Research in NOAA
Interview with Kevin Kelleher and Suzanne Van Cooten
November 8, 2007
BARRY REICHENBAUGH: This is Barry Reichenbaugh. I'm with the NOAA
Research Communications Office and I'm in Norman, Oklahoma, at the National
Severe Storms Laboratory. So let's just start with introductions. Can
you tell me your name and what you do here?
KEVIN KELLEHER: My name is Kevin Kelleher and I'm the
deputy director at the National Severe Storms Lab.
SUZANNE VAN COOTEN: And I'm Suzanne Van Cooten. I'm
a research hydrometeorologist also here at National Severe Storms Laboratory.
BARRY REICHENBAUGH: Let's start off with Kevin. Kevin,
can you tell me what kind of research is going on at NSSL in the area
of hydrometeorological research?
KEVIN KELLEHER: Well, NSSL is -- at the core of it is
a radar lab. And out of the radar research we've done over the last
four decades or so, we've found that we can extract hydrometeorological
information from the radar, in terms of where it's raining and how hard
And so about 15 years ago we started focusing on that,
and the ability to estimate precipitation with radar in a remote-sensed
capability rather than having rain gauges on the ground has really proven
a valuable for all kinds of research that we've subsequently done from
BARRY REICHENBAUGH: And so you're doing some estimation
based on that radar data? How's that work exactly?
KEVIN KELLEHER: Well, you can measure rainfall in different
ways. You could put a rain gauge in the ground all over the place.
That's one way to do it. That's very expensive and not very practical.
But radar measures where it's raining and how hard it's raining all underneath
what we call the radar umbrella, which is a pretty wide area. It's a
couple hundred miles in each direction. So you can imagine having literally
rain gauges spaced at 50, 60, 70 meters across the whole umbrella, or
you can do it from radar.
And it depends on what kind of radar you have, how much
resolution you get, but the National Weather Service has the whole country
pretty much blanketed with radars. So we take the existing radar system
that the Weather Service has in place and we extract from that additional
information that allows us to estimate precipitation, whether it's rain,
snow, or whatever. That's the science challenge behind it, to determine
what exactly it is and to change -- let me go back and just explain how
the radar works.
The radar sends an energy signal out and bounces off of
whatever it might be, rain or, you know, birds or whatever. But what
we do is we filter out everything and just try to keep it focused on
the precipitation. It comes back to the radar, and the more energy that
comes back to the radar that means the more particles that are out there,
the larger the particles or the heavier the rain in some cases.
So we translate that power we turned into estimating precipitation
and then we map that into the ground and we say, ‘At this point in the
ground it's raining one inch an hour or half an inch an hour.’ That's
the principle behind it.
BARRY REICHENBAUGH: Let's switch over to Suzanne. Suzanne,
can you tell me a little bit about the work that you're doing with something
SUZANNE VAN COOTEN: Yes, CI-FLOW. Actually, with the
government, we have a lot of acronyms. So CI-FLOW stands for Coastal
and Inland Flood Observation and Warning. And with CI-FLOW, what we're
attempting to do is take what we do here at Severe Storms Lab very, very
well, which is forecasting and monitoring of severe storms.
On a storm-scale what we do is we go, Okay. With that
we want to see what is going on in the atmosphere with that thunderstorm,
put that rainfall into a basin, follow that raindrop all the way through
that river basin so we would have water quality and quantity all the
way to when it goes into the coastal ocean.
And this project right now is focused in the Tar River
Basin of North Carolina. It's a basin that has been affected heavily
by hurricanes in the past, Hurricane Floyd, Hurricane Dennis. They were
a one-two punch in the Carolinas. And a lot of people only think about
hurricanes hitting a place once.
Well, in this case it hit several times. Florida most
recently with the four -- we call it the Fabulous Four. It wasn't so
fabulous if you were in Florida, but there was four. And those cumulative
effects of the hurricanes caused dramatic inland flooding.
And what a lot of people don't understand is that the
number one fatality from a hurricane or tropical system is actually inland
flooding. 53 percent of the deaths are from inland flooding. Additionally,
most of our weather-related hazards, the main fatalities are also with
rainfall, with flash flooding.
So what we are doing with the CI-FLOW project, in order
to be able to monitor this rainfall and map it into river basins, is
to improve our ability to forecast flash floods in order to save lives
and property, which is what our mission is with NOAA.
And so with this, what we're going to be able to demonstrate
in the Tar River Basin of North Carolina is going to be able to directly
impact people across the nation in our coastal zones where more people
are moving. We have half of our nation's populations now living in coastal
zones. That's a tremendous responsibility for what we have to do here
at National Severe Storms Lab and inside of NOAA.
And so with that, we are going to take this technology
and be able to take it into the Gulf Coast areas. We saw what happened
with Katrina. We've seen what's happened with Tropical Storm Allison.
We also see what happens with winter storms, with Nor'easters. We can't
forget those large systems either, because they do cause tremendous amounts
of coastal flooding.
And so the CI-FLOW, what we are looking at is being able
to translate the science and demonstration of what we're doing in the
Carolinas in order to provide services to all of our nation's coastal
BARRY REICHENBAUGH: I'm going to stick with you for a
second. Can you help me understand? I mean, right now, nationally,
we do make Flash Flood warnings. How are you looking to advance that
SUZANNE VAN COOTEN: Well, currently within the operational
structure of the National Weather Service -- and I can speak to this;
I have been a hydrologic forecaster and also a meteorological forecaster
with Service Hydrology's responsibilities. Currently, within our structure,
we have assigned forecast points in a river basin, but many of our offices
do not provide forecast services for rivers if you have what's called
a tidal reflection where the water is going up and down and in multiple
directions, both upstream and downstream.
That's very difficult to model in our simulations. And
so it's a very challenging science application with that. We do have
those applications running for major river systems that impact our national
economy. For example, the Mississippi River. We have a specialized
model there that's able to handle the movement of the water upstream
and downstream, but these are very expensive to put in, maintain, and
So actually, if you live in a tidal zone area, like, for
example, the Tar River Basin, if you are in an area that has a tidal
reflection, you don't have a forecast point at this time. So what we're
able to do here with the CI-FLOW is work with the modeling structure
at Office of Hydrologic Development, which is National Weather Service
headquarters, work with them and go, ‘Hey, we have a service gap here
and we have a tremendous opportunity to provide people very valuable
information on weather and water.’
And so with CI-FLOW what we can do is with the high-resolution
precipitation that we have developed here inside of National Severe Storms
Lab, we can then put this in and have a high-resolution river model that
handles both the upstream and downstream water. And then from that we
can say, Okay. We can provide you accurate water level forecasting at
this point, which provides a whole series of services then to emergency
managers. Are my roads flooded for evacuation routes? Have I placed
a shelter where I have a problem with an inundation? Are these people
going to be actually safe in my shelter?
And so that's what we're offering through CI-FLOW is a
demonstration that we do have the capabilities to do this and then we
will transition that into operations.
BARRY REICHENBAUGH: Kevin, let's go back to you. Do
you want to add something on that?
KEVIN KELLEHER: Yeah. Suzanne did an excellent job describing
the project. Some of the long-term vision we see for the CI-FLOW project
can be used for things like land use. We have some scientists in our
organization that really feel that we could run scenarios on what-if
cases. So what if there was another hurricane that came up in a certain
area? What would that mean for a run-off, and what does it mean for
developers who are in a community that want to take maybe a parcel of
land that is undeveloped right now? And there's an ecosystem balance
right now in that area with that piece of land. What if they translated
that? What if they built on that land? What if they changed the land
to, let's say, an industrial area with lots of concrete? How would that
change the water flow characteristics and the run-off and the pollution
and all those? So there's a lot of opportunity here for running what-if
scenarios. Once we get this modeling structure in place, we see a lot
of different kinds of uses for it. Not just a predictive use for it.
BARRY REICHENBAUGH: Can we move over to another area
of research I understand that NSSL is doing along with the U.S. Geological
Survey, Debris Flow.
KEVIN KELLEHER: Debris Flow is another term that I grew
up knowing as mudslides. But basically, I believe historically the USGS
and the National Weather Service did a cooperative effort to try to predict
mudslides or debris flows years ago and that somehow, over time, was
not done consistently. And now they're trying to revive that effort
and try to insert some science into the reasoning behind why things would
be ripe for mudslides.
The USGS has basically used soil types, and when they
become saturated from historical threshold levels, then they would say
that the area might be in danger for some mudslides.
There are other things at NSSL, for instance, and we're
on the science side. We're a research lab. We can bring into the understanding,
increased understanding of when areas might be ripe for a mudslide, and
that has to do with the rainfall amounts. And so we take our tools like
mobile radar. We'll take it out to a site, and we've done this for the
last two winter seasons in southern California; we continue to plan on
doing it this season.
And gather data in areas -- we're focusing right now on
areas that previously were subjected to fires, because typically, if
an area has a fire the previous summer, let's say, then the growth and
the ability for the soils to be held in by the living grasses or trees
is diminished, and so it's more susceptible to a debris flow.
So we focus on those areas and we're taking data from
radars and other measurements and analyzing it to see if we can come
up with a better threshold for when something might turn into a mudslide
versus when it wouldn't.
BARRY REICHENBAUGH: Let's switch back over to Suzanne.
Suzanne, we were touching on your experience being a forecaster in the
past. Can you talk generally about how does NSSL's research benefit
SUZANNE VAN COOTEN: Well, that's the nice thing with
Severe Storms Lab is we've always been extremely focused on what we're
developing inside of the lab, and then how it will impact services to
United States citizens. And in that link, of course, naturally, are
forecasters and hydrologists.
And so through our field experiments, field research in
tornadoes, we've had a very good track record with that. Inside of the
National Weather Center now also offers us tremendous opportunities.
A lot of people aren't aware that inside of the National Weather Center
here, we have operational and researchers sitting right across the room
from each other.
We can bring people in. We can have students come in,
and it's a tremendous learning opportunity. Because what we can see
here with our high-resolution modeling, what we can see here with our
high-resolution precipitation estimation, we can just open a door and
talk to a forecaster and go, ‘Did that help you in any way, or did we
just totally miss the mark?’ And it's that dynamic feedback and that
assessment method that really helps us focus our research to realize,
‘Are we on the right track? Will this really add any value to what we
are currently doing?’
And so I think that is a very big, fundamental issue of
why the National Severe Storms Lab, Storm Prediction Center, the forecast
offices in Southern Region have been so successful in reducing tornado
fatalities, lightning fatalities. We have an absolutely world-class
lightning research program here in partnership with the University of
Oklahoma. And we're trying to translate that track record of success
into what we are developing inside of our storm-scale precipitation measurements
and also our storm-scale hydrologic modeling in concert with Office of
Hydrologic Development. We are going to use that model of success for
what we're going to do in precipitation and rainfall.
BARRY REICHENBAUGH: Let's stick with you, Suzanne. Since
we're here at the University of Oklahoma in this very unique building
-- I know you come in contact with students on a regular basis, but I'm
curious how you got involved in this field, and maybe you can just walk
me through that.
SUZANNE VAN COOTEN: Well, actually, I grew up in central
Oklahoma. My family moved to Norman when I was very young from Oklahoma
City, and I had actually gone through three tornadoes in South Oklahoma
City when I was little. So that kind of focuses you a little bit on,
Well, I was safe, but why was I safe?
And so you hear about tornado deaths, unfortunately.
You hear about hurricane deaths, unfortunately. And you realize, ‘Well,
if I could survive that, why can't other people survive that?’ So you
want to translate that out to places that aren't naturally as tornado-savvy
or storm hazard-savvy. And with that then, it was, ‘Well, what do you
want to do with your life? And what type of career do you want to have?
Do you want to have one where you're helping people, or do you want just
to sit in your little cubicle and do research all day?’
Well, the nice thing with Severe Storms Lab, and what
we do inside of the Weather Service is you can actually do both. So
I went to the University of Oklahoma; my undergraduate is in Meteorology.
I actually graduated from the school that's now on the fifth floor of
our building here at National Weather Center. And then I decided that
was enough equations for me, and so I went to the Fort Worth Forecast
Office with tornadoes, of course, on the southern end of what we call
Tornado Alley, and worked there.
Then from there I had an opportunity to go to the Gulf
Coast, and I worked at the Slidell Forecast Office and the Slidell River
Forecast Center. And that was a very unique perspective when you've
been tornado-centric. You realize the impacts of a hurricane, and a
hurricane is actually a super storm. A hurricane has tornadoes. A hurricane
has flooding. A hurricane has high winds. It has everything, essentially,
that you would ever work with inside of National Severe Storms Lab.
But what I also realized was there was a tremendous opportunity
there for research too. How are we connecting with the people, and how
are we connecting with the emergency management officials to get people
out and get them safe? So when the opportunity came up for me to come
to National Severe Storms Lab and they said, ‘What were the biggest questions
you had as a forecaster, and we want you to work on those.’ That's like
a dream job.
And it's like, Okay. We can do much better with heavy
rainfall. We can do much better with river forecasting. We can do much
better with getting our message out and trying to bring down these fatalities
with flash flood and inland flooding. And so that's what brought me
here to Severe Storms Lab, and that's what I'm working on now.
BARRY REICHENBAUGH: Kevin, let's switch over to you.
Maybe you can just take us through your career path. How'd you get involved
KEVIN KELLEHER: Well, I wouldn't say that I was necessarily
a weather nerd when I was a kid, but for some reason I always knew that
I wanted to get involved with something to do with weather. So it was
an easy choice for me.
I can remember when I was growing up in the Northeast
that time after time there would be forecasts made -- I love snowstorms.
That's always been my thing. And I would be so frustrated because I
lived on the East Coast and the forecasts would build up day after day
and they would say, Oh, it looks like there's a storm coming. It's going
to be bigger and bigger, and there's going to be two to four inches,
and then it would be four to eight inches, and then over a foot.
And all of this would happen, and we'd go to bed one night
and wake up the next morning and guess what? There'd be a dusting, or
an inch or something like that, and I would be so upset. Sometimes I
wouldn't even do my homework because I'd be just sitting at the radio
listening to all the great weather forecasts and just so excited about
this because I just was enamored by snow.
So it was a very frustrating experience. And I said,
‘Well, how in the world can you not know 12 hours from now that you're
either going to have a foot of snow or you're not going to have any?’
And so that problem was a challenge, and I thought that surely I can
figure this out. And then I got into the field and realized, ‘Well,
it's a little bit tougher than they thought.’ And that's how I got involved.
And I started my schooling, college schooling in upstate
New York where the snowstorms were. And then when I was applying to
graduate school, someone said, ‘Hey, there's this activity out in Oklahoma
where you can do some research,’ because the traditional schools that
I had applied to were offering teaching assistantships, but I really
wanted to do research. So on a whim, I came out to the University of
Oklahoma and working at the Severe Storms Lab and a research assistantship
and that's basically how I got into tornadoes.
BARRY REICHENBAUGH: Let's stick with you, Kevin. If
you could, tell me a little bit about what you say to a person who's
interested in a career in science.
KEVIN KELLEHER: Well, young people who are interested
in science, there's so many opportunities. Generally, those students
that I run into, they're usually interested in weather at some level.
And so I ask them if they have an understanding of the different kinds
of meteorology positions that there are, whether it's a broadcast meteorologist,
someone who wants to work on TV, let's say, someone who likes to do forecasting,
maybe with the National Weather Service or in a private company.
But the fundamental question eventually I have to get
around to, and I almost cringe when I ask them because I'm not sure what
they're going to say is, How good is your math? How are you doing in
math? Usually they're high school students and I'll say, Well, are you
taking any advanced math?
Many times you'll find that their perception of what a
meteorologist does or is or what the career path is, they're surprised
to find out that math is that big a component and that's something they're
going to have to decide, whether they're going to put the investment
in to learn the math, because meteorology is taking equations of the
atmosphere, equations of the atmosphere as a fluid -- we know how fluids
work and we have equations to model that. You take those equations and
then you put them into computers, and then you run models that predict
the future. That's how it works. If you don't have an understanding
of math, you've got a long road to go. But if you find a student that
has an interest in meteorology and a background in math, then that's
the foundation for becoming a meteorologist. Then it's just a matter
of what kind of meteorologist. Small-scale meteorologists interested
in what we do here at the lab in terms of thunderstorms and tornadoes,
or large-scale meteorologists who want to see those big highs and lows
move across the country that you see on your TV nightly broadcast.
So there are so many opportunities. Air pollution meteorology.
If you have an interest in chemistry, you can become involved in meteorology
on the chemistry side, in terms of ozone and pollutants and greenhouse
gases. So the field is really expanding. And now the field, there's
so many opportunities in climate and climate change.
Global warming, climate change, has really brought a lot
of interest and a lot of funding and a lot of opportunities. So the
field is growing. I'd never thought it would get as big as it is. And
here in Oklahoma, we're very fortunate to have, really, the nexus of
all things, mesoscale, small-scale meteorology, that have come together,
both in the government, the university, and the private sector.
BARRY REICHENBAUGH: Suzanne, let's wrap up with you.
In looking at your biography, I see that you've been involved as a minority
student mentor. And maybe you can tell me a little bit about what you
say to someone you're talking to about science.
SUZANNE VAN COOTEN: I think it's very interesting that
under-represented groups, and we have a diversity of thought, be brought
into weather. Because I'm with Kevin -- weather affects everything,
and there's just a myriad of things that you can do with weather.
I am a member of the Chickasaw tribe of Oklahoma, and
through that I do have a perspective in talking with tribes and tribal
citizens and tribal members about where they're going with careers.
And right now they've had a tremendous success story in the medical field.
And that is because when you go to a doctor, it's a very personal relationship
in medicine. And so it's nice to see somebody that looks like you.
Weather tends to not be thought of in a personal way like
that; however, I argue that we are getting to the point the weather will
become extremely personal, especially in light of the water issues that
we're seeing now. Look at the state of Georgia, Florida, and Alabama.
These are becoming very real, very personal issues in the water arena.
And so with that, in having a diversity of people involved in our sciences,
you have those faces that are able to convey the information about water
and how we need to change how we look at water to an audience that is
a very, very diverse audience. And so the reception of that information
depends on how -- basically how they like you.
And so with that, climate change comes into play. And
when you look at where people are living and how long they've lived at,
we have a very transitory population in the United States. However,
when you look at where people really live and have lived for a long time,
that's usually on tribal reservations.
And so to bring in the tribes now to work with us, with
our water resources and water resources initiatives, and bring them to
the table and go, Okay. This probably, in some cases, is your water.
How would you like for this to be looked at and how can we help? Because
we know these cycles, and these cycles have been in our histories for
so long, means that we need to have more Native Americans involved in
And so this is a tremendous opportunity to bring in a
group that is so under-represented traditionally in our STEM disciplines,
in our science, technology, engineering and math disciplines. And so
that's what I'm working to here at National Severe Storms Lab, because
again it's location, location, location. And in the state of Oklahoma,
we have an excellent reputation and also the demographic to support that
we could be a national leader in how we bring Native Americans into our
science programs here.