Skip to main content

The Q&A: John Nielsen-Gammon

In this week's Q&A, we interview John Nielsen-Gammon, regent’s professor at Texas A&M University and the Texas State Climatologist.

John Nielsen-Gammon is a regent’s professor at Texas A&M University and is the Texas State Climatologist.

With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:

John Nielsen-Gammon is a regent’s professor at Texas A&M University and the Texas State Climatologist. His work focuses on large and local-scale meteorology and extreme precipitation in Texas, which he'll be discussing at the Texas Hill County Water Summit. For more information on the conference, click here.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Water: What exactly does a state climatologist do, how many state climatologists has Texas had, and do other states have state climatologists?

John Nielsen-Gammon: The state climatologist was originally a federal position — part of the National Weather Service. There were people who were designated to supervise the collection and dissemination of climate observation. That started in the middle of the 20th century.

Then, in 1973, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration decided that climate wasn’t really a big deal. So they ceased those positions, and it was up to the states to continue providing those climate services if they chose to do so.

Most of them did, and right now about 47 out of 50 states have state climatologists. Most them are at land-grant universities or similar places, although some are with state governments themselves.

The basic job description is to provide local climate services, which is helping people understand what’s going on with the climate, keeping track of climate data, helping people with climate forecast outlooks, doing research on climate within the state, and serving as point of contact between the state and federal officials.

Trib+Water: How often do the monthly and seasonal outlooks from the Climate Prediction Center (part of NOAA) accurately predict the future weather?

Nielsen-Gammon: The climate outlooks are probabilities, which say, for example, dry conditions and warmer conditions are more likely than normal. ... The main shortcoming of the forecast is that the odds in the forecast don't tend to be tilted very heavily in a particular fashion, so you can never be sure that you’re going to get, say, above normal rainfall or below normal rainfall.

Part of that is just because of the randomness of the weather and some of that is because we still don’t have really good tools for predicting what’s going on in the ocean and how the ocean and atmosphere are going to interact.

Trib+Water: Do the monthly and seasonal predictions guide certain industries in what they do such as agriculture, electric utilities, and water suppliers?

Nielsen-Gammon: They definitely do. When I’m giving talks around the state, the main thing people want to know about is what’s going to happen with the weather over the next several months. That drives agricultural decisions — do you expand your cattle herd, do you plant a drought resistant variety of crop, etc.?

It affects water suppliers a bit less partly because they can’t really take as many chances as individual farmers do, but they do things like planning how much capacity to leave in reservoirs to allow for flood control versus how much water to keep stored to allow for possible drought.

A lot of sectors of Texas are affected by climate and so they pay attention to the climate outlooks. 

Trib+Water: How much do you rely on the models and how much do you rely on your knowledge and experience when making a prediction?

Nielsen-Gammon: I generally don’t deviate a whole lot from what the Climate Prediction Center is saying because they do this for a living and there’s a lot more of them working at it than I am. But what I do is focus a bit more on the details of what happens in Texas in response to the larger scale things the Climate Prediction Center is forecasting.

With the El Niño event last year, the forecast was for cooler than normal or near-normal temperatures, but I saw from analyzing the data for Texas in particular that when you get a particularly strong El Niño, temperatures actually tend to tilt toward the warm side. So I was able to add that little spin onto the official forecast.

The Texas Tribune Member Drive Fall 2021 banner

Support public-service journalism that’s always free to read.

Yes, I'll donate today