An eye on the weather
Nebraska State climatologist retires after 34 years monitoring the weather
The voice of Nebraska weather for thousands of ag folks across the state is retiring.
Al Dutcher, Nebraska State Extension Agricultural Climatologist, is leaving his post after 34 years with the University of Nebraska.
Dutcher does weekly updates on KRVN 880 AM radio and the Market Journal, among hundreds of other media appearances, letting Nebraska folks know what the weather forecast is.
A native of Michigan, he earned a meteorology degree from Iowa State University, then a master’s degree in agricultural meteorology.
He was hired in 1989 at the university, working on a soil moisture project, then became the state climatologist the next year.
As state climatologist, he is the face and voice of weather for Nebraska. Dutcher estimates over the last three-plus decades, he’s made nearly 5,000 media appearances.
He’s been with the Market Journal, a weekly ag television program produced by UNL, since it began in 1999. He began with KRVN seven years later, on the radio station’s Friday noon midday broadcast. Between those two media outlets, Dutcher estimates he’s made over 2,000 forecast outlooks.
Annually, he makes 40 to 60 speaking appearances, mostly ag-related, for crop insurance programs, educational credits or pesticide certification, for example.
And he’s written about 1,000 articles over his career, for Crop Watch and organizations like the Nebraska Cattleman magazine.
As a climatologist, Dutcher studied the U.S. Weather Model, released four times a day, at least three times daily, “because you can see the changes and the consistency, and that’s what helps in forecasting,” he said. “When you consistently look at the data, that’s what gives you the edge.”
Being a meteorologist requires a look at all scenarios with upcoming weather. “You have to be able to keep scenarios in your head, so you can recall types of situations when you see them in the forecast. They can keep you from getting yourself in a bind with making a bad forecast.”
Climatology is a lot like farming, he said. “There are things that happen that you have to note in the back of your head, so you don’t get burned the next time.”
Several historical weather events stick out in his mind over his 34-year career. He remembers the Thanksgiving Day blizzard of 1989, with a foot of snow in Lincoln, and temperatures never above freezing between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
He recalls the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in June of 1991. The eruption put volcanic ash in the atmosphere, which caused a cooling trend in the Northern Hemisphere. The worst was 1992, when the average temperatures were 4-6 degrees below normal for the year. The year started out dry, but rain came in the summer, causing record yields in the Corn Belt. “You couldn’t draw a more perfect scenario,” for crops, he said.
He also remembers 1993, with average temps lower because of the volcano, and rains that didn’t stop. The Missouri and Mississippi rivers were in flood stage the entire summer and soils were waterlogged.
The High Plains are known for their extreme temperature swings. “The area with the highest variability in terms of weather is the High Plains region,” he said. “We have big blizzards, snowstorms, and hot and dry stretches. We should expect that. We’re in a part of the country with a highly variable climate that goes from one extreme to another.”
Dutcher knows the importance weather plays in Nebraska’s No. 1 economy, agriculture. “That’s the reason my job is important, to let folks know where the situation is most dire, and where the weather risks are, for planting, harvesting and raising livestock.”
When he gives growing season weather outlooks, he does it for the entire United States. “I’m hopefully getting producers to focus on the total U.S. production, rather than just their backyard. There will always be areas of the country in any given year that have too little or too much moisture, but it’s the composite of all the growing regions and their relative contributions to national production that’s important when it comes to marketing the crops they’ve grown.”
He’s always been attuned to the weather, starting as a youngster with his grandfather, a commercial fisherman in Michigan. “My grandfather wasn’t a meteorologist but he could look at the sky and tell you how the waves would move and where to put your nets. He was my first training as a meteorologist.”
In semi-retirement, Dutcher will move back to Michigan, where his mother lives, and work on the family’s orchard, which includes peach, pear, plum and cherry trees. He plans on adding another 60 peach trees this spring.
He’s loved the variability that weather offers. “What I enjoy is that no two years are the same.”
He believes in being truthful with people, especially if his weather forecast isn’t correct.
“I try to be honest. The best thing is to be honest with people and admit your errors. You’ll get a lot more respect that way, than glossing it over.”
He’s glad that his weather information could help ag producers in Nebraska.
“As long as I was able to make folks feel more at ease, or help them make plans for their crops or livestock, I’ve done my job.”