Storm Prediction Center
By Ariel Cohen (SPC) and Keli Pirtle (NOAA Communications)
Q: How did you get into weather?
I grew up on a farm in southeast Illinois.
The weather was a daily point of conversation, and I undoubtedly picked up on that at a very early age.
As a kid, I can remember commonly sitting outside on my swing set watching the clouds and listening to
my portable NOAA Weather Radio.
When I was in grade school, I would type my own forecasts for the week using my first computer, a Commodore 64.
I would distribute these one-page forecasts to my family and church members, and they would oftentimes
humor me when I requested a quarter in return for my "weather newspaper."
I also fondly recall watching the AM Weather program on PBS most mornings.
Long before the Internet and The Weather Channel, this was my first exposure to convective outlooks
from the National Weather Service National Severe Storms Forecast Center (NSSFC – now Storm Prediction Center).
My specific interest in severe weather and tornadoes likely relates to a family trip around Christmastime
when I was six years old.
We drove through the Little Rock, Arkansas, area during a late-December tornado outbreak.
While it was nighttime and we didn’t directly see any of the tornadoes, the vivid lightning,
perpetual tornado warnings on the car radio, and large number of cars stopping to seek refuge
in ditches left a big impression on me as a young child.
Witnessing some of the tornado damage on our return trip a week later had me in awe about the power of tornadoes.
The NOVA "Tornado!" special in the mid/late 1980s was also very influential for my interest in tornadoes and storm chasing.
Q: Describe the path leading up to your job at the SPC. How did it develop your interest in severe storms forecasting?
My tenure with the National Weather Service began in 1999 when I was hired as a meteorologist at
the NWS office in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
I was subsequently promoted to a General Forecaster position at the NWS office in Hastings, Nebraska, in 2000.
After three years in Nebraska, I was selected to join the Storm Prediction Center.
I was promoted to Mesoscale/Outlook Forecaster at the SPC in 2007.
Q: What educational background helped you get to your career today?
I have a Bachelor of Science degree from Valparaiso University with a double major in meteorology and communications/broadcasting.
While I was at Valparaiso University, I interned for Tom Skilling at WGN-TV in Chicago, was a student volunteer
for the NWS office in Indianapolis, and was the Program Director for the campus radio station, WVUR.
I also served as the student director for the Valparaiso University Storm Intercept Team and President of the
Northwest Indiana Chapter of the National Weather Association.
I also had the unique opportunity to serve on a committee for the City of Valparaiso’s initial
implementation of tornado warning sirens.
More recently, I completed a master’s degree in business administration at Oklahoma Christian University.
Q: What is it about your job that interests you?
I am very fortunate in that being an SPC forecaster has been my dream job for as long as I can remember.
I enjoy that every day has a new and unique challenge.
While general weather patterns tend to repeat, each day’s specific weather scenario has its own uniqueness,
and there are many nuances that can lead to high-impact weather outcomes.
I enjoy synthesizing observational weather information and increasingly detailed numerical models,
along with past experience, to tackle the day’s forecast challenges.
It’s much like solving a puzzle and undoubtedly there is an "art" to forecasting that comes into play
aside from the more tangible scientific details and measurements.
Aside from my main duties as an operational severe thunderstorm forecaster, I also enjoy outreach
activities on behalf of my SPC colleagues.
I commonly answer external questions and represent the SPC in presentations and training sessions to
our customers and partners.
I have been a past co-chair for the National Severe Weather Workshop and currently serve as a planning
committee member for the yearly National Tornado Summit.
Q: Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
Prior to joining the NWS, I did news and sports play-by-play (baseball and basketball) for a group of commercial radio stations.
I play saxophone and was in a jazz band during my first few years of college.
I am also a big baseball fan and have been fortunate to attend, in-person, two World Series-clinching games for
the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006 and 2011.
Q: What is the most memorable experience of your career?
I would have to say it was working the day shift as a Mesoscale Forecaster for the April 27, 2011,
"Super Outbreak II" that impacted the southeast United States.
Walking in the door that morning with a high risk already in place, I had little doubt it would be a very busy shift.
Even so, I was still awestruck by the overall magnitude of the event and its widespread devastation.
It was the highest impact event of my career, by far. Events of that high-end magnitude may only come
around a couple of times in a career.
I will also mention that I was a part of a group of ten National Weather Service and Storm Prediction Center
forecasters who had the opportunity to meet with President Obama just after he toured Moore, Oklahoma,
in the aftermath of the May 20, 2013 EF-5 tornado.
Although I wish the opportunity had come under better circumstances, it was truly an honor to meet the
President of the United States and represent the hard-working personnel of the NWS throughout the country.
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