Justin Glisan, the state’s new climatologist, comes in with several years of teaching and research, three college degrees and the drive you need to have to get questions about weather trivia from everyone from farmers to reporters, at all hours.

He is replacing Harry Hillaker, who not only was a legend in his field but was as famous as someone who digs through records for a living could be. Hillaker was a favorite for decades among reporters looking for context on Iowa’s quirky weather and occasional disasters, and his good cheer, sense of humor, and accessibility brought him many a gold star from the hard-bitten media types around the state. 

Will Glisan be able to follow that act? What’s going through his mind as he takes over talking to farmers about their rain gauges and to reporters about the last time it snowed in early October?

We sat down to ask him why he chose to succeed Hillaker, and how he approaches the job. 

When did you start the new job? 

May 29. 

What were you doing before? 

I was a research scientist at Iowa State University. I did my Ph.D., then three years of postdoc to continue my Ph.D. research, then I was hired three years ago as a research atmospheric scientist [and teaching]. 

What is your job like? 

Climatology is a history of weather. The state climatologist is the historian in Iowa for weather. Climatology tells us a lot about the history of the state, where we’ve been, where we’re going, changes in land use, changes in crops, things like that. Weather has an impact on all of this. So having a state climatologist to archive this information is extremely important in multiple ways, one of which is pulling out trends in precipitation and temperature, drought conditions. And also disseminating the information to the stakeholders, including farmers and the ag industry. Ag drives the state economy. So having a good idea of the climatological record and weather conditions gives us a better idea of how crops will do in a growing season, for example, or how a specific part of the state will do in terms of if we get into drought. 

Another component of that is looking at the long term-trend – where are we going. We’ve noticed we’re seeing precipitation trends in which we are getting heavier rainfall events. More often this affects drought conditions, obviously, but it also affects harvest, flooding, flooded fields; [farmers] can’t get their combines in, or they compact the soil and they have planting problems. 

What attracted you to the position? 

It makes my hair stand up on my arms. It’s history. I love history. My passion is meteorology and atmospheric science, climatology. This is the dream job. The funny side note is that when I first started my Ph.D. at Iowa State, I contacted [then state climatologist Harry Hillaker] just to get an idea of how things work. It was always in the back of my mind to check back and see if there were any openings. I never thought Harry would retire. I like to say if there were a Mount Rushmore for state climatologists, he would be on it. He’s revered in the field. When he did retire, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I jumped on it. 

What’s a typical day like?

I work for the taxpayers. I get calls like, “Did I set my rain gauge up correctly?” I get calls saying, “We’ve had this much rain in our gauge, how does that comport with what the National Weather Service has?” I get a lot of questions about temperature and precipitation outlooks. Each week during the growing season, I put out a weekly weather summary that goes along with the crop report. That gives us a summary of precipitation and temperature conditions across the state during the growing season. One of the most interesting and fun parts of the job is I get to go to visit farmers. I have a farmer in Kossuth County who calls me every Friday and tells me about his rain gauge and what he’s seeing in the weather for the past week. 

I get to visit people throughout the state. I made the amateur mistake of promising a radio interviewer that I was going to do the 99-county “Grassley” [which means visiting every county in a year, per U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley], so I started getting invites from various counties. I’ve had drought meetings in the southeastern part of the state that got crowds of 60 to 80 people and you see the anguish on their faces because they haven’t had precipitation for a month or two. They are up to 30 inches below average over the past three years. One of the major parts of my job is to make recommendations to the U.S. Drought Monitor each week. [The U.S. Drought Monitor is a U.S. map, released weekly, that shows areas that are in drought, and how bad the drought is. It is produced by the federal government and a center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.]

What are you seeing in Iowa’s climate trends? 

We need to make changes in agriculture. We’re getting a lot of runoff events in terms of drought. You get compaction of the soil, so then when you get rainfall events it runs off. It doesn’t soak in. Cover crops are a big thing. If we keep the trend going with these precipitation events, [there will be trouble]. You look at the June 30, July 1 event in Ankeny where they had up to 8 inches of rain in three hours; that is not sustainable as far as urban infrastructure [such as sewers]. 

Your predecessor, Harry Hillaker, was a legend among reporters and other members of the public. He was incredibly accessible, and could answer virtually any weather or climate trivia question in minutes or less. What’s it like following him?
He casts a long shadow. He’s well known in the field, and he sets the bar high. The way that I look at my job every morning — there was trepidation when I first started because I’m filling Harry Hillaker’s shoes. I’m only the third state climatologist, and Harry is my predecessor. He’s always in the back of my mind. 

Sometimes the weather patterns get weird, right?

Look at this year. May was the third-warmest [May] on record; April was the coldest [April]. June was the 10th-warmest and the 10th-wettest [June].

How are you wired?

I’m a nerd. Data is important. My mind never shuts off. There’s always something there to figure out. I love my job. I love my field. I don’t know a lot of people who can say they are excited to walk into their office in the morning. I am. I am surrounded by history.