|George R. Kasica
METEO 410 Portfolio #4: Reflections on the Certificate of Achievement in Weather Forecasting Program
In this final portfolio of the METEO 410 - Advanced Topics in Weather Forecasting course, and also the final portfolio of the Certificate of Achievement in Weather Forecasting Program, I am going to review first the most important points that I've learned in this final course of the program, then I am going to look back over the previous three semesters and analyze an area that I found the most interesting over the course of the entire program and that I felt I gained a substantial amount of experience in during that time and lastly I'm going to try to detail my feelings about the science of meteorology and weather forecasting and how it applies to me and my personal activities now that the program is completed. So without any further delay, lets move on to what I found most important for this last class of the program METEO 410 - Advanced Topics in Weather Forecasting.
As you are aware in looking at the earlier portfolios for this last class, the majority of the time here was spent with the students doing actual day-to-day operational forecasting for five cities located around the country and being objectively compared to up to 1360 other forecasters from around the country. What may not have been apparent is that these other forecasters had a wide range of skill and education levels - from fellow certificate students here at Pennsylvania State University, undergraduate meteorology majors from here as well as other universities around the country, all the way up to graduate level students and faculty from this and other universities. Overall after 10 weeks of forecasting directly and objectively compared to these other students, my final rank was 89th or in the top 7% of the participants. The other students in my class this semester ranked at 101st and 118th respectively, also within the top 10% of the class - an amazing achievement in my opinion. Given the large numbers of forecasts made (40 total - 5 cities at 8 per city) it would be difficult to conclude that this was just luck. Obviously all of us truly learned a great deal during the last two years of course work here.
What is the most important concept however? That question is difficult for me to answer with just a single statement, as there were many things that enabled myself and the others in class to do as well as we did in the competition. However, I feel that the most important concept that we learned for the semester was one that Professor Grenci had actually repeated many times throughout the four semesters of the course - "You have to be at one with the atmosphere".
So what does the above statement mean? In my mind it means you need to truly understand not only what is occurring now in the atmosphere in the area you are trying to forecast for, but also the reason why it is happening and how that is going to affect the future activity of the atmosphere as you try to predict what will be happening - be it rain, snow, severe weather, or a clear sunny summer day. So how do we go about obtaining this oneness? A concept we used in METEO 410 was to always look at something we called "The Big Picture". By that I mean to look past just the small scale local conditions to a more regional or synoptic view of the weather patterns over the time period we were attempting to forecast for. We did this by looking at not just the surface weather charts, but the radar images, upper air charts, satellite images, computer model guidance graphics and other items that all helped us to form a complete picture of what was occurring in the atmosphere now and why it was happening. By doing this and getting a firm understanding of what was happening and why it was occurring we were able to much more easily predict what was going to occur in the future as we made our forecasts for the competition. In my mind I compared it to building a building (or really any type of structure) if the foundation (in this case the understanding of the current conditions) isn't strong (we don't know what is happening and why in the atmosphere) then the rest of the building (the forecast we're making) won't be sound (the forecast will be inaccurate).
Its easy to cite some examples of lack of understanding of "The Big Picture" especially from this last semester in terms of poor forecasts namely the Tucson, Arizona March 8, 2007 high temperature forecast error or the Atlantic City New Jersey March 16, 2007 precipitation forecast error where if I had looked more carefully at "The Big Picture" and therefore the appropriate data items I may have significantly improved the accuracy of the forecast I made. Conversely, looking at the Rapid City South Dakota April 3, 2007 forecast I obviously has a good grasp of "The Big Picture" and as a result the processes occurring at the time in that area based on the accuracy of the eventual forecast.
Moving away from this concept just slightly to discuss another area I feel I've improved on the most over the period of the courses I want to discuss my ability to look at and integrate multiple items of information into an accurate forecast over a reasonable period of time so that it could actually be useful to someone in the :"real world". My first experience in this came on January 20, 2006 just as I was starting my second course of the program, METEO 361 - Mesoscale Forecasting. My wife works as a cardiac surgery ICU nurse for a large metropolitan hospital in southeastern Wisconsin and her employer was aware of my weather interest and the classes I was taking. As a result of this I was "volunteered" to provide them with a forecast assessment of the winter storm heading for the area. They were wondering if they should keep existing staff on site or call in the next group of staff early before the road conditions deteriorated since a significant number of the staff live a fair distance from the facility and getting to it might well be an issue as a result of the storm. On the surface a few people getting to work on a Saturday night doesn't seem like such a stressful thing to be concerned with, and in most cases and occupations it isn't critical, but in this case we were talking about a small group of highly trained specialty nurses providing high level care to critically ill patients, so having a proper level of correctly trained staff in this case was very important. Thankfully, my assessment on the arrival time of the snow and the amount was accurate and they did in fact call in the needed amount of staff early, but it brought home very quickly, and clearly, to me that I needed to be able to better integrate the data into a forecast in a reasonable amount of time since I felt very rushed even with most of a day to produce a forecast.
To look at the data integration issue another way, in the Mesoscale Forecasting class we were introduced to the Storm Prediction Center's Mesoanalysis Page a collection of data items numbering over 80 individual different charts that in most cases were updated at least hourly or in some cases more frequently to predict or asses the possibility of severe weather. Clearly we didn't consider all 80 or more of these items each time we assessed the risk of severe weather, however in class Professor Grenci provided us with several guides that did include many items that needed to be looked at in order to get a proper "big picture" of the severe weather threat in a given area. One of the guides had about a dozen items on it to accurately forecast the upcoming possibility of severe weather and another more compact checklist still emphasized 3-4 key items. Given that we know these items get updated hourly in most cases, it necessitated that we were able to assess and evaluate them in a fairly rapid manner because if we took a long period of time the data we were working with was already out of date and potentially useless. One thing that provided an opportunity for real world experience and practice in this area is an external interest of mine known as the Southeastern Wisconsin SKYWARN Association. This is a group of mostly amateur radio volunteers that assist the National Weather Service in Sullivan, Wisconsin in locating, assessing and tracking severe weather in the southeastern Wisconsin area. This group is primarily composed of amateur radio operators trained to evaluate the weather conditions where they are located and report to a central location known as a network control operator who will then further assess and filter the reports and eventually relay those meeting severe weather criteria to the NWS office. In this area there are about 100-200 possible individuals that may be involved in any given severe weather event. In most cases I serve as a relay point for the reports between the individual spotters and the NWS office. Part of the process here that I'm able to put my METEO 361 knowledge to work towards is using the SPC mesoanalysis pages mentioned above to help direct the spotters in terms of how significant of a risk the area is under at any given time and should we consider starting to formally activate the radio repeater systems at a higher level of power than we normally run at and also restrict access into them to just the spotter network to avoid problems of too much radio traffic. Again, the individuals are all volunteers, so deciding to formally "activate the net" as it's called here, results in pulling people away from family commitments and other activities they may have planned possibly, though there is no requirement to be a part of any given net many of the spotters do respond to each net. One thing that does occur that does have a much more direct impact when a net is activated is the increase in transmitter power from the various radio repeater sites in the area, and also the tightening of access on who can use them. Again, remember these are are donated radio systems in most cases, so when we decide to activate a net we're costing the individuals that donate the equipment money in the form of added electrical costs for the higher transmitter power and inconveniencing other users in the form of lack of ability to use the system for the duration of the net activity. Given that most severe weather events in this area can last 4-6 hours or longer from the time a watch is issued by the NWS to the time the severe weather is past the area, the amount of cost or inconvenience can be substantial if the net is activated when its not needed. AS a result of these effects, my working with the SKYWARN group here has very quickly taught me how to rapidly look at the multiple data items from the SPC and other sources and put together a fairly accurate assessment of a severe weather threat for an area. Another factor that has helped me to deal with putting together a forecast under pressure is the fact that the average weather net has between 100-200 people waiting on an assessment on what we may do in terms of starting, continuing or terminating the net, and in my mind there are not many things more stressful than about 150 people that have been awake until 3am that are getting told that they may need to be awake for another 3-4 hours and then have absolutely nothing happen. It quickly brings home the idea that what I'm doing may be just a "hobby" but it has a very real effect on real people and they expect professional results.
Another external interest of mine that I think has also helped me to be better able to integrate the data into a consistently accurate forecast on a fairly rapid basis is that I also provide a daily local weather forecast for the area I live in on the world wide web. For example in March 2007about 325 people in this community of 5890 accessed the web page from the area here to check on the weather conditions and forecast for the area based on statistics from the server it runs on. Given that I have a limited amount of time to write the forecasts each day I've become quite good at assimilating the various data items and putting a forecast together, especially over the course of this last semester in METEO 410 where in addition to my doing my own daily forecast for my home area I needed to produce a daily forecast 4 days out of the week for another location in the country by a very specific deadline or my ranking compared to other students would suffer a substantial "late" penalty. This is not unlike what one would experience if you were actually working for an entity like the National Weather Service where there may be literally hundreds of thousands of people or businesses depending on a timely and (hopefully) accurate forecast to be provided, and since some of my neighbors look at my forecasts I get immediate feedback when I step outside my door usually. Given my objectively good results in the national forecasting competition when compared with others, including those with more advanced degrees or more extensive experience, I think it can be reasonably concluded that I have in fact learned a significant amount in the four courses here and am at a point now where I am usually able to put together a reasonably accurate forecast in a relatively short amount of time, not unlike the time limits one might experience in an operational forecasting position.
So where does all this lead now? After 4 semesters and two years of coursework I would like to try to summarize my feelings about meteorology in general and weather forecasting and this program in particular. My personal feelings about meteorology and weather forecasting in particular are that the science needs to do a better job in educating not only the public, but its own "practitioners" as it were to the fact that there are very real, serious limits to forecast accuracy over time. By that I mean (as an example) having a forecaster (or group) make a forecast for 7 days from now and state that the high temperature will be exactly 56 degrees is just absurd. We've learned in the last four courses over and over that the forecasts are simply not that accurate for a time period that far into the future. Yet, as long as the public is offered this type of deterministic type of forecast they will surely accept it as fact. As a result of this I think as a profession meteorology does itself a great disservice because if the temperature is just a couple of degrees off from what is forecast the public automatically assumes, and in their mind rightly so, "the weatherman is wrong AGAIN!". In reality we've learned that its far better to be issuing a probabilistic forecast of a more general nature for the longer time periods which would lead to I think far less of "the weatherman is wrong AGAIN!" type reaction when in fact the forecast might have been generally correct. In this vein I've tried to be careful when making my own forecasts or working with the SKYWARN group here to always consider just how accurate what I'm about to say can possibly be. For example, it is reasonable to predict that a given location at say Hwy 60 & Hwy G will receive rain at exactly 500pm? Obviously it's not. Even assuming that its a short term forecast of an hour or two, the chances of your being correct are not that good due to the fact that storm speed and direction can vary somewhat and it wouldn't take very much of a change to make your deterministic forecast "wrong". A better answer to the question would be to say that, "The Village will receive rain from the storm sometime between 500-530pm" for example. By doing this your giving the same information but in a more usable form given the limits of forecast accuracy that we have today. By forecasting in this manner and being careful to not over emphasis the accuracy for longer periods of time I think that the science of meteorology can go a long way towards gaining back some respect as a truly professional scientific occupation and not one that is more showmanship and entertainment for the sake of gaining ratings on the next big storm when in fact all they may really end of doing is causing yet another round of comments such as "the weatherman is wrong AGAIN!".
Next I would like to talk some about my feelings on the Certificate program itself and my experiences with the instructors and other students I've encountered in the last two years. In my educational career as it were, I've attended several different types of post secondary institutions for several very different types of education. These include a traditional state university for a Bachelors degree in management information systems which I've had as a full time career for about the last 20 years, and finally a state technical college for a certification as an Emergency Medical Technician among other things. Two very different career paths and fields of interest obviously. Without exception I can state that the quality of the course work and the instructors at the Pennsylvania State University Department of Atmospheric Sciences is by far the best I have encountered at any institution that I've attended. They are a highly trained and extremely dedicated group of people that seem to truly care how the students are progressing in the courses, even though in most cases they never meet any of the students in person and know them only via their discussion board postings, e-mails and e-portfolios that are submitted for each part of the course. Now please don't misunderstand me here, the courses are not "easy" by any means, they were for me the four most challenging courses of any that I've taken for in my career as a student, and the four most enjoyable for me as well, not to mention I've learned the most in them. As for the other students in the program, I have nothing but positive things to say there as well. They are as a group some of the most dedicated and intelligent people I've run into, inside or outside of my course work here. It's not often you will see students (or anyone) up at 2am just so that they can follow a storm and put up images and data of it to discuss with others who as it turns out are also up at the same time simply because they are interested in the topic they are learning about. And as we've been told many times by Professor Grenci in terms of our discussions that we've had or our e-portfolios we created during the course work, the quality was on a professional level. To further support this, several of the electronic assignments of other students were read and positively commented on by individuals at locations such as the National Hurricane Center. Another testament to the quality of the program and students is the ability of the school to get individuals from the National Weather Service to come into the classes in an electronic way to add to the learning environment and to aid the discussions and learning. Despite our often joking about Professor Grenci making them "an offer they can't refuse", these individuals have obviously busy schedules and for them to take the time and effort to work with the classes, instructors and students shows just how highly thought of the program, instructors and students are. Overall from start to finish I would have to rate the certificate program, the instructors and the tudents as the finest I've encountered in any learning environment to this point.
So where do I go from here now? I'm hoping that these courses and the Certificate Program will enable me to have a much better understanding of the atmosphere and the processes involved in it to make better forecasts for the areas of interest I'm involved in. Given my computer background and interest in that area and the large use of computer modeling in meteorology, I would ultimately like to find a way to combine these two areas in some fashion. Already with the help of several students from the program I've developed a web site that provides some custom created maps and charts for forecasting and have helped provide forecasts and data for a fellow student that competed in the Chicago to Mackinac sailing competition in the summer of 2006 . In the future I hope to continue to provide these types of services and expand my forecasting abilities and knowledge to provide even more accurate forecasts for the activities I'm involved in.