Profile: Why 12 Million People Want to Know What Gary Szatkowski Has to Say

Scott Gurian | February 11, 2015 | Profiles
The top meteorologist in the New Jersey area keeps more than his eye on the sky for four states

Gary Szatkowski is Meteorologist-in-Charge at the National Weather Service’s Mount Holly forecast office.
Who he is: Meteorologist-in-Charge at the National Weather Service’s Mount Holly forecast office.

Age: 57

Hometown: Gary Szatkowski is originally from Chicago but has lived with his wife in the Burlington County township of Hainesport for the past two decades.

What he does: As the chief meteorologist, he oversees a team of more than a dozen forecasters who predict the weather and issue advisories for 12 million people in four states, including most of New Jersey, all of Delaware, northeast Maryland, and eastern Pennsylvania. Out of more than 120 National Weather Service forecast offices across the country, the Mount Holly office covers the second-largest number of residents. It also issues forecasts for aviation and coastal conditions.

To make their predictions, Szatkowski and his colleagues gather data from the government’s network of Doppler radar, buoys, and satellites, which is then shared with other forecasters and media outlets. Although sources like the Weather Channel, Accuweather, and some local TV stations have their own meteorologists who issue predictions, the Weather
Service is the official voice that delivers watches and warnings during weather emergencies. Decisions made at the Mount Holly office can have enormous impacts on the region, and people tend to pay great attention to what it says. In addition, unlike many private-sector sources, the Weather Service has teams of forecasters working round the clock.

“If you need a weather warning at 2 in the morning, we have staff here who are monitoring all the weather information to make that decision,” Szatkowski said.

His prior experience: Before coming to Mount Holly in 1997, Szatkowski worked as a forecaster in the Washington, D.C., area, in Oklahoma City, and in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He was always interested in weather, from a young age. “Meteorology was my true passion, and that’s what I stuck with,” he said.

Social media maven: While more traditional forms of media like the Weather Service’s website and NOAA weather radio tend to be a one-way conversation, Szatkowski has become a prolific user of Twitter because it allows him to interact with the public when delivering critical forecast information.

“I think I like Twitter because it encourages a brevity and tightness of thought,” he said. “Rather than pontificating for a page or two, you have to try to fit it into 140 characters, so you need to think about what your message is.”

He also likes that it allows him to easily crowdsource data during significant storms.

“Say we’re dealing with a snowstorm,” he explained. “People will say, ‘Hey, I got six inches of snow,’ and they’ve got a picture of a ruler stuck on their picnic table or their fence in their backyard, and they give you their location. That’s invaluable for us to know what’s going on in real time!”

On how people handle risk: “When it comes to dealing with risk, we need a lot of improvement as a society,” Szatkowski said. “We’re very intolerant of some kinds of risk. For example, if there’s a 0.0001 percent chance of something harmful being in some food item, a mother may say, ‘That’s not acceptable for my infant. I’m not going to feed them that food.’ And that would be understandable. A lot of people would respect that decision. But we had people during Sandy who were saying, ‘I’ll decide to ride out the storm’ when the odds of a killer storm surge coming in were one-out-of-three or one-out-of-two. The risks were huge, and far, far above what the risk is on a normal day at the Jersey Shore. Those are terrible risk judgments. Erring on the side of caution is always good advice.”

On the accuracy of predictions: Forecasting the weather is an imprecise science, as demonstrated by the monster blizzard that was supposed to hit New Jersey a few weeks ago, but ended up instead tracking to the east. Despite the inherent uncertainty and the occasional headline-grabbing mishap,
however, Szatkowski says there have been huge advances in the field.

“If something improves in accuracy from 25 percent to 75 percent, you can applaud the increase, or you can criticize the fact that it’s not 100 percent or it’s not perfect,” he said. “Sometimes I use medicine as a parallel. If you were dealing with some type of disease or illness, and the doctor says, ‘Well the good news is, 30 years ago, we only had a 25 percent success rate in curing this, but now it’s 75-percent,’ you can be happy about that. Now the trouble is, you might be one of the ones who doesn’t fall in the 75 percent success rate, so that may not be what you’d like to see.
But the bottom line is, things have changed a lot.”

“If the expectation is we should get every weather forecast perfect,” he continued, “that’s like saying that the odds-makers should know in advance the outcome of every football or baseball game that’s going to be played. Quite frankly, what would be the point of playing the game if you know the answer ahead of time? The weather forecasts are sort of a view into the future, but there’s no guarantee that that future will be exactly as we describe.”

Getting better: As a result of forecasting improvements over the past few decades, Szatkowski noted that it’s now commonplace to see Department of Transportation salt trucks sitting by the side of the road, waiting for the first flake of snow to fall. Airlines are able to move their planes out of harm’s way when storms are approaching. And while the Weather Service only used to issue forecasts for the next three days, they now offer predictions a week in advance.

“A lot of hard money is making decisions based on the weather forecasts,” he said. “They’re clearly making money trusting the forecasts. I suspect most people — unless they’re involved with key business decisions like that — don’t really know that that’s going on.”

“I think one of the quotes I’ve heard my boss say is that ‘you’re only as good as your last storm,’” he added. “The performance records show that we’re getting more of them right than we are wrong, and that trend, I expect, will continue.”

Personal life: When he’s not working, he likes traveling and enjoys yardwork, particularly tending to his vegetable garden, where his office’s forecasts come in handy.

“I’m a very avid user of our own service,” he said.

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