Meet Dr. Harold Brooks. He is a senior research scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and in his words, “ran around a bunch of places for college and graduate school.” He has lived in Norman, Oklahoma, since 1990, working on a variety of projects including studying where and when storms occur.
When most people think about the weather they think about forecasts. What is a good forecast and how do you try to measure that?
We know that forecasts are never perfect. There are a lot of ways to measure how wrong they are. For example, how closely does the forecast match up to what happened in the weather, and also how useful the information is. Does it help or hurt the person using it? Just because it looks like weather that doesn’t mean it is useful to people. Better information doesn’t help make better choices if it is not timely. If a tornado warning was five seconds in advance, you can’t use it. One that is 15 minutes in advance would be more useful.
Please tell our readers a little bit about what a research scientist at NOAA does and why it is important.
We need to understand what the weather is. We want to try to understand what clues we have from the atmosphere and what conditions are associated with different kinds of weather. Conditions that lead to snow are not the ones that lead to a tornado. We want to know what we can measure that can help us predict the weather and help people plan for it. We want to know things like where and when does weather occur? What causes the event and can we use information to help people?
We know we don’t always observe things exactly right. There are errors sometimes.
What tools does NOAA use to warn people about tornadoes and other dangerous weather?
Forecasting is one way. We can sometimes say that a storm is likely in a certain area up to 6-7 days in advance, so people can think about the weather that day and plan for it. With storms, we use radar to see what is going in inside the storm. We can’t always see the tornado, but we can see the conditions within the storm that lead to tornadoes. We also use spotters, which are people trained to look for things that indicate tornadoes – they can answer question for the forecasters.
What is the coolest thing about your job?
One of the great things about science is that there is a time when you work on something and you know something that no one else on the planet knows. It doesn’t last long because you have to tell other people, and that is neat, too, being able to share new information with other people.
What kind of training does it take to be a research scientist?
Most people need to go to college and graduate school, and some have Ph.Ds. There is a lot of math. You need math. It is the language we use to do our work. You need to learn how to ask good questions. These are questions that are important, interesting and solvable. Learning how to ask good questions and look at others’ questions goes into how do we learn new things. Being curious is a big part of it, too. That is hard to measure but it is important.
What do you like to do when you are not working?
I have two things. My wife is a middle school teacher. She teaches pre-engineering and coaches the competitive middle school math team. I help with the really competitive kids. We have won state three years in a row. I work with a lot of really good middle school math kids.
The other is I am a volleyball official. I referee high school and college level. I line judge college matches and I have judged international matches held in Oklahoma. I worked a lot with the sitting volleyball teams, too.