People & Places

Once scared by storms, now at helm of 'dream job'

Justin Glisan becomes Iowa's new state climatologist

Justin Glisan, 35, has become Iowa’s third state climatologist, succeeding Harry Hillaker, who retired after three decades. (Submitted photo)
Justin Glisan, 35, has become Iowa’s third state climatologist, succeeding Harry Hillaker, who retired after three decades. (Submitted photo)

DES MOINES — Justin Glisan has become Iowa’s third state climatologist, succeeding Harry Hillaker, who retired after three decades in that position.

That’s fitting, according to Glisan, because 30 years is a meteorological decade. Although he’s just come on board at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Glisan hopes to stay a meteorological decade.

“Long story short, this is the dream job that I didn’t know would open up because Harry had been here so long,” Glisan said from his windowless basement office in the Wallace Building in Des Moines.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in soil, environmental and atmospheric science with an emphasis in meteorology from the University of Missouri at Columbia. He studied heat waves while getting his master’s degree there. In 2012, Glisan, 35, earned a Ph.D. at Iowa State University where he continued to do research until becoming state climatologist.

He lives in Des Moines with his wife, Maggie, a senior food editor with the Better Homes and Gardens magazine.

Q: What led you to move from research to this position as state climatologist?

A: Part of the appeal is that it’s kind of a hybrid job. I can do a little research on the side when I have time … but then I also get to interact with farmers and the ag industry. I like to say farmers know weather better than meteorologists know weather because they’ve been on the land a long time, they’ve seen the seasonal variation in temperature and precipitation … they have a lot of insight into Iowa weather. So anything I can glean from regular people that can help me do my job, I’m all for it.

Q: Where does your passion for weather and meteorology come from?

A: When I was about 4 or 5, I remember St. Louis having night after night of severe storms. It scared the heck out of me. To this day, I’m still frightened of lightning like you wouldn’t believe. My dad took me aside and told me I would either be scared of it all my life or you can learn about it and have the knowledge to address these issues. So that’s when I decided I wanted to study the weather. After that, I was a Weather Channel kid. I was fascinated by it. I wanted to be assured it wouldn’t storm the next day.

Q: Is there a difference between weather and climatology?

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A: Climatology is relatively easy because we use 30-year trends and compare present-day observations to those trends and we get highs and lows, and precipitation amounts. So climatology is what we expect. Weather is what we get. The way I explain it to elementary school kids is that weather is the clothes you’re wearing today. Climate is the clothes in your closet.

Q: Most people are aware of the state climatologist from news reports when you comment on the weather or what we should expect in the coming months. Is there more to the job?

A: I work for the state of Iowa. For the people of Iowa. I advise the secretary of ag about anything he needs to know. My job, in addition to the weekly, monthly reports I put out, is to get the best information to the people who make decisions. That’s why the data process aspect of it is so important. I want to automate the quality control process. Now we can feed the forms the observations (dating to 1874) are on and feed them into GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and automate the quality control process.

A: You said you’d like to stay in this job for a climate decade — 30 years. How different will the job be in 30 years?

A: It’s a magnitude of computational skill. They’re making processors on processors, supercomputer that can run forecast simulations. Climatologically, it will stay the same because that’s what climatology is. I’ll still be getting out in the field working with farmers, the ag industry because that’s what drives the state economy. As far as meteorology in general, I think we’re going to get improvements in lead time in severe weather. “Typically, lead time for a tornado-warned storm — a funnel spotted or radar indicated — is under 20 minutes. That’s a good amount of time. But we’d like to get to having hours of notice of impending severe weather and we’ll have better six- to 10-day outlooks, better eight- to 14-day outlooks, better monthly and seasonal forecasts. That will probably go hand in hand with advances in crop technology, hybridization and things like that. They will advance together.

Q: Climate change — it is real?

A: I’m a climatologist. I work with trends. My job is to get information to people who study climate change. I work with observations. I can show you trends in precipitation. I can show you trends in temperature. Those are from observations. I study the past trends and find the current trends. A climate dynamicist, who studies climate change, has a different set of tools they use. I give them the data and they run the climate models.

Q: So in a way, you’re a historian?

A: Yes, I’m a weather librarian. Part of the allure of this job is that I’m responsible for all of these observations. I’m an archivist. I’m a librarian. I’m a climatologist. It’s important because it shows us the history of the state.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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