Keeping up with John Nielsen-Gammon could make for a good TV reality show – just make sure you have a 25-hour clock and a handful of Rand McNally maps to chart his many travels.
The Texas A&M University atmospheric sciences professor has, in addition to his teaching and research duties, served as the Texas State Climatologist since 2000. Until recently, most people in the state had never heard of the office, let alone knew what the state climatologist was doing. Fast forward to late 2010, when the state began to get really dry, and then on to 2011, when Texas was officially in its worst one-year drought in the state’s history and rain was something only seen in a science book.
Lakes dried up, streams went silent, ranchers were forced to sell off much of their herds and an estimated 300 million trees died in the state due to lack of water. All heads turned to Nielsen-Gammon, and a collective question of “what the heck is going on here” was asked of him on a daily basis.
Suddenly, the Texas A&M professor was everywhere – speaking at a cattlemen’s association meeting in Amarillo, a fire-weather workshop in Corpus Christi, a river planning meeting in Wichita Falls, a landowner’s meeting in Lufkin, along with interviews with national and international media outlets, and of course The Weather Channel. A news tracking service reveals that he is approached 1,000 media mentions during the past year alone.
The Texas drought may have abated some – at least for the time being – but Nielsen-Gammon’s daily schedule would still rival a head of state. A typical day in his life: testifying in Austin before the state legislature about the current Texas drought and prospects for rain in the next few months, then heading back to Aggieland to teach a laboratory class, then hopping on a plane to Florida a few hours later to brief livestock owners nationwide on the long-range forecast.
“It’s all part of the job, but things do get hectic sometimes,” Nielsen-Gammon says from his office, which not surprisingly, is usually covered with charts and graphs and stacks of data about Texas weather.
“When I became state climatologist years ago, I might give 3-4 interviews the entire year. Now, sometimes I give that many every week. The last few years have been a historic time for the state because of the drought, and it has affected millions of people, most of them not in a good way. It’s my job to let them know what’s going on and what they can expect.”
Texas A&M officials have formally submitted proposals asking that the state fully fund the State Climatologist office, which currently is internally supported by the university at about $50,000 per year. The additional funding would serve as seed money for research and provide for a consistently high level of climate services to all agencies, companies, groups and individuals.
All but two states – Tennessee and Rhode Island – have a state climatologist office. The Office of the State Climatologist serves as the clearinghouse for climate information for the state of Texas. The OSC issues regular climate updates and conducts research on climate monitoring and climate prediction in Texas and the southern United States.
The two largest ongoing research projects in the OSC are funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but they have particular relevance to Texas. One is devoted to accurately measuring drought severity on a community-by-community basis, while the other is a collaboration with Texas A&M AgriLife faculty to provide forecasts of future drought conditions and their impacts on crops.
“Because so many people in Texas make their living in agriculture and ranching, there is a tremendous amount of interest in the weather and weather patterns,” Nielsen-Gammon explains. “The last few years have been really hard on farmers and ranchers. We try to give them the best information possible so they can make hard decisions that affect their lives and businesses.”
Along those lines, he agreed a few years ago to write a monthly blog for the Houston Chronicle titled “Climate Abyss” that discusses Texas weather, and it invites reader exchanges that can be lively, to say the least. He was featured in an article in Texas Monthly magazine last summer about his role as the state’s chief climate person, and in 2012 he was named winner of Texas A&M’s Newsmaker Award that is presented annually to a faculty member who has made a positive impact on the school with his or her efforts in working with the media.
“I have to admit that now, I am much more aware of what a deadline means to the media. If I’m not giving them the information they need, they’re not passing it along to everyone else,” he says of his news exposure.
“Also, I have learned about sound bites, and how to keep things not too technical, and especially how to answer in short sentences. Interviews are part of this job, and if they can help people, I will gladly do them.”