weather outbreak in the southeastern states. Just being in the operations area of the SPC and seeing what happens during these events, and then seeing the aftermath, really had an impact on me.

Some of the tornadoes that have occurred in central Oklahoma during the past few years have really made an impression on my meteorological career as well. The mission of the NWS is to protect lives and property. When these events occur, you see the impact your work has right in your own backyard, such as when people say your watches, warnings, and products saved their lives. It reinforces why you do what you do, and it makes you feel good about being able to help people in that way.

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