Did You Know? The Alabama State Climatologist Helps Recruit Jobs

Leadership Perspectives
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - Dr. John Christy is our guest this week on WHNT News 19's Leadership Perspectives.

Dr. Christy has an impressive resume.  He's a professor of Atmospheric Science at UAHuntsville as well as the director of the Earth System Science Center there.  Dr. Christy was awarded the medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement from NASA in 1991, and in 2002, he was inducted as a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.

Since 2000, he's been the Alabama State Climatologist.   We asked him what this person does.

"I guess if you had to boil it down, how can I use the climate resources of Alabama to create some sustainable industries and activities in Alabama that are not only sustainable economically, but also environmentally sustainable."

Dr. Christy is also working on projects to help lure companies to located in our state.  This week, he wrote a report for a major corporation that is considering Alabama.

"This happens quite a bit," he said.  "A corporation will be looking at a few states, and
part of the package for site selection deals with what's the climate, what's the
weather, what is the potential hazard, so I fill out that report."

"Alabama has a lot of good advantages here," he added. "We don't have snow and ice closures very much, we have lots of water, and plenty of sunshine."

Why do we need a state climatologist?  It turns out, this position has the potential to help every person in Alabama.

"Part of what I do, in looking at the climate resources for Alabama, is to somehow turn those in to economic development, which means jobs for people here in the state," said Dr. Christy.

In his job, Dr. Christy studies weather data and trends in different seasons.  He says Alabama's climate has been cooling in recent years.  He did say extreme events can happen, and the past is proof, but it's tough to predict if we're going to have another extremely cold winter or extremely hot summer anytime soon.

"I tell people that as a climatologist, I look through the rear-view mirror," said Dr. Christy. "It's those guys at the weather service that look out the windshield - it's a harder thing to do - but I would say the type of atmospheric circulation in this 2013-14 season is the kind that does contribute to arctic air outbreaks in the southeast."

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In his work at UAHuntsville, Dr. Christy conducts research with satellite data.  We asked him to break this down for us.

"The atmosphere emits radiation, and it turns out that's proportional to temperature. So if we have a sensor up in space that looks down at that radiation, it can tell us the temperature of the atmosphere," he said.  "We can take the global temperature every day."

Dr. Christy has testified to Congress about his findings.  In fact, he'll do that next week.

Climate Change

WHNT News 19's Steve Johnson asked Dr. Christy if his data supports any sense the climate for the Earth is warming up.

"The data we show, since 1979, about 35 years now, shows a warming trend. It's not very big, but it is a warming trend. That would be consistent with the notion the extra greenhouse gases we are putting in the atmosphere are producing some warming -- not much -- but some warming."

Q: Should we work to curtail our greenhouse emissions?

A: "It doesn't look like the climate's being affected much by carbon dioxide, and I think when you start talking about actions to take, and this gets into a huge, huge political issue, is that what is happening in the rest of the world is huge, between China and India - they're putting out together much more - more than twice what the U.S. puts out. What we do in this country doesn't really affect the rapid rise in CO2 emissions. I think there will be better energy sources, in terms of emissions as time goes on, so we will see carbon , which is our main source of energy now - coal, oil, natural gas, fade away, as some of these new high-tech energy sources come into play."

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Science & Politics

Climate change, and global warming, is a highly charged issue.  We asked why some scientists disagree with Dr. Christy's conclusions - more so, why are their findings different?

"A lot of times - it turns out very few people actually build climate data sets from scratch, and that's what we do here at UAHuntsville. So when you look at the real numbers, the data, they do not show these dramatic things happening," Dr. Christy said. "Yet when you look at the expectations that climate models, for example, produce, they are significantly different than what is actually happening. So, just demonstrating that the theory is off, somehow, is just not correct, is what we can do as a scientist."

"Then, what happens politically, after that, is 'katy-bar' the door, you know - who knows what might happen as a result? But as a scientist, I can provide information. I think many other scientists today are moving, I would say, in my direction, in the sense they are seeing there are problems with the theory we'd had before, and it really does look like the observations are saying the world is not headed for catastrophe."

Q: Does it bother him that this has become political?

A: "When you talk about something becoming political - and that's where the money flows to address certain issues - you find lots of money in our system going to promote an idea of rapid global warming, even though the observations don't really support it," he said. "That makes it difficult for people like me to continue our research because the money is just not yet... someone who says 'hey, the world's temperature is about average right now' - no one gets excited about that and wants to fund you to study average temperatures."

Q: How should the average person siphon through the data -- all the different things that are said about climate change?

A: "I find people are more effective by what happens day to day, year to year, than what might happen 20 years from now, and I try to instill in them the notion that severe and extreme weather can happen at any time," Dr. Christy said.  "Are you prepared? Is your house prepared for a tornado, or freezing temperatures, or for extreme hot spells, or a flood? These kinds of things are more important, I think, to keeping your livelihood going, than thinking about what might happen in 50 years."