NOAA Profiles: Storm Prediction Center

In the past, we have blogged about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and discussed how the agency works. The overarching mission of NOAA is to predict and understand the climate, oceans, weather, as well as to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. In this unprecedented time in history which we now find ourselves living in, many of these faithful civil servants continue to report to work to do their jobs and protect the public. Many of these individuals are working from home like so many of us, but many also must continue to commute to their workplace to do their jobs; the vast volume of weather data and the difficult task of issuing warnings and forecasts is not possible to do from a personal desktop or laptop computer. Kelly and I are both married (or in Kelly’s case, soon to be married!) to meteorologists who work for NOAA (my husband works for the National Weather Service at a local Weather Forecast office, while Kelly’s husband works for National Weather Service at the National Water Center), and we are so grateful for them and their coworkers who truly model what civil service means.

I thought it would be interesting to dig a little deeper into some of the agencies which make up NOAA, highlighting a little bit more of the invaluable work they do and how they contribute to NOAA’s mission. Since we are heading into the peak of severe weather season, it seemed like a great time to learn a little bit more about the Storm Prediction Center, which is located in Norman, Oklahoma.

The Storm Prediction Center is part of the National Weather Service, under the National Centers for Environmental Prediction. These forecasters are tasked with issuing outlooks and warnings for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes across the continental United States. The SPC also forecasts general nationwide outlooks and products for heavy rain and snow, as well as fire weather events. These forecasters, like other forecasters in the local National Weather Service offices, work 24/7 forecast shifts. They collaborate with local National Weather Service offices, who are responsible for issuing severe weather warnings. Remember, a watch means conditions are favorable for severe weather, while a warning means that hazardous weather is imminent. Let’s take a look at some of the important work that the SPC does. I will show you some images from past dates, but if you click on the links in the sections below, it will take you to the real-time forecast products.

Convective Outlooks

The SPC issues convective outlooks for Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3. The image below shows that on this particular day in March, there was a moderate risk of severe thunderstorms in central Illinois, while a slight risk of severe weather was forecasted in Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, and parts of Mississippi and Alabama.

One can learn a little bit more about the particular type of severe weather which is expected, you can see further graphics which depict the probability of severe wind, hail or tornadoes.

Severe Weather Watches

As expected severe weather gets closer in time, the SPC will issue watches, either Tornado or Severe Thunderstorm (depending on what the primary weather threat is on that particular day). Watches generally have a lead time of hours, not days, and are intended to alert folks to take preparations and stay weather-aware. We have discussed, and likely will discuss in future blogs, what you can do to prepare for various types hazardous weather. Generally, these watches are preceded by a Mesoscale Discussion, or MD, which are somewhat more technical products which detail the forecast reasoning about why (or sometimes why not!) a severe weather watch is expected to be issued.

Storm Reports

Once severe weather is occurring, reports which are submitted to the local National Weather Service offices are displayed on the SPC website. These reports are in preliminary format, and available in near-real time. Later, they are quality controlled to ensure that the time and location is correct, as well as remove duplicate reports, before being archived at the National Center for Environmental Information (to be profiled on another blog!). If you are interested, you can look at tornado fatality statistics by date here. Additionally, full tornado statistics for each year can be found here.

Mesoanalysis

If you are a weather buff, you may be interested in looking at real time weather conditions. The SPC divides the country up into several sectors, and if you click on the box you are interested in there is a vast wealth of weather information, ranging from surface observations, satellite, radar, model output, various severe weather parameters, and upper air information. It’s a great resource to play around with and you can learn a lot about some of what meteorologists look at as they make a forecast.

Fire Weather

There is a specific page at the SPC which is devoted to fire weather forecasts. Here you can find fire weather outlooks out to 8 days, as well as some maps which display forecast parameters which are specifically applicable to fire weather forecasting, such as relative humidity and winds.

Severe Thunderstorm Archive

On this page, you can look up past weather events and see observations, and forecasts and severe weather reports back to 2000. Once you navigate to the particular date you are interested in, you can click on any of the links on the left side of the website (screen grab shown below) and view any of the products or observations you would like.

Research

Not only are SPC meteorologists skilled forecasters, but they also actively contribute to research which is focused on making their operations more accurate and effective. I personally had the privilege to work with Bob Johns, a well known forecaster and researcher at the SPC for many years, back in the late 90s as part of a Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. My work with Bob Johns during that summer really initiated my interest in severe weather which I later continued during graduate school, and I was so glad to take part in some of the forecast process on SPC shifts in real time, as well as participate in a research project which had directly applicable results.

Outreach

Like all of us in the field of meteorology, SPC forecasters are actively involved with communicating to the public about their work. If you are interested in some general information or have a quick question, you can reference their FAQ page, found here. They have informational pages about tornadoes and derechos, the Fujita scale, as well as a series of video lectures on severe thunderstorms, how the forecast process works, and many other topics in meteorology.

As you can see, meteorologists at the SPC keep very busy even on “quiet” weather days, and contribute in enormous ways to the field of meteorology by collaborating with academic researchers, mentoring students, and honing their own skills and forecast process.

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