Q&A: Justin Glisan, Iowa state climatologist

As a child, storms terrified Justin Glisan. Years later, his biggest fear has turned into a passion – and career.

Since 2018, Justin Glisan has been serving farmers in Iowa and across the Midwest as state climatologist. Glisan is responsible for preparing the weekly weather summary for the Crop Progress Report April through November and making recommendations for the U.S. Drought Monitor. He regularly speaks with media to explain weather patterns across the region.

“The state climatologist ensures we have comprehensive weather records for the state so we can put current weather events in the correct historical context,” explains Iowa secretary of agriculture Mike Naig.

Volumes of Iowa’s weather records dating back more than 150 years fill Glisan’s downtown Des Moines office. Thinking about his ability to use that information to benefit agriculture gives him goosebumps, he says. “I couldn’t imagine a better job.”

SF: Tell me about yourself and what it means to be a climatologist.

JG: I was born in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. As a little kid, I was very scared of severe weather. At age 4 or 5 I remember being stuck in the basement, just watching the Weather Channel because I was so scared. My dad finally took me aside and said, “You’re going to be scared to death of weather all your life if you don’t learn about it.” Hence, I got a bachelor’s and master’s degree in meteorology at the University of Missouri and then completed my doctorate at Iowa State in atmospheric sciences, which is a mix of meteorology and climatology.

Being a state climatologist is a very interesting role. We have 49 state climatologists across the United States. My position is unique in that I work at the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship for Iowa, given that Iowa’s economy is agriculturally based, and we have a lot of farms here.

I view my role as a weather historian for the state. Behind me at my desk are the records going back into the 1870s of precipitation and temperature. They tell us the history of our state in terms of weather, but also where we’ve been agriculturally. You think about the 1800s, we were growing wheat here. We don’t grow wheat here anymore because conditions have changed.

Sometimes I get goosebumps talking about this. I couldn’t imagine a better job to have in terms of providing guidance and products to our ag stakeholders and our farmers across Iowa and across the region.

SF: How long has your position been around?

JG: I’m the third state climatologist of Iowa. My predecessors Paul Waite and Harry Hillaker were in office for over 30 years. We consider 30 years a climate decade. That’s what we use to average temperature and precipitation. That gives us a baseline in which we can compare weather events: “How cold was February? How much snow did we get?” All those very interesting things are part of my job.

SF: I think you have a real knack for explaining weather events and really complicated scientific things to people who don’t have a background in weather.

JG: That’s something as a scientist, we try to work on, on a daily basis, translating our technical things to a general audience. It’s a learning process. I’ll learn this until the day I retire.

It is always great to talk about weather and climate because people, especially farmers, are so intuitive in terms of what they’ve seen on their own farms, going back 150 years. So, I learn something from them and hopefully I can provide information that will help them moving forward.

SF: How much of your job is out gathering observations around Iowa?

JG: I’m out traveling Iowa as much as I can, especially during the growing season. In fact, given that field scouting is a socially distanced activity, I was able to do a lot of it during COVID.

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