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Iowa’s weather man

By Staff | Apr 15, 2011

Harry Hillaker, a native of Fort Worth, Texas, began his career in Iowa in 1981 as a research climatologist. Since 1991, he has been a "one-man department" at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

DES MOINES – Iowans love to discuss the weather, and when you have nearly 140 years of weather records at your disposal like State Climatologist Harry Hillaker does, you have more to talk about than most.

“A blizzard that dumped 14 inches of snow in one day on my hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, got me hooked on the weather when I was 7 years old,” said Hillaker, 54. “As I was growing up, I developed a reputation among my teachers and family for being interested in the weather.”

Since 1991, Hillaker has been the “one-man-show” behind Iowa’s state climatologist’s office, which was established in 1875 and is America’s oldest continuously operating state climate service.

Hillaker, who works at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s office near the capitol complex in Des Moines, collects, processes and publishes climate data for hundreds of locations across Iowa.

“Harry does an outstanding job of making weather information relevant and available,” said Bill Northey, Iowa’s secretary of agriculture. “He is a great fit as the state climatologist, as he presents the information available in 138 years of weather records in a very matter-of-fact and understandable way.

State Climatologist Harry Hillaker can check more than 135 years of Iowa weather records with these historic annual reports, which date back to the 1870s.

“The fact that he is able to do all this while manning the entire office by himself is also a testament to his passion and work ethic.”

Crunching the data

After earning his master’s degree in geography from the University of Colorado at Boulder, Hillaker joined the state climatologist’s office in Iowa at age 24 as a contract employee. “I started on a three-month grant, and I’m still here 30 years later,” said Hillaker, who noted that computer technology has dramatically changed his work through the years.

Today, a network of 500 weather stations across the state, from the Iowa Department of Transportation, airport sites, county weather stations, school net sites, and the Iowa State University agronomy department, allows Hillaker to access detailed reports about air temperatures, humidity levels, visibility levels, wind speeds and more, often on a minute-by-minute basis.

“My job is to get this information in a format that people can use,” said Hillaker, who noted that his three top “customers” include the media, attorneys and insurance companies.

“My job is to get this information in a format that people can use.” —Harry Hillaker State climatologist

Press inquiries make up the lion’s share of this work for Hillaker, who conducts approximately 500 interviews a year with members of the media, from local radio broadcasters to reporters from the New York Times.

While this usually involves a couple calls each day, interview requests soar when an unusual or dramatic weather event occurs.

Questions from attorneys comprise another 20 percent of the inquiries to the state climatologist’s office, said Hillaker, who noted that many cases revolve around slips and falls, or car accidents.

“Attorneys are typically trying to get data to determine if there was negligence,” noted Hillaker, who is sometimes called to testify in court. “For example, if snowfall ended at 3 a.m. on a certain day and someone slipped and fell outside a convenience store later that morning, weather records can show that the store would have had plenty of time to shovel the sidewalk before the store opened.”

Insurance companies comprise another 20 percent of the inquiries to Hillaker’s office. “They often need weather data to document insurance claims, such as confirming the time of a hail storm,” Hillaker said.

Dr. Gustavus Hinrichs invested his own money to help start Iowa's first Weather Service office in the 1870s. State climatologist Harry Hillaker displays Hinrichs' Iowa Weather Report from 1876.

Building on a tradition

While Hillaker can easily access this information on the computer, it wasn’t always so convenient to record and store accurate weather data. While standardized equipment like thermometers and rain gauges began to revolutionize the process in the 19th century, it took pioneers like Dr. Gustavus Hinrichs to develop formalized systems to record Iowa’s weather. This became more important as settlers flooded into Iowa during the 1870s and 1880s, Hillaker noted.

Hinrichs, who was a chemist, geologist and professor at the University of Iowa, invested some of his own money to help start the Iowa Weather Service. In addition to developing a network of weather observers across Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakota Territory in 1875 to record data, Hinrichs also convinced the state legislature to support Iowa’s fledgling weather service with a few thousand dollars.

While the state’s weather service was located in Iowa City in those early years, it was relocated to Des Moines in 1890, where it was renamed the Iowa Weather and Crop Service.

Shortly after Iowa’s Department of Agriculture was created in 1923, the Weather and Crop Service became part of this agency.

The state climatologist’s office remains an important part of IDALS, where Hillaker’s position is a full-time job, not a secondary role like it is in many other states.

“Agriculture has long been a top priority in Iowa, and the weather is still the biggest factor in crop production,” said Hillaker, who noted that a variety of the records kept at his office can be found at www.IowaAgriculture.gov.

“There’s always something to talk about with the weather.”

You can contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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