Climate guy

Jeff Underwood

Photo By David Robert

A Nevada blogger last month observed of a proposal for a state paleontologist that, “It will rank right up there with the state climatologist for why on earth do we need that? status.” That bank shot at state climatologist Jeff Underwood, who is also a geography professor at UNR, called for an exploration of what he does.

Why do we need your office?

I’m not one to argue for or against my value, that’s for sure. That’s for everyone to decide. But that blogger might take some comfort to know that he’s not paying any money for me. It’s a very inexpensive state office, in that it’s really just a title. … I guess it was in the ‘50s that the feds set up a state climatologist in every state so that climate information could be disseminated on a regional/local basis. It’s easier to do that with someone who knows the state than one big head out of D.C. So every state got one. Well, in the early 1970s, I guess it got too expensive to maintain that program, and they just ditched it, and they gave the states the option—you know, “You can keep the titles, you can keep the people, but we’re not going to pay for it anymore.” Some states picked it up just as well, funded it really well. … They do local drought monitoring, they do all sorts of water/soil issues, extraordinary budgets and extraordinary staff. Other states went halfway with it. … Then there were states like Nevada that said, “Well, we’ll give it to someone at the university.” … I’ve been here since 2004. My operating budget for the first two years was $279.

Actually, that’s gone down. The state archives found a predecessor office—the secretary of state’s office in the 1880s had Charles Friend doing monthly weather reports, and he was paid $300.

That’s wrong, that’s flat out wrong! [Laughs] The university has felt sorry for me and gave me an extra, I think, $1,500, something like that. I can actually pay now for my own telephone, my own printing supplies. So that’s kind of nice. And I run a network of 44 observers around the state who have now been doing this, most of them, since the early ‘80s, so I have a 20-year record. … The way we know the climatology is for someone to be out there daily taking records. That’s what my network does, so that network is coming on 25 years old. And that’s a real valuable record. That’s how we know, for example, if we have warming trends, cooling trends or whether climate change takes place. How would we ever know if we didn’t have climate records? … You’d be surprised at the different businesses that need climate information—the mines need it, agriculture needs it. I’m always getting calls from folks working on the highways because some of the materials they used can’t be used at certain temperatures and certain humidities. … The state climate office and the state climatologist provides that information free of charge. So I guess I am making an argument for my value, after all.

And I would think in a desert state …

In the driest state in the union, which we are, the state climatologist gets a fourth job. He’s also the chair of the governor’s drought review and reporting committee. And what we do there is make recommendations on when we get declarations of drought or when the drought goes from moderate to severe, that sort of thing. I’m the lead monitor person and the lead advisor on drought issues, which we’re probably going to start talking about here pretty soon because it’s such a poor winter water supply.

Are we in a drought?

Our drought’s different. If you look at the monitor, which comes out of the Midwest and used indices that were developed in the Midwest, yes, they’d probably have us going toward drought. But again, most of them are based on rainfall and then evaporation, which we’d almost always be in a drought. What we look at here is reservoir levels. This year, some of the basins that fill up our reservoirs [got] a little less—50 percent of their normal melt water. So in other words, yes, we’re trending toward a drought.