That old saying “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it” can’t be applied to Nebraska anymore.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has created a state climate office intended to place Nebraska in the upper echelon of states analyzing weather trends — good news for an economy so tied to agriculture and natural resources.
The university will increase the number of weather stations gathering data for analysis, has quadrupled staffing devoted to analyzing Nebraska weather trends and will improve its online presence so that weather data will be easier to obtain and understand in real time.
“This is going to be great for Nebraska,” said Glenn Kerr, executive director of the American Association of State Climatologists. “It raises Nebraska in status to having one of the nation’s premiere climate enterprises.”
Kerr said the state climate office will have that impact not just because of the added resources devoted to weather analysis, but also because the center will be university-based and build on UNL’s respected National Drought Mitigation Center and its High Plains Regional Climate Center.
In some states, including Iowa, the state climatologist is employed by the state and not a university.
“You can develop a critical mass of climate expertise to serve the entire state really, really well,” Kerr said of Nebraska’s model.
Four people will staff the Nebraska office headed by Martha Shulski, formerly the head of the High Plains Regional Climate Center. Shulski is assuming the title of state climatologist. Al Dutcher, Nebraska’s longtime state climatologist, is becoming the associate state climatologist. The office is housed in the UNL Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Dutcher, who has been the face of Nebraska’s weather data for years as state climatologist — and the only person in that office — said he embraces the change. The expanded staffing is overdue, he said, and will allow him to do what he loves most — analyze data and travel the state talking with Nebraskans.
News of the expansion already has crossed the Missouri River, and Iowa State Climatologist Harry Hillaker said he was more than a little bit envious. As was the case with Nebraska’s Dutcher, Hillaker is one-man shop.
“Absolutely,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s safe to say I’d love to have at least one more person.”
Hillaker said Iowa’s office had three people in the early 1980s, but the two positions were lost to belt-tightening.
The Nebraska office has been budgeted at $260,000 a year, of which $100,000 is new money, Shulski said. The rest is a reallocation of existing salaries and expenses, she said.
Nebraska’s well-being is intimately tied to its weather, natural resources and ag economy, said Ron Yoder, associate vice chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The university already managed an upper tier weather monitoring network with 69 stations in place, but it lacked the resources to fully analyze the data generated by those stations. Now it will be able to do that and expand the network.
Shulski said the center’s immediate goal is defining, in collaboration with others, the type of weather analysis needed to better cope with Nebraska’s extreme swings in weather.
Nebraska’s weather, because the state is in the interior of North America, is among the most extreme on the planet, given its swings in temperature, precipitation and violent storms. Additionally, Nebraska is among the most ag-dependent in the nation, with more than 25 percent of its gross state product rooted in agriculture and about 93 percent of its surface used for crops or grazing. Water management is crucial given that Nebraska leads the nation in irrigated acres.
John Carroll, director of UNL’s School of Natural Resources, said one goal of the office will be to help farmers, ranchers and others manage risks associated with the weather. New analysis, for example, might alert ranchers to pending heat or cold stress on cattle. Or farmers might get guidance on seasonal planting choices.
Dutcher and Shulski said there’s much to learn about how climate change is affecting Nebraska and why some of that change is unfolding in the way that it is. Still, the center will focus on providing information, not the politics of climate change.
“The science is pretty clear that the climate is changing and, within this last century, that humans have had an impact,” Shulski said. “For any type of industry that is climate-sensitive, it’s important to consider what the future is going to hold and to plan ahead. It’s easier to consider options beforehand rather than wait and react.”