Monday, February 04, 2013

Weatherperson's Week: Gary Szatkowski

Gary Szatkowski is arguably one of the most important names in the Delaware Valley that you may not have known about until recently.  He is the meteorologist in charge (MIC) at the National Weather Service's office in Mount Holly.   Gary is the one who manages one of the best National Weather Service offices in the country and was a leading voice during the days leading up to Sandy's landfall in South Jersey.

Gary's day-to-day isn't solely about managing meteorologists and tossing around vernacular like Euro, MOS, and 850 lines.  There's the less glamorous part of the job...the managing part!
As a MIC, Gary's day varies quite a bit. "I handle many of the administrative duties at the office, so my typical day often involves certifying invoices for payments, documenting performance of the office staff, and looking at where we should be going as an office and as an agency in terms of new products and services," Szatkowski says.

"When the weather gets active, I swing around to support operations (the forecasters). Now the priorities are preparing briefing packages, participating in briefings with emergency management partners, and reviewing office scheduling to make sure we have the staff we need, when we need them, to handle active weather."

Szatkwoski is a Chicago native, having developed the weather itch at a young age.  

"I was always interested in meteorology from a young age," he recalls. "My mother would tell the story of how I would come home from school and immediately go to the afternoon newspaper and look at the weather page. This would be back in 1st grade, and was obviously a long time ago...back when we had afternoon newspapers!"

He credits Harry Volkman and John Coleman as his meteorological inspirations on air in his youth. Gary ended up going into the National Weather Service in the early 80's, working in San Juan and Washington prior to moving to the Mount Holly office in 1997, where he has served as meteorologist-in-charge since his arrival.

Gary's tenure in meteorology leads to one of my favorite questions about the increased role of computer modeling in meteorology and how it has helped (or hindered) the science overall.

"Computer modeling has allowed tremendous growth and maturation of operational meteorology. It complements a much better understanding of the atmosphere. The track forecast for Hurricane Sandy was an excellent benchmark showing the potential for excellent computer modeling to support excellent operational forecasting."

"I often compare the science of meteorology to the science of medicine, except meteorology is about 50 years behind. Medicine has experienced tremendous change over the past several generations. Anesthesia, understanding DNA, vaccines, are examples of relatively recent developments that have radically changed the science of medicine. There is still both art and science in medicine, but the science has radically changed the profession. Similarly, for meteorology, the role of meteorologists has evolved radically with the improvement of numerical guidance. But there is still clearly a forecasting role. The value of weather forecasts has increased so much that now one of the main challenges is to work to ensure that our customers are fully leveraging the value of the forecast. When your tornado warning leadtime is two minutes, the goal is straightforward, increase the leadtime. Once you get tornado warning leadtimes up to 20 minutes, you have a whole new set of challenges. Your thought process has to be focused much more on getting people to use a 20 minute tornado warning effectively, not simply setting a goal of increasing the leadtime to 30 or 40 minutes."

"Suggesting that computer modeling has made the forecasting element of meteorology less of a science is akin to suggesting that developing better medical diagnostic tests has made the diagnosis element of medicine less of a science. I think it is the other way around. Greater information adds both legitimacy and skill to the practitioner."

Twitter, and to a lesser extent Facebook, are resources that Szatkowski has also adapted to using.

"Facebook has a moderate level of interest for me. It does do very well in getting reports during active weather. ‘Spotter’ reports via social media, especially Facebook, now outnumber phone calls from traditional spotters. Quality control, such as dealing with an inaccurate report, is always part of the job, whether you get the information via a phone call or Facebook post."

"I have recently become a huge fan of Twitter. . .it is a great way to have a near-realtime conversation with people during a weather event. Twitter is very convenient for highlighting critical pieces of weather information. Its forced brevity helps focus on the most important information and most efficient communication. It also helps encourage good humor and wit, qualities that are always valuable but particularly so during high stress situations."

Szatkowski was one of the individuals who wrote the briefing statements from the National Weather Service locally that went out to the public and to emergency management prior to Sandy's landfall last October.  With the great work he did in coordinating impacts for our local area, the storm still leaves a tremendous impact on him several months removed.

"The story I think about the most was one in the Wall Street Journal about people who chose to stay in the coastal flood zone on Staten Island in New York City. People died that day who could have easily gotten out of harms' way, but they chose not to. I don’t know if there is a good way to die, but dying that way, cold, wet, water rising, wind howling, no one to hear your cries for help, no one who could have responded even if they could hear you, that’s just a terrible way to die. No one deserves to die that way."

"Our agency’s mission is to save lives and property, and though we saved many, we didn’t save everyone, and for me that is unacceptable. I’ve given a number of presentations about Sandy over the past two months and I’ve thought about the people we lost on Staten Island during every presentation. I suspect I always will."

Sandy was a huge discussion topic for many in the meteorological community in terms of the warnings that were and were not issued. Given Gary works for the Weather Service, I asked of his thoughts on the proposal to modify hurricane warnings, allowing them to remain issued in case a hurricane becomes non-tropical, like Sandy.

"I think the proposal is a good idea. I did not think there would be such a level of commentary about the hurricane versus nor’easter label for Sandy. The discussion and at times anger really highlights the human condition. One of our species' greatest strengths is pattern recognition and labeling. One of our species' greatest weaknesses is our fixation on pattern recognition and labeling. Mother Nature will always take advantage of our weaknesses. With Sandy, some people got very hung up on the label. To me it was akin to us crossing the street when a vehicle suddenly races our way. I am saying ‘look out’ and ‘get out of the way’. I don’t expect to hear others insist they have to know whether it is a ‘car’ or a ‘truck’."

"I strongly support the agency’s push toward impact-based warnings. I am convinced that if a storm surge is going to result in three feet of water in someone’s house, that person could care less if it is tropical cyclone air molecules or nor’easter air molecules that are creating the storm surge. They want to know how bad the flooding will be, when it will start, and when it will end. And that is where our warning efforts should go."

The drive towards impact-based warnings is in part reflected with a more aggressive approach to issuing winter weather advisories locally on events that may graze the criteria for an advisory on accumulation but because of timing such as rush hours can have a greater impact on travel.

Travel is one of Gary's hobbies, including having taken a trip to Churchill, Manitoba, in 2010. "In Churchill, on our first day we visited a national park along the coast. Our Canadian park ranger giving us a tour openly carried a pistol; another ranger scanned pretty continuously and had a rifle at the ready. The reason was polar bears. We are so used to be at the top of the food chain that it was a pretty strange feeling to realize that the power structure was not quite so clear up there. In Churchill, cars are generally not locked. One, there is no point in stealing a car. The roads all end on the outskirts of town. Two, you can quickly hop in a car if a polar bear shows up. Again, a different concept from what I was used to."

Definitely an interesting experience!

What is Gary's leave behind for aspiring meteorologists or kids looking to get into the field?

"Meteorology requires a lot of math & science to get a college degree, so I always encourage that. But given my earlier comments, effective communication has also become very important. The ability for a meteorologist to explain a situation to an emergency manager or other key decision-maker has become a very important part of the job. Effective communication is also a good leadership trait, so it will serve you well for multiple reasons."