Martha Shulski: Nebraska State Climatologist

December 10, 2018

Martha Shulski serves as the state climatologist for Nebraska. She grew up with a passion for weather and continues to show it in her work. Her goal is to help others understand how weather and climate affects them.

We all talk about the weather. That’s something that is not controversial. Everybody can strike up a conversation around weather.

So I lived in southeast Nebraska and I remember a tornado came through our town and we had to spend the night in the basement, and it really frightened me, and I thought, I need to understand this phenomena. This is something that’s really impactful for me and it made a huge impression. So at seven, I decided to study weather.

Martha around the age of seven. Photo from Martha Shulski

I often tell people that we’re translators because there’s a whole bevy of weather and climate information that’s available, so what we do is compile and synthesize all that information and bring to the customer something that will assist their decision making.

 

A Mesonet station near Mead, Nebraska. The Mesonet Network consists of 68 of these stations throughout Nebraska that observe hourly weather conditions serving the agricultural community and as an environmental monitoring program. Beginning in 1981, this was the first location for the network. Photo by Erin McCready

What the Mesonet offers is important because it gives people local perspective of their environmental conditions, and there’s really no other network that compares to this. They observe the environment and what happens above ground and what happens below ground, and anything related to our weather. And so that’s air temperature and relative humidity… how warm or cold is it? How fast is the wind blowing? What direction is it coming from? Is the sun shining or not? Is it raining or not? And how much did it rain? And what’s the temperature of the soil and how much moisture is in the soil? How much water do the grass and the plants have to use?

(Top left) The wind monitor measures wind direction and wind speed. (Top right). A battery powers the station, and a solar panel recharges the battery. (Bottom left) A precipitation gauge provides a measurement of rainfall amount. (Bottom right) Soil moisture and temperature sensors measure how much water is in the soil and the temperature. These are just a few of the many functioning parts of the station. Photos by Erin McCready

So for me, it’s personal passion and the Mesonet is a way that we can understand meteorology at its very base level. To understand what’s going on, we have to take these observations. They’re so critical to everything.

So I lived in Fairbanks, Alaska. I spent seven years there and it was a really great opportunity to live somewhere far away and it’s pure wilderness. The scale of everything is just so incredible: extremely high mountains and river valleys, and the coastal areas are beautiful and the wildlife is incredible.

Martha taking a boat ride in Katchemak Bay from Homer, Alaska, to the village of Seldovia, Alaska. Photo by Martha Shulski

Particularly, I got the chance to work with indigenous communities and those that have a subsistence lifestyle, which is really a whole complete way of living and knowing, and it’s very different than western culture, and just how even slight changes in climate can have a significant impact in livelihoods.

For example, if you rely on moose harvest, if you’re not able to get it because the moose are not where they used to be, and it’s getting harder to find them, there’s real significant impacts if you live off the land, and even slight changes in climate conditions can have a really significant socioeconomic impact where it’s really on the front lines of climate change.

Martha took a picture of the vast mountain landscape during a moose hunting trip in Interior, Alaska, in September 2005. Photo by Martha Shulski

There are not many people that are better at adapting and managing a changing climate than those in the agriculture industry. They’re having to deal with conditions they have no control over. It was very interesting to see parallels among what happens in the far north and what happens here, and there’s a lot of shared success stories and lessons that we can learn in talking to people from a different location.

Clearly, our environments are very different. We don’t have polar bears, we’re not permafrost, we don’t have glaciers, but we have this societal infrastructure. Identifying ways that we can best deal with climate variability and change, you can kind of translate from one environment to another.

If we think about just Nebraska in particular, where our energy comes from, what we grow, how much water we have, how water is regulated, transportation, you know all of these things will change in the future. In Nebraska, we’ve warmed overall over time, but there’s a lot of variability that we deal with from year to year, like the flood of 2011 and then the drought of 2012. And so that’s very common for our climate is to go up and down.

A time-lapse camera captures the high waters of 2011 and the drought of 2012 at Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary. Photos by Michael Forsberg

So we have this excess of precipitation, flooding conditions. In the summer, in particular, we had I-29 that was flooded, along the eastern Nebraska border we had crop fields that were underwater. And then 2012 happened, and we had one of the warmest March on record. And so we flipped from wet conditions and excess of precipitation to one of the driest and hottest years on record in 2012.

A time-lapse camera captures the drought of 2012 over the Lied Bridge on the Platte River near Platte River State Park.

Going from too much to too little in a short period of time, that really high variability, to me, that’s kind of the hallmark of climate in this part of the country and particularly in Nebraska. And we know it has happened in the past and that’s going to continue to happen in the future. And having a year like 2012 in recent memory, I think that we can use that as a tool to talk about future climate change. What if 2012 had lasted, and the faucet never got turned back on?

That could be our future.

How do you stay hopeful? And I think you have to, we don’t have a choice. I think about my kids, it’s going to be up to them and it’s going to be up to you. We’re talking a lot more about climate change than what we used to, that gives me hope, and I think framing it in a way that there is hope and giving people tangible solutions is really key. If people think there is no hope, then they’re not gonna do anything.

It’s my job to give that message of hope.

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