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New NOAA Climate Prediction Center warns of weather threats long in advance

COLLEGE PARK - Paul Kocin was supposed to catch a flight for a long-planned getaway to Istanbul, Turkey.

It was late October, a reasonable time for a winter weather forecaster like Kocin to get away just before another season of forecasting snow, wind, sleet and freezing rain.

He was supposed to leave Oct. 29. Just one problem. That was the night Superstorm Sandy made landfall along the Jersey Shore.

Forget about the flight. Kocin had a catastrophic storm to track.

When life-threatening winter storms threaten the United States, Kocin is among the first to realize the potential hazard. He works at the winter storms desk at NOAA's Center for Weather and Climate Prediction in College Park, a new federal government facility that opened in October.

The 800 Center for Weather and Climate Prediction employees track forecast models, satellite observations, volcanic ash and even oil spills.

Just two weeks after the building's ribbon-cutting ceremony, meteorologists in the new building were put to the test when Sandy, a storm unlike any other forecasters could remember, bore down on the East Coast.

Prior to Sandy's landfall, complex computer models forecasters rely on were projecting a major storm affecting the mid-Atlantic a week in advance.

In the days leading up to landfall, Sandy was discussed in 11 a.m. daily briefings at a conference room where so many forecasters are typically present that the windowsills are used as makeshift chairs.

The meteorologists all have their role. Kocin focuses on winter storms. His raspy voice is recognizable to viewers of The Weather Channel. He served as the cable channel's Winter Weather Expert from 1998 to 2007.

If a major storm is approaching, he is in frequent contact with the regional National Weather Service offices affected. At his work station, a live text chat stream is available, where NOAA and National Weather Service meteorologists can share information.

The National Weather Service's Baltimore-Washington forecast office is located in Sterling, Va. Meteorologists there track the weather in the region 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Usually, the office is staffed with one senior forecaster in charge of all outlooks with two other meteorologists focusing on either a short- or long-term forecast, meteorologist Brandon Peloquin said. Forecasts and discussions are updated regularly.

If severe weather threatens an area, the forecasters there will issue an advisory, watch or warning, depending on what the hazard is.

That information is relayed to the media and posted at http://www.weather.gov/baltimore.

Mid-Atlantic winter storms can be difficult to predict because of the complexity of the forecast, experts said. This is still true, despite tremendous advancements in computer models and forecasting in the last three decades.

Kocin referenced the Blizzard of 1978, a nor'easter that dumped more than two feet of snow in Boston, as a reference point for just how far forecasts have come.

Back then, meteorologists struggled to predict what complex coastal storms would do. While the National Weather Service correctly predicted the storm's effects three days in advance, the skeptical public still went to work as usual after an initial delay in the onset of the precipitation.

With Sandy, some forecast models were hinting at what wound up being the storm's track nearly one week in advance.

"The difference is enormous," Kocin said, of the ability to forecast storms well ahead of time.

Not every forecast is right - "There are still busts," he said - but forecasters are usually able to provide warning of a major storm, typically 72 hours in advance, he said. That gives those in harm's way the chance to prepare, or, in extreme cases, evacuate.

The computer models gather data from 17 NOAA satellites orbiting Earth. The satellites provides views of the storms affecting the planet everywhere from Canada to Antarctica.

The same satellites used to track sea turtles' migratory patterns can provide data on how much rain could fall during a hurricane.

Meteorologists analyzing the satellite data are on the same floor as Kocin and the winter weather team.

"Our guys don't do the actual forecasting," said Thomas Renkevens, of NOAA's Satellite Services Division. "We serve as a support."

They all work together in a new facility that replaced an outdated building in Camp Springs. The Center for Climate Prediction is filled with bright LED computer monitors and is the home of a supercomputer that is able to process the massive amount of data available to forecasters.

After passing through a metal detector so sensitive that it will beep if even a single penny is in a coat pocket, visitors to the facility can spot an outdoor sculpture in a side window.

The enormous work of art, a menagerie of connected mirror panels moves in the wind and catches reflections from the clouds and the sky.

"You are reminded of the wavelike nature of the wind and all the elements just by looking at it," NOAA spokesperson Lauren Morone said. "Obviously, it's constantly changing."

Same goes for the weather. When it is quiet, the atmosphere is more relaxed at the Center for Weather and Climate prediction.

Yet when major storms approach, meteorologists are on full alert.

"During Sandy," Kocin said, "it was buzzing in here."

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