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Up Close with Paul Kocin

Jamie Jones @ 11:18 PM

Originally by Matt Ross, November 2005

This is the seventh in a series of interviews with Washington-area weather professionals.

Paul Kocin is The Weather Channel's Winter Weather Expert. He co-authored the definitive book on winter storms in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast titled Northeast Snowstorms, Volume 1: Overview, and Volume 2: The Cases, with Dr. Louis Uccellini, director of NOAA's National Center for Environmental Prediction (NCEP). Kocin resided in the DC area for two decades when he worked at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and NCEP. Since 1999, he's been providing live winter storm updates and analysis at The Weather Channel in Atlanta.

CapitalWeather: Do you have a favorite weather event from your youth? Favorite snowstorm from your youth? One that was responsible for your interest in weather?

Kocin: The winter of 1960/61 probably did it for me. I grew up on Long Island, NY and the 3 storms of December 11-12, 1960, January 19-20, 1961 and February 3-4, 1961 made the winter great. In particular, the last storm fell on top of earlier storms, including the Kennedy Inaugural storm in January, and made for huge snow piles that one 5-year old (me) loved to climb and I still remember not only the snow explorations but also being unable to go out the front door of my house because it was too deep.

Later on, the Lindsay storm of February 1969 did it for me and formed the basis for the prologue which appears in both volumes of the snowstorm books I've written with Louie Uccellini.

CW: When you were in school, at what point did you decide to focus on winter weather? Was it before you even entered? Did you consider other areas of focus?

Kocin: The first seed for writing a book on Northeast snowstorms came as I was a graduate student in meteorology at Penn State from 1977 to 1979. From 1978 to 1979, I spent a lot of time waiting for data to do my master's thesis on Soil Moisture (which wasn't exciting). While I waited and waited for the data to arrive from NASA, we had the great winter of 1977/1978 and to pass time, I put together analyses of the February Blizzard of 1978. As more time passed, I started collecting data from other storms that I was interested in (like the Lindsay storm and the storms from the winter of 1960/61).

After completing my master's thesis in 1979, I went to work at the NASA/Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, MD and eventually met Dr Louis Uccellini, a fellow snow "weenie" - who said he was working on a project on the Presidents' Day Snowstorm of February 1979 and asked if I was interested. I jumped at the opportunity. After working with Louie for a couple years, he learned of my interest in collecting data and drawing analyses of winter storms and suggested that maybe I should put it together and write a book. And so it began.

I've also written a manuscript on Northeast Tropical Cyclones - haven't published it but they've also fascinated me since I was a little kid. I remember looking out my window at age 5 watching Hurricane Donna blow down a tree in my yard. As you can see, 1960-61 had a big impact on me.

CW: In addition to Atlanta, you have lived in several other places including the DC area for many years. In a weather context, was there one place that was your favorite? If you had your druthers, is there a place you would love to live or return to?

Kocin: It's not Atlanta! Since I grew up in New York, the main reason I loved the weather of Long Island was the combined heavy snows and high winds of Nor'easters. To me, there was nothing better than see these storms combine 1 to 2 feet of snow with winds that gusted over 50 miles per hour - it was an awesome spectacle that was rare enough to be special and occurred often enough to be something realistic to look forward to. Even though Washington D.C. could also get big snows, I was most impressed when these storms were accompanied by the incredible winds you'd see farther north and closer to the coast.

I would love to live northwest of Boston! And I wouldn't mind experiencing a winter in Newfoundland! Some of the pictures I've seen look like heaven.

CW: What do you do in the "offseason"? Any hobbies or other things to occupy free time? What are your work obligations during this time?

Kocin: I always joke "I go to the beach!" During previous offseasons, I was heavily involved in working on my book - which took an extraordinary amount of time and effort (all earlier versions of figures I had done by hand - and there are literally thousands of figures). Now that I'm done writing and haven't decided on a new project, my summer is spent working on performance practice - this past summer I did have a lot of time on my hands.

I also love to travel - I last went to Australia back in April and spend lots of time visiting friends and family. I'm visiting Hawaii next year and hope to go to Europe again - which I've visited several times. I also love food - it's practically a fetish - love trying new restaurants and cuisines. I'm also a chocoholic - the darker the better. And I'm a New York Mets fan - no one's perfect!

CW: We all love the seminal book on Northeast Snowstorms that you wrote with Louis Uccellini for which a new edition was recently released. Any further updates/editions planned in the future? Any other writing endeavors, books, research in the future? Or, something you would like to undertake if you had the time?

Kocin: When I finished the snowstorm book, I thought I had just had it! It was done and I didn't want to see it again. It took years just to put the final touches on it and that time was draining. Now that some time's passed and I've got my perspective back, I am planning on writing an appendix edition maybe once every 10 years to update the storms of the past decade and put an article or 2 on any interesting new science topics that might be relevant.

As I mentioned before, I do have a manuscript on Northeast Tropical Cyclones that I'd like to complete. I worked on it pretty full time thru 1995 but haven't done much since and would require a lot of time. I've also had interest in putting together a New York City Weather Book and would love to be involved with a Boston Weather Book (and have talked to Mish Michaels, who is probably going to write one). I also love snow photographs (and spent lots of time researching many of the prints that appear in the current book) and would love to put together a book of snow photos and maybe even a simplified (and much shorter!) version of the snowstorm book that might be more attuned to the popular reader.

CW: Do you/Did you get nervous/stagefright when you appear on TV? Does it get easier? What has the general experience been like transforming into a TV personality of sorts?

Kocin: These are very relevant questions. I used to be absolutely paralyzed by appearing in front of groups of people, let alone being on TV. For many years, the last job I would have imagined having would be a TV job. So what happened? Well, it's hard to explain but I grew out of my paralyzing stagefright probably because of living and growing through some difficult life events, which I won't get into. I'm actually quite proud that I've been able to do something I once never (EVER) imagined being able to do. At present, even right now (I've only been on the air once this season), I still get nervous although I know it usually passes pretty fast once I get into the groove.

It is strange having gone from completely unknown to somewhat known - I don't get recognized that often and sometimes it's fun when I do (like at weather conferences). Since I'm still pretty shy and introverted (although I've been told I don't look like I am), and sometimes the attention does make me pretty uncomfortable. There are times I'm most comfortable by myself or with a few close friends and family. I feel I'm lucky to have had the opportunity to do the TV thing - it's a completely American symbol of "success" but as with everything, it quickly becomes just a job, complete with the frustrations many of us have at work.

CW: Although you are one of the best, we all have our "busts". Is it difficult when you bust? Encouraging or critical letters and email? Any specific incidents that are noteworthy?

Kocin: Do I bust? I hate it but it happens and happens more often than many of us like to admit. There have been times where I've really gotten depressed seeing a forecast go down the toilet. That said, it's important to remember that this is a field in which it is only a matter of time before you will bust, no matter how good you are or how confident you are. Some of us learn to be humble that we don't know it all while there are some of "us" who seem to never learn. This is a field where anyone who allows themselves to brag and claim superiority (you know who you are!) will ultimately be on the short end of the stick. For me, it's important to feel the successes (but not to broadcast them) and learn from the failures, when possible. I feel very strongly that most attempts to show forecast superiority often reflects personal insecurity. This is a field filled with snake-oil salesmen.

Do I need mention March 2001? And there are many others. I will say that I always appreciate a kind word because I will always hear it when a forecast is off.

CW: Are the expectations of the average viewer and/or weather hobbyist unreasonable? Do you have any personal thresholds for satisfaction when it comes to forecasting big storms? Usually someone in the I-95 corridor will be disappointed. So what makes a successful forecast in the medium/short range in the context of your position?

Kocin: Phew! Lots of great questions. The first part of the question is quite broad but I do agree that sometimes the expectations can be unreasonable. For example, we really don't know what a reasonable expectation should be. I've used a benchmark that, in general, beyond 36 hours, snowfall forecasts are simply "bustable". That's why many well respected scientists have resorted to "probabilities" ( low chances of 6"+, medium odds of 3"+, etc.) as opposed to strictly "deterministic" forecasts (i.e. 2 to 4 inches). Of course, each case is unique - some storms are easier to foresee a couple days out while some are question marks up to the event. And while I think some of these expectations (like accurate snow forecasts 72 hours in advance) are prone to disaster, I think that professional meteorologists have set ourselves up by giving the public what they want even though what we're giving them is a toss of the coin, at best.

And, when it comes to the winter forecast, I am just not a believer, period. I can go and write an entire article (and I won't) but it's another case of shooting dice when there's just not enough information - although lots of people are looking at lots of things and that's good. Understanding El Nino is great (especially when the signal is strong) and I'm a big believer in the NAO - I've done a lot of research there myself. But predicting these and other factors that are presently poorly understood makes these predictions not very useful to me. So, no, I don't know how this winter will turn out and that's fine by me.

To me, a successful forecast is not one where I beat my competitors (although that's what everyone in charge would like you to believe) but seeing a situation unfold over a period of days that's either relatively forecastable or unfold in a more interesting fashion (as we get closer to the event, it just looks snowier and snowier). Also, a successful medium range forecast is NOT predicting amounts at a given location but giving good information about the odds of significant snow for many places.

CW: Do you have a favorite DC snowstorm, either from when you lived here or otherwise? What are the necessary ingredients for a good DC storm?

Kocin: Lived there from late 79 to late 98 - missed President's Day 1 (February, 1979). My 2 favorites are the February 11, 1983 storm (it was fabulous!!! - complete with thundersnow) and the Blizzard of 1996 - where I stayed over at work at NCEP (HPC) and appeared on numerous national TV shows that started my TV career. The basic ingredients for a DC storm are spelled out in the book but I always look for confluence, confluence, confluence to build the High to north and keep it there while a trough moves in from the west or southwest. Confluence is often the biggest key and is favored in blocking situations such as the Greenland Block (negative NAO) where a trough in eastern Canada is blocked from translating out over the ocean. With a trough stuck over eastern Canada and the usual ridge over the Southeast US, that's how you get confluence.

CW: Do you have a favorite all-time snowstorm? By any criteria of your choosing. Experience, Research, Forecasting, etc. Is there more than one? Also, if different, was there one that stands out as your favorite to forecast? Why?

Kocin: I have several as you can imagine. As far as Northeast snowstorms go - there is the Blizzard of 1888 (I wrote an article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society on it back in 1983 - the ultimate winter fantasy for NYC - not a typical Northeast storm), the Lindsay storm in 1969 (of course - 2 feet of snow and increasing winds - forecasts couldn't keep up with it), February 1961 was a beauty (classic surface high and a rapidly deepening coastal storm) and February 1978 is simply a classic with an incredible upper-level development. The Appalachian storm of November 1950 is simply the most incredible storm development I've seen - even though it didn't dump snow on the big cities. I always bring it up in my talks for bizarre development (such as winds shift to south in Pittsburgh, the snow gets heavier and the temperature falls from 20 degrees to 9 degrees; Detroit gets a warm front passage from the east, followed by a cold front passage from the east). As far as bizarre, March 1942 dumped over 3 feet of snow in Pennsylvania (22" in Baltimore) with a very non-classic surface low evolution (just doesn't look like a snowstorm)- another favorite.

CW: There has been a proliferation of seasonal outlooks in the past few years, particularly for winter. We just issued ours a couple weeks ago. What is your opinion of long-range, seasonal forecasting? Is this an area where we can improve? Should we be investing resources, money, effort into this endeavor?

Kocin: My opinion was given above - I'm obviously not very hot about them (no offense). This is, of course, an area we can improve. There are resources that are used to improve them and a lot of basic research is going into understanding the mechanisms that contribute to long-range forecasting. Of course, more can and should be done. Just think with all the things we know - this is one area where we still know very little. I know a lot of people care about this topic but feel that we're just not ready for prime time here.

CW: Are there anecdotal experiences at the Weather Channel worth sharing?

Kocin: Yes, and some I must not share!! Since I'm having a hard time thinking of them (and there have to be many), I think I'll just stop before I get in trouble!

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