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State climatologist deals with historic severe weather events
4-plus years since Justin Glisan was hired have included droughts, flooding and derechos
DES MOINES — One element of Justin Glisan’s job as state climatologist is to help state government officials and Iowans be prepared for severe weather events.
But very little could have prepared Glisan for all that has transpired during his first four years.
When Glisan was hired to his “dream job” in 2018, the state was experiencing historic droughts and rains — sometimes simultaneously, in different parts of the state.
The following year brought a bomb cyclone and historic, devastating flooding in southwest Iowa.
Then, in 2020, came the global COVID-19 pandemic, followed by a destructive derecho that caused $11 billion in damage across the Midwest.
And in 2022, Iowans — especially farmers — are coping with a third consecutive year of drought conditions.
A state climatologist’s job is rarely dull, but Glisan’s brief tenure has been remarkably eventful.
And yet when asked what, if anything, has surprised Glisan since taking the job, he does not mention those historic weather events. Instead, he talks about how each day is different.
“Coming in with the science behind the position, I knew that aspect of it. But there are so many different things that I do on a day-to-day basis, no one day is the same as the last. And that’s what makes this job so interesting,” said Glisan, who recently turned 40. “But also it really drives my passion for weather and climate, but also the people that we serve.”
The state climatologist compiles and processes Iowa climate data for current and future weather data research needs, according to a description on the state agriculture department’s website. The climatologist compiles the weekly weather summary for the state crop progress and condition report, and the monthly state weather summary.
The Iowa state climatologist position is housed in the state agriculture department, while most state climatologists, Glisan said, are housed by a state university. Glisan said he enjoys this because it enables him to better interact with Iowans, especially farmers whose livelihoods are dependent upon dealing with weather.
“I’m able to actually interact with farmers and agricultural stakeholders and various groups across the state in a different way than my academic colleagues can,” Glisan said. “That’s been the most fulfilling aspect of this job, is actually getting out, doing field tours, looking at the crops, looking at drought conditions, getting my feet on the ground.
“I’m a climate modeler by training. Getting out into the field gives you a whole new perspective, versus what you see in the models and the forecasts.”
The ongoing drought conditions around Iowa are foremost to Glisan’s work these days. He said the current drought actually started in 2020, and while conditions have improved slightly at times, currently only 15 percent of the state is not experiencing some degree of drought conditions, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor. More than 30 percent of the state, mostly in northwest and southeast Iowa, is in severe or extreme drought conditions, according to the latest report.
“Drought’s a different beast. It’s a slow moving disaster. You don’t snap your finger and drought occurs. It takes several months, if not years for a wide-scale, devastating drought to form,” Glisan said. “We’re in the third year of this drought, which started in 2020. We’ve seen good improvement over a time period. …
“My concern is the subsoil moisture profiles. We need rainfall before the ground freezes to get at least some water in the tank. Looking overall, over the last three years, to really extinguish these drought conditions across the state we’re going to need several months if not a year or more of above average rainfall and precipitation and snowpack to really put a chip in these deficits.”
That, in part, is why Glisan is working with other state agencies on a state drought plan, which he said will help guide state policy and help the government react to severe drought conditions.
The state drought plan is being developed in conjunction with the state Department of Natural Resources, emergency management department, the governor’s office, and the federal agriculture department and National Weather Service, Glisan said.
“Because we’re in a drought right now, but the expectation is to have droughts in the future. And these droughts could be worse, if we look at the trends,” Glisan said. “So having a state drought plan in place, that allows us to have a better monitoring network, but also developing triggers in case a location or a county or a specific part of the state gets into a dire straits … we can help our producers, we can help our farmers in terms of things that will help mitigate stress that they’re seeing in terms of crops, but also livestock.”
With Iowa’s somewhat unique geography of being bordered by two major waterways, the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, Glisan said future flooding is a “100 percent certainty.”
“So working on that climate assessment, coupled with our drought needs, gives us a better idea of the trends that we should expect in the future,” he said.
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