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Image of Rich Thompson, Lead Forecaster

Rich Thompson
Lead Forecaster
Operations Branch
Storm Prediction Center

 

By Ariel Cohen (SPC) and Keli Pirtle (NOAA Public Affairs)

 

Q: How did you get into weather?

I've been deeply interested in the weather longer than I can remember. I can't point to any specific weather event that spurred my interest – my third word was "wain," while watching rain through a window when I was only a year old.

Q: Describe the path leading up to your job at the SPC.  How did it develop your interest in severe storms forecasting?

As a kid, my weather interests were broad, but focused primarily on thunderstorms and tropical cyclones while I was growing up along the Texas coast. This was in the days well before Internet access, so I had to learn to interpret the clouds as an important part of my developing skills as an amateur weather forecaster. Since thunderstorms were common throughout the year where I grew up, that interest led me to college at the University of Oklahoma, where severe thunderstorms and tornadoes were an obvious focus. I attempted to apply what I learned in the classroom on informal storm chases with other students (including fellow SPC Lead Forecaster Roger Edwards). I did this to increase my understanding of day-to-day weather, spending many hours looking at weather data and learning from the more established students.  I used the storm chases as a way to verify my specific forecasts – a "bust" chase was a powerful motivating factor to improve as a forecaster!

I earned my bachelor’s degree in meteorology, but decided to continue in graduate school while waiting for employment opportunities within the National Weather Service. After completion of an M.S. in meteorology, the opportunity arose to work for the NWS office in Houston. I only worked there for 18 months before I started working for the Severe Local Storms (SELS) unit of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center (NSSFC – what would become SPC the following year). I have worked at SPC ever since.

Q: What educational background helped you get to your career today?

The B.S. and M.S. degrees in meteorology were critical in my development as a forecaster, even though the majority of my course work did not focus on practical applications of the meteorological concepts. However, remaining in school helped me solidify the theoretical underpinnings of the conceptual models that would become the basis for the "ingredients-based" forecasting approach I embrace. That said, the informal efforts I put in on the side, such as storm chasing, were just as important in shaping me as a meteorologist.

Q: What is it about your job that interests you?

Working at SPC allows me to focus on the most dangerous thunderstorms in the contiguous United States, while providing a valuable service to an increasingly wide range of people making weather-based decisions.  With such a large area of responsibility, it is easy to find interesting weather scenarios almost every day. I look forward to work every day, knowing that my co-workers share my passion for the weather.

Q: What do you consider to be the greatest accomplishment of your career?

All of my forecast decisions can be improved upon by someone else, and it is entirely possible that none of my projects will have a lasting impact on the science of meteorology. Instead, I feel my greatest (potential) accomplishment is to help mentor the younger forecasters who will become the future leadership of the SPC. If you can't or won't share what you've learned with others, then your positive contributions will end once you walk out the door.

Q: What do you see yourself doing in 5 to 10 years?

I will likely still be working as a Lead Forecaster at SPC.

Q: What is the most memorable experience of your career?

My most memorable experience was my first official convective outlook as a new meteorologist with the SELS unit in Kansas City. The date was 17 August 1994, and it left me questioning whether or not I was cut out to be an operational forecaster. The infamous Lahoma, Oklahoma, supercell occurred that afternoon, but it was outside of the severe thunderstorm and general thunderstorm outlook areas in the forecast I issued earlier that morning. That case hit home with a valuable lesson – the atmosphere is extremely complicated. No matter how much I think I might know, I'm never more than 12-24 hours away from being completely humbled. In other words, I got a head start on learning how much I didn't know! That day also helps me keep more recent forecast disappointments in proper perspective.

Q: What advice would you provide to the up-and-coming meteorologists?

It's simple, but not easy – work hard and stay focused on your goal(s)! Your grades are a reflection of your commitment to your studies, but excellent grades alone will not make you a great weather forecaster.  To excel as a forecaster, you need to know how to apply what you've learned in class, and you need to go beyond the simple assumptions and "clean" cases you'll see in class. The real world is amazingly complicated and messy, and it's how you deal with the uncertainty that determines how far you progress as a forecaster.

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