A Day in the Life of a Meteorologist

Posted by on Monday, June 6, 2016

Here is an interview with Chris Nuttall a Meteorologist-General Forecaster with the National Weather Service in Shreveport, Louisiana.


1.      Please state you job title.

My jobs title is Meteorologist-General Forecaster.


2.      How long have you worked here?

I have been in the National Weather Service for nine years.  I spent the first three and a half years of my career as a Meteorologist-Intern at the NWS office in Amarillo, Texas.  I have been in my current position at the Shreveport office for the last five and a half years.


3.      What are your duties?

Our office in Shreveport is responsible for weather forecasts and warnings for forty-eight counties and parishes in Northern Louisiana (17 parishes), Southwest Arkansas (9 counties), East Texas (21 counties), and Southeast Oklahoma (1 county).   This is our County Warning Area, or CWA, and we have a population of approximately 2 million people.

I am often assigned different duties on a day-to-day basis depending on the current weather situation.  On most days, I am assigned to one of two forecast desks.  The “Public Desk” is responsible for issuing a forecast for the next seven days detailing daily high and low temperatures, winds, dewpoints, relative humidity, precipitation chances, rainfall amounts, and snow or ice accumulations.  The Public Desk is also responsible for issuing “long-fuse” watches and warnings, such as Flood Watches/Warnings, Excessive Heat Warnings, and Winter Storm Watches/Warnings, just to name a few.


The “Aviation Desk” produces Terminal Aerodrome Forecasts (TAFs) for seven airports within our area of responsibility.  The TAFs are 24-hour forecasts issued every 6 hours detailing wind speed and direction, visibility, cloud ceilings, and any weather, and any obstructions to visibility, such as fog. The Aviation Desk maintains a constant weather watch and is the first meteorologist responsible for radar warnings operations should severe weather develop. The Aviation Desk also produces special fire weather forecasts for firefighters and federal, state, and local forest and wildlife agencies.


Our office also releases a weather balloon twice daily to obtain measurements of temperature, humidity, pressure, and wind speed/direction throughout the atmosphere. Over 90 NWS offices in the United States and hundreds of more stations worldwide conduct these observations at the same time.  These observations are some of the most vital data that are fed into the forecast models that all meteorologists use.


When severe weather develops, the routine forecasts must still be issued on time, but I might be assigned to be the Radar Meteorologist.  It becomes my sole job to monitor radar and issue severe thunderstorm, tornado, and flash flood warnings.  I could also be assigned to our Decision Support Desk where I provide special briefings to local, state, and federal emergency management officials.


4.      Do you interact with the public in your position? And if so in what capacity?

I interact with the public frequently.  Weather affects almost every activity during a person’s day.  I frequently take calls ranging from someone wanting to know if it will rain during their tee time, to someone wanting to know if any of our rivers and lakes will flood, to someone wanting climatological data, to someone wanting answers to some very technical and complex meteorology questions.  We frequently provide interviews to local radio and television stations.  We also actively maintain Facebook and Twitter pages.


I grew up in the heart of Tornado Alley, so severe weather has always been one of my interests.  One of my favorite public outreach jobs is teaching SKYWARN storm spotter classes.  I teach interested individuals how to safely identify and report severe weather to us at the National Weather Service. That ground truth information is extremely vital to our operations.


5.      What would you say is the biggest challenge of your job?

The weather never stops, so neither do we.  We never close.  We are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, including all holidays.  We also work rotating shifts, just like police officers, firefighters, and doctors.  It can be high-stress during major weather events and is often physically and mentally taxing, especially when you have severe weather episodes over consecutive days.


6.      What does an average day at your job consist of?

On an average day, I start by receiving a briefing from the meteorologist that I am relieving.  I begin the forecast process by analyzing what is happening currently and what happened over the last 24 hours.  I start on the large scale, using satellite and radar imagery.  Sometimes, I will also draw upper-air analysis by hand rather than by using the computer-generated imagery.  Hand-analysis can often help find more subtleties in the weather and give me a better understanding about how things are evolving.  I gradually work down to the smaller local scale in my analysis.  By this time, the forecast is starting to take shape in my head.  Next, I start evaluating the various weather models, again starting on the large scale and working down to the local level.  I use the models to try to fill in the gaps in my understanding.  For example, maybe the models are picking up on small-scale effects or something else that I have missed.  The models are not perfect.  They all have biases and often are inconsistent.  I have to keep this in mind at all times.  I also have to remember past events and local climatology.  Finally, I combine all of this information and build the forecast.


The forecast is easier on some days than it is others.  When the weather is really complicated, it may take me several hours to make a forecast.  During long stretches of quiet weather, sometimes I will have some extra time and can work on extra training or research projects.


7.      What, if any, challenges do working in this location have?

The weather tends to change rapidly, which can make forecasting a challenge.  In my location in the Southern United States, I am in a transition zone.  We tend to get more of the large lines of severe weather instead of isolated supercells like you would find farther to the west and north on the Great Plains.  Instead, we tend to get supercells that develop within these linear systems, and the tornadoes that they produce usually develop very rapidly are difficult to detect on radar.  Storm spotters have difficulty seeing and reporting tornadoes to use because our region is filled with dense pine forests.  In the winter, we often get a mixed bag of precipitation types.  It could be any number of mixes of liquid rain, freezing rain, sleet, and snow.  We usually get one or two winter precipitation events each year, but we can have a couple of winters in a row with nothing but liquid rain.  Pure snow events are rare for most of our area, especially anything with snow amounts over four or five inches, so any winter precipitation tends to be high impact.  Most of our winter weather events usually include some time of ice accumulation, which can be devastating.


8.      What advice would you give to a school aged child who is interested in this position?

Meteorology is all about science and math, mainly physics and calculus.  Forecasting will also require a good knowledge of geography.  If you live in an area where there is a weather office nearby, or even a local television station with a meteorology staff, see if you can visit them.  See for yourself what they do and ask them questions about their job.  As you get into high school, look into internship or volunteer programs that might be available.


9.      What sparked your interest in meteorology?

I have always been interested in meteorology.  I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t interested in the weather.  From my experience, most meteorologists can usually point to a weather event sometime in their lives that either sparked their interest in meteorology or just confirmed their interest.  For me, it was the latter.  A major severe weather event unfolded across Kansas and Oklahoma on April 26, 1991.  Multiple tornadoes occurred that were F3 or stronger, including one F5.  I remember sitting on the floor of my parents’ living room tracking the storms with a road atlas and trying to figure out if they would hit our house.


10.  What is one pro and one con of your job?

The best thing about my job is that the weather is always changing.  It makes every day different, and since weather affects everything, every day I have the opportunity to make a positive impact on someone’s life with my forecast.

The worst part of my job is the unknowns.  The atmosphere is a highly complex system that is always changing.  We’ve vastly improved our forecasting capabilities in the last two decades, both in terms of accuracy and time.  Twenty years ago, forecasts were not very reliable past three to four days.  Today, we can forecast pretty well out to about seven days, and we have some general idea of the trends at even longer time frames.  However, there are still many things we do not understand, and despite our improvements, sometimes there are parts of the forecast that we still get wrong.  During major weather events, those impacts can be high, even deadly.  It makes the job very stressful, but at the same time, it creates a constant drive to improve and to get better.  A bad forecast can still lead to a positive outcome if we can learn what we missed.

The Team

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