Ask a State Climatologist: Q & A with Texas’ John Nielsen-Gammon

July 11, 2013
John Nielsen-Gammon
John Nielsen-Gammon

Over the course of the summer, I will be interviewing various state climatologists about their day-to-day responsibilities, research projects, and, of course, any relevant weather which their state has experienced.  My second interviewee is Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist for Texas based at Texas A&M University. – Adam Rainear (CWG summer intern)

Q: What’s a typical day like at the Texas State Climate Office

A: I spend most of my time doing lots of random things. It’s pretty rare when I can focus on one thing for more than a few hours.  Usually I’m dealing with e-mail, a question or collaboration, or doing papers, working on drought monitoring stuff.  Also, one day a week, I’m on the road doing a talk somewhere in the state.

Q: Back in February you asked the state legislature to fully fund the Texas State Climate Office. Were you successful, and if so, has it changed your office in any way?

A: The state legislature decided not to fund any of our special university requests, so mine did not get funded along with lots of others.  But, the university itself has been pretty good providing funding for the office for this and that, including research projects.

I think having the state climate office in the university is good both as a resource for lots of different research projects, as well as providing a good example how a land grant university benefits the state in which it resides.

Q: What are some of the bigger research projects you work on while doing your climate research?

Well, my main focus is my drought monitoring and prediction.  We’re developing a product which will monitor drought at a variety of time scales at 4-kilometer resolution.  That’s something we initially developed in Texas because all of the available information on drought was not localized enough to let us know what is going on at the county level.  Meanwhile the USDA was making drought relief decisions based on county-level depictions of drought.  So, we needed something that gave the information at that scale.  Now we’re getting funding from the USDA and partnering with NC State University, and Purdue University, with their state climate offices, to expand it and make it more useful.

I’m also involved in a project on drought prediction, which is a collaboration with some of the people in the agriculture program here [at Texas A&M].

Q: You mentioned farming; I know drought obviously has a big impact on that.  What are some of the other huge impacts that a severe drought can have specific to Texas?

A: Farming is certainly big.  At the onset of the drought we worry about wildfires and even potential issues with forest fires like we have this summer.  With the drought lasting several years now, we start seeing more water supply issues and municipalities start creating restrictions on the use of water.  As long as we can get back the water use, we still have enough water to get by to avoid the threat of running out of water.  The state legislature is laying the groundwork for big investment in water infrastructure so we can increase the amount of water that’s available.

Q: What are some of the challenges you face in a state where many leaders and even residents are pretty skeptical of climate change?

….climate change is something that is a long-term issue, and it requires global solutions.  My area of responsibility is more local and generally what people care about [most] is the next few months or the next few years.

…I get to focus more on adaptation and adaptation is something you have to do no matter what causes the climate to change. The reasons for changing climate, some are natural and some are not natural, are only important to make it possible to see what’s coming down the road and help people prepare for it.

Q: Outside of the climate office, what’s a typical day like?  What do you enjoy doing in your free time (if you get any)?

A:  Well, my main outdoor activity is golfing; I like to carry around my own bag unless the heat index gets over 100. Most days I can get away with that..

I like the arts as well.  We’ve got season tickets to the Houston Symphony and the Houston Grand Opera for example, and we can get down a few times a month.  Unfortunately, Houston is about 100 miles away; one of the downsides of living in such a big state is that you have to cover long distances.

Q: During my first encounter with you, at the American Meteorological Society conference last January, you jumped up on a table and ripped your dress shirt off because the Aggies had just beaten the Sooners in the previous night’s bowl game.  Is this a fair representation of your personality? Or are you really a low key guy?

A: I think people who know me are definitely more shocked than people who didn’t know me….

Q: Obviously the Aggies had a great football season last year behind Johnny Manziel.  Do you think they can compete for the national championship this year? 

A: Well, we certainly came close to winning the SEC last year, and one little known fact, since we joined the SEC, they name a faculty member each year as the SEC achievement award, and I was the first winner of that.  So, I’m pretty much a fan of the SEC, and I think we’ll make a lot of noise this year.

Dr. Nielsen-Gammon is the Texas State Climatologist.  He was appointed by Gov. George W. Bush in 2000, and he is also a professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M.  

Nielsen-Gammon earned his Bachelors in 1984, Masters in 1987, and Doctorate in 1990 all from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  He was a postdoctoral researcher at SUNY Albany from 1990 to 1991, and  has been at Texas A&M since. 

Related: Ask a state climatologist: Q & A with New Jersey’s David Robinson

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