GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Wisconsin has hired a new state climatologist to run the state’s climatology office located on the campus of UW-Madison.
Steve Vavrus began his education career at Purdue University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in meteorology. He then continued his education at Wisconsin, where he studied arctic climate change, paleoclimates, and research projects here in the Great Lakes region. This propelled him to the role he is in now.
Vavrus says the funding for the state climatology office falls under a broader university-wide partnership under the Rural Partners Institute. It is a campus-wide initiative that involves the office and mesonet network along with a series of community and outreach research grants, all with the goal of getting rural Wisconsin communities to thrive and improving the lives of Wisconsinites now with an eye on the future.
Just last week, the office revamped its website, which provides users features that include obtaining the weather station data that also includes climate normals on temperature and precipitation as well as records. Vavrus says there may be growing pains switching to this site, but he says this one is much more modern, user-friendly, and easier to manage.
Local 5 got the chance to interview our newest climatologist, which you can find below.
Question: What are your goals with this position?
Vavrus: “Well, we want to change the office. The office has been run on a volunteer basis for about 20 years, and that’s been wonderful that it’s been able to continue, but it’s been hamstrung without resources.
So, with these new resources, what we want to do is expand our presence, make sure the office is open for business, and try and find out what services people want, but ultimately, our mission is to help Wisconsinites use weather and climate information most effectively.
The term we use for this is climate services, and this term is thrown around a lot in my field. What it boils down to, in my opinion, is covering the three I’s: so, one is providing information: credible information and finding that information online, interpretation, because some of that information, even if it is credible is hard to understand and may be too technical, a lot of jargon and then investigation; research, so both applied research questions and basic research questions. If we can meet those three I’s in the office, then we will have success.
Question: What are some of your plans and projects that you can share that you are excited about?
Vavrus: “One of the things that we are excited about is expanding the research presence and arm of the office. Without the resources over the last twenty years, we have not had the ability to do much research at all, and we will soon. We are already expanding staff, we are about to hire a full-time assistant state climatologist who will primarily be in a research role, and we are really looking forward to the fact that Wisconsin is going to have this full network of coordinated weather stations, the mesonet, that will allow all sorts of great things for Wisconsinites. One is up-to-minute weather information, including soil information on temperature and moisture, and then by coordinating with the state climatology office, we’ll be able to use that information, promote it on our website and social media, also use the data for research purposes. State climatology offices around the country with mesonets to draw from use that information to develop things like decision support tools to help farmers make better decisions about when to plant, when to harvest when to spray, and when their livestock are under hot or cold stress. So that’s something we want to develop in the Wisconsin office as well.”
Question: With the state of our climate and forecasted future, why is it important to have a state climatologist/climatology office?
Vavrus: “So there are a few reasons why a state climatology office, a funded one, is so important for Wisconsin and other states. One is that the weather has become increasingly extreme, I mean, the climate is changing there’s no doubt about that. Some of the things we expected to be true, the timing of seasons has been shifting, but we are also seeing more extreme weather events that are expensive. So having an office that can handle these things and help to provide information, interpretation, and investigation to understand the causes is really important. Another reason is ironic that there is more information online about weather and climate, it’s easy to think, ‘We don’t need an office because people can find it on their own.’, but the problem is that there is so much information it’s hard to find and there’s so much information that isn’t so credible and so understanding it and using it for decision making can be difficult. So having someone that can guide users to find the best information and help them use it for their purposes is increasingly important, especially in the information age.”
Question: To the viewers, what are some things that your office does?
Vavrus: “So we are in the process of hiring a full-time assistant state climatologist and that will really give us the ability then to expand our capacity to tackle some of these research questions as well as improve our outreach and education opportunities. Hopefully, not much longer until we bring that person on board. In the meantime, there are some general questions about Wisconsin’s climate that I think our office needs to address. For example, one of them is we are becoming wetter over time and why is that? Is that a sign of global climate change or natural variability? Another is that it appears Wisconsin has become snowier over the years, over more than a century by a foot since the late 1800s. Is that real or is that an artifact because we measure snow differently than we used to? We don’t know yet. Another curiosity is that despite the warming climate, Wisconsin has not seen a pronounced increase in extreme daytime heat during the summer. 90-degree, 100 degrees: they have not been increasing the way we might expect them to. Why is that? We don’t know. These are interesting and important questions for us to better understand Wisconsin’s climate potentially for an eye toward the future as well.”
Question: Why is important to have a state climatology office?
Vavrus: “One of the reasons having a state climatology office is so important is when we have these weather whiplashes we’ve had in 2023; we had the wettest first four months on record from January through April and we had the fourth driest May through August on record with an historic drought. That is obviously extremely unusual but that’s all the more important for a state climatology office to exist to convey that information and help us interpret it. One of the roles our office has played this summer was participating in the weekly drought task force that was organized as an ad hoc committee when the drought emerged. That consists of state agencies as well as National Weather Service representatives and our task force makes recommendations to the governor’s office about what kinds of management strategies may be needed, and emergency measures that might be taken to cope with the drought and that’s a role we’ve been able to play this year.”
For more information about the office, head over to the Wisconsin State Climatology Office.