John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist, has a standard joke: A few years ago, before the start of the most intense drought in state history, almost nobody in Texas knew he existed.
“It’s quite possible even Rick Perry didn’t know we had a state climatologist,” he told an Austin audience recently, to chuckles.
Now, countless public appearances and blog posts later, plenty of Texans have heard about the wry scientist who has become the most prominent expert on the drought. He analyzes weather data and trends and helps the public and policymakers understand issues like how the Texas climate is changing and how long the drought — which still covers nearly all of Texas — will last. His current answer is that although the drought has eased, Texas has moved into a dry weather pattern that could bring dust storms and wildfires to West Texas, and "if it lasts for a couple of months we will be back in serious trouble in most of the state." Also, it's likely to be another extra-hot summer.
The state climatologist role now eats up 60 percent of Nielsen-Gammon’s time, up from 10 percent before the drought, and it has left him little time to pursue his own research.
“I’ve been a state climatologist for 10-plus years now, but I haven’t been doing this for 10 years,” he said of his hectic schedule, which also includes teaching at Texas A&M University, where he is a professor of atmospheric sciences.
Nielsen-Gammon grew up in Pinole, Calif., just north of San Francisco, in a spot his family dubbed “Hurricane Hill” because of the fierce winds that blew in from the Pacific Ocean toward California's Central Valley. At 13, he persuaded his parents to buy him a weather station, which was perched on their roof for two years until it rusted. He earned three science degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology before coming to Texas A&M in 1991.
In 2000, Gov. George W. Bush appointed him state climatologist, after the retirement of another Texas A&M professor, John Griffiths, who had held the post since 1973. All states except Rhode Island and Tennessee have a state climatologist office, said Stuart Foster, Kentucky’s state climatologist and president-elect of the American Association of State Climatologists — though in seven other states, the state climatologist post is in transition and may be vacant. The largest state climatologist program in the country is in Oklahoma, which operates a cutting-edge system of county-by-county weather stations called Mesonet.
Climate change is a hot-button subject nationally, and state climatologists have sometimes gotten caught in the crossfire, Foster said. Nielsen-Gammon said he has noticed the issue of climate change becoming far more politicized over his 12 years as climatologist, but he's received no political pushback, even though he holds the view that humans contribute to climate change. The closest he comes to the political side, he said with a chuckle, is to be "sensitive to not using politically charged terms in the titles of any talks at state agencies, for fear of somebody seeing a red flag."
In a recent blog entry, Nielsen-Gammon even mildly tweaks the Heartland Institute, a group that disputes the notion of global warming, though he has criticized An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's film about climate change. Texans, he said, do occasionally ask him questions like: “You don’t believe in all this global warming nonsense, do you?” For the record, he says he doesn't believe in "all the nonsense." Nonetheless, temperatures are rising globally and greenhouse gases are the biggest driver of the trend, he says, and "if things keep going like this there will be serious consequences."
The state climatologist office receives $50,000 to $75,000 a year from Texas A&M. That's enough to fund three student assistants part time, as well as Nielsen-Gammon's travels. He plans to ask Texas A&M for more funding and is also considering whether to ask the Legislature to formalize his role, which is not written in statute.
Texas A&M spokesman Jason Cook said that the university recognized the demands on Nielsen-Gammon's time. "We are exploring options to provide additional resources to his office, which will allow him to continue teaching in the classroom and conducting his research without impacting his important service to the state," Cook said.
Some in the Legislature have also been thinking about the state climatologist function, from a different perspective. Steven Polunsky, a spokesman for state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who chairs the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, noted that besides Nielsen-Gammon, several state agencies, including the Texas Office of Licensing and Regulation, have their own weather experts. Carona thinks it might be time to look at consolidating those offices, Polunsky said, "and saving some money in the process."
Nielsen-Gammon expects to stay on a few more years to continue to raise awareness about drought and climate issues.
Would Perry then appoint another climatologist? “That’s something that we’ll take a look at at that time,” said Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for the governor.