by Julie Wan
Greg Carbin is the warning coordination meteorologist at the NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center (SPC) in Norman, Oklahoma. His love of weather began when he was a child in New England experiencing the excitement of snowstorms. When he received his degree in meteorology from Lyndon State College, he knew he wanted to be involved in operational meteorology and forecasting. He came to the Storm Prediction Center in Norman after working for Fleet Weather and for the National Weather Service (NWS) in North Carolina.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and what you do at the Storm Prediction Center?
I’ve been in weather service now for over 15 years. I started as a forecaster, working with some amazing meteorologists on high-resolution computer modeling, understanding thunderstorm formation, tornado formation, and, more recently, people’s responses to warnings and watches. I took the warning coordination meteorologist position here a little over a year ago, so I’m also now involved in outreach efforts with users of our information. I liaison with those folks and relate their needs back to SPC forecasters and management to see if we can make improvements to what we do.
Do you deal mainly with tornadoes or other storms too?
The tornadoes are the top. They take up an enormous amount of my time, both in terms of history and current events. We maintain a database of severe weather information that goes back into the 1950s, and that is the official database for tornado information for the NWS. So a big part of my job is maintaining that database, answering questions and queries from the media or other interested parties, and then also adding to that database and doing quality control on tornado events as they occur throughout the year. The SPC is still the primary source for tornado watch information and severe storm forecast information for the continental United States, but we also look at winter weather events and fire weather.
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Can you tell me more about the Storm Prediction Center?
The National Severe Storms Forecast Center is responsible for tornado watches and other thunderstorm watches. It has always been an icon in operational meteorology with respect to severe storms and tornadoes, and the modernization of the National Weather Service had that center moving here to Norman, Oklahoma, to be co-located with the National Severe Storms Laboratory. Part of the modernization that was very visionary on the part of weather service management at the time was, wherever they could, they decided to team up operational forecasting with academic and research centers. The forecast office is right down the hall from the classrooms where meteorology is being taught. And so here in Norman, the Severe Storms Lab has been in place doing research on radar and tornado formation for many years, and it was just a natural approach to bring in the Extreme Storms Forecast Center, which then became known as the Storm Prediction Center in the mid-‘90s.
Is there a formal process for issuing an official forecast?
Before we send any of our forecasts out, they’re all proofread by other forecasters. We basically type up our discussion and draw our map areas and submit that to a quality control process, where other forecasters at SPC take a quick look and say, “That’s good, send it out.” When it comes to the actual tornado watch issuance, the SPC lead forecaster is responsible for the initial watch area. We transmit that watch area out to the NWS offices that will be affected by the watch, and then we hold a collaboration call with those offices. They may trim or they may add to the watch. Once everybody has pretty much agreed, we’ll go ahead and transmit the tornado watch for those areas.
Since you issue watches rather than warnings does the preparation of a community for a storm rely mostly on the local meteorologists?
Yes. The weather service has weather forecast offices across the country. A large state like New York has 3 offices in the state, and there’s a 4th office that covers parts of the state. So there are 2-4 weather service offices in each state, and those offices have warning coordination meteorologists, and those warning coordination meteorologists are basically the outreach and public relations officials for the NWS in those locations. The position I have is kind of a national position that works with all of those warning coordination meteorologists, and they work with their communities.
And how do they prepare people for a severe storm?
This is the busiest time of year for warning coordination meteorologists in the field. They’re doing a lot of outreach, a lot of educational discussions—evening outings where they’re going out into the communities and having seminars and information sessions that are advertised well in advance, so the people with questions about weather and severe weather can come to these meetings.
Can you tell me more about how people respond to warnings?
There’s been a real push and emphasis on trying to better understand societal impacts from hazardous weather. We’ve often assumed that the watch is disseminated to the broadcast community and the media, and that is picked up by the public, and they have been educated as to what a watch means, so they’re going to be tuned in to how the weather is changing through the day and be prepared to take specific actions if the storm strikes their community. But that’s a big assumption, and I think these past few years there’s been an emphasis more on trying to understand the public’s decision-making process. There’s still a large number of people who don’t know the difference between a watch and a warning. They don’t know that tornadoes can be pretty accurately predicted once they’re on the radar and producing damage, and that information can aid in saving their lives if they know how to interpret the warnings. If we have a better understanding of the emotions and education of recipients, then we can hopefully tailor our products to better meet the need of those users.
How do you gather the information about how people are responding to your products?
A lot of it is surveys. There’s been a closer working relationship between meteorologists and social scientists. We have to ask ourselves how to design a survey to ask people where they get their weather information and how they react in different weather situations. We also have to determine who we should be giving the survey to and how we should be disseminating it. Meteorologists aren’t necessarily skilled enough to design the surveys to get the information they need from their populations, so we’ve brought in and worked closely with social scientists. The education has improved, and I think more people understand the whole idea of what to do in severe weather situations.
Have you ever been in or chased a tornado yourself?
Yeah—it’s hard not to get caught up in the whole interest in the Great Plains’ tornadoes and the long history of storm chasing in this area. But I’m not as avid a storm chaser as people I know. It’s definitely not as easy as you think it might be. You can spend many hours on the road and end up seeing absolutely nothing, or you can drive right into a very dangerous storm and end up with a cracked windshield and a lot of damage to your car if you get into hail. So it’s not something to be taken lightly, and I’d kind of rather avoid tornadoes than go seek them out!
Is there anything else you think our readers might be interested in?
I think in my case I really didn’t understand in my teens that this was a real, viable profession. I’d just encourage young people who are interested in science in general and weather specifically to keep at it, because it will be very rewarding to you if that is an interest you have.