State climatologist loves teaching
people about the weather
Only in North Dakota would a bunch of brave souls slog through snow and bone-quivering cold to spend a Friday evening talking about the weather.
And so at a time of day when most people are hurrying home or to after-school haunts, a crowd of weather groupies gathers in a meeting room at North Dakota State University's library. They shrug out of heavy parkas, nibble on cookies, warm themselves with coffee and settle in for a lecture by Adnan Akyüz, North Dakota's official state climatologist and an associate professor of climatological practices at NDSU.
Akyüz is a slight, wiry man who sports a dark suit, a red tie and a pure enthusiasm for all things meteorological. He paces before the crowd with the quick, athletic step you'd expect from a man who spends his down time scaling walls as a rock climber.
"I'm not sure why you would go to Hawaii for vacation,"he quips to the crowd, taking a gentle jab at the tropical paradise's monotonously temperate weather. The extremes of North Dakota's atmospheric conditions are so much more interesting to the weather junkie. They produce fascinating phenomena like the circumzenithal arc, a sort of frozen rainbow caused by refracted sunlight through horizontally oriented ice crystals in clouds. Or temperature swings so dramatic that there's a 181-degree difference between the state's record high and its record low.
Whether Akyüz is explaining tornadoes to third graders or presenting lectures to college students in his advanced climatology classes, he has a flair for putting an accessible, entertaining spin on a very complex subject. He uses humor, ingenious analogies and a slew of visual aids to drive home the concepts of climatology - a complex fusion of atmospheric sciences, physical geography, oceanography and biogeochemistry.
He illustrates the difference between weather and climate with the metaphor of a man walking a dog. The canine wanders off both sides of the sidewalk to sniff grass, greet other dogs and strain at his leash to chase squirrels. Likewise, weather represents the dog's short-term excursions - our temperature highs and lows, the amount of rainfall in a single storm - that we experience on a day-to-day basis. Climate, on the other hand, represents the overall journey and path taken by the dog walker.
The same concept helps clarify the difference between meteorology and climatology. Meteorologists look forward, focusing for several weeks at a time on short-term weather systems. But climatologists like Akyüz take a broader view. They study past climate trends for as far back as records are available, observe long-term average weather patterns, determine what human or natural factors might trigger climate shifts and investigate possible future climate trends.
Climatological studies by Akyüz and his predecessors have helped shine light on several significant trends in North Dakota. One is that the state's average annual temperature has risen 2.7 degrees over the last century. While that increase may sound negligible to the average person, it's actually the most dramatic increase found in any state in the nation. Akyüz credits the temperature boost to a complex cascade of events that include greenhouse gases, solar radiation and changes in land characteristics. Because an increase in temperature enables the air to hold more water vapor, the warming trend also has triggered more rain and snow. The state now receives a half inch more precipitation annually than it did 100 years ago.
Akyüz's work can address problems both past and future, large and small. Yet another hat that he wears is as director of the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network Center, a rural grid of 75 automated weather stations. By using climatological data from the network, Akyüz can advise farmers on the best time to apply pesticides to battle widespread problems like root maggot on sugar beets, late potato blight or Fusarium head blight on wheat. In the process, he can help the North Dakota agricultural industry save tens of millions of dollars.
But Akyüz has been asked to shine light on smaller and more personal conundrums such as genealogical questions. Families might approach him with requests to pin down the year that a tornado or blizzard claimed a family member so they could flesh out a more complete family history.
The chill of it all
When Akyüz and his family first arrived in North Dakota in 2007, he says he made quite an entertaining spectacle for his neighbors. Forever the scientist, Akyüz turned the most everyday activities into experiments. He purposely ventured outside in light jackets, simply to determine the least amount of warm clothing required to be comfortable in certain outdoor conditions.
On this particular sub-zero day in early February, Akyüz has wisely stuck to a heavy blue parka. That parka - which is good from 0 to 32-below - has seen a lot of action in a winter defined by Arctic incursions and marrow-freezing cold.
Now as winter hardened as any native Northerner, Akyüz actually bemoans the fact North Dakota doesn't get more snow. When he hears about areas like Wisconsin or the Sierra Nevada mountains in California being buried under hundreds of inches of white stuff, "I get very, very jealous,"he says, grinning.
It's a little surprising that this self-confessed winterphile came from the Mediterranean. He grew up in Tarsus in southern Turkey, a region with summers so sun beaten and hot that asphalt turned to goo. It wasn't until Akyüz was 17 and traveled to the nation's capital of Ankara that he saw snow for the first time.
Smitten by the science and majesty of weather, Akyüz pursued an undergraduate degree in meteorological engineering from Istanbul Technical University. He received his graduate degrees in atmospheric science from the University of Missouri-Columbia and worked in positions ranging from Missouri's state climatologist to climate surface specialist for the National Weather Service. He was headquartered in Kansas City, right in the thick of tornado alley. For a while, Akyüz was a storm chaser, although he never got to witness a full-blown tornado.
When the NDSU opportunity cropped up, Akyüz knew he was moving to a whole new kind of meteorological center. Unlike the Coasts - where the weather is modulated by the huge heat capacity of the oceans next door - the Upper Midwest is much more vulnerable to extreme temperature swings and dramatic precipitation patterns. To wit: North Dakota's all-time low of 60-below (excluding wind chill) and record-breaking high of 121 both occurred in 1936. That difference is the second largest in the world, topped only by a high/low swing reported in Siberia.
Climatologist, meet climbatologist
You might not think rock climbing and climatology have a whole lot in common.
When Akyüz isn't found teaching classes or crunching numbers on regional weather trends, you might find him scrambling up the climbing wall inside the campus fitness center. The 34-foot edifice has been carved and molded to resemble the geology of western North Dakota and its various climbing routes are labeled with names like "The Twist and Shout"and "The Wings of Eagles."Like a methodical spider, Akyüz climbs up the sheer wall, clinging onto whatever footholds, cracks and ridges are within reach.
The activity exerts just about every part of his body, from the muscles in his legs to the tendons in his fingers. But it also strengthens his brain. Akyüz says the problem solving involved in rock climbing rivals what's needed in scientific query. "Everything is physics really,"he says. "Each move is a problem set. You plug the unknown into the next equation until you find your final solution. And whatever you have on hand, you grab. Nature doesn't have rules."
It's funny that Akyüz began rock climbing only after moving to the board-flat Red River Valley. A long-time swimmer, he was looking for another way to supplement his workouts. NDSU plant pathologist Berlin Nelson persuaded him to try climbing, even though Akyüz admits to a long-time fear of heights.
But the vertical sport also taught Akyüz some broader lessons about communication, trust and teamwork. Climbers always rely on a reliable harness secured to a rope held by a "belayer,"or partner. The duo needs to communicate effectively and trust each other implicitly. Akyüz quickly learned that if the equipment was conscientiously checked and the belayer had his back, even rock climbing could be relatively safe. "After a couple of falls while securely tied on the rope, you realize there's nothing to be afraid of,"he says.
Since then, his expertise has advanced to the point where he has successfully scaled the formidable 800-foot-tall Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming. In fact, his wife, Tanya, and children, Evren, 13, and Esena, 11, also have become climbers.
Engage, entertain, educate
It's like a breaker switch.
People's brains shut off immediately when they don't understand science or math. "It isn't that they aren't as smart as others,"Akyüz says. "It's just that they become so overwhelmed by the onslaught of information that they give up. They just think, 'I can't do it,'"he says.
With that in mind, Akyüz uses the same tactics to teach his students as he does to preach the word of meteorology to any other layman. He relies on a variety of media and interactive approaches to keep students engaged.
In a recent class, Akyüz keeps the pace clipping along like a storm chaser in pursuit. He shows a slide of the aurora borealis so dramatic that even these stoic students in a morning class are moved to ooh and aah. He asks questions and calls on students by name, even in an auditorium-sized class. He explains the almost non-existent, four-inch slant of the Red River Valley by holding up a pack of Extra gum.
Down the hall from Akyüz's Walster Hall office, he keeps a whole storage room of props as teaching aids. Inspired by the spinning Lazy Susan-style tables in Chinese restaurants, he designed a flat, metal rendering of the Earth - about four feet across - that rotates like a record. A graduate student intricately painted a map of the Earth on the disk, so that it almost looks like a globe flattened by a steamroller. During lectures, he spins the disk and drops a metal ball on it to demonstrate the Coriolis effect, a force that as a result of the Earth's rotation deflects moving objects (as projectiles or air currents) to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere.
When giving presentations to grade-school students, he will haul out a "tornado"machine - a glass box that almost looks like a theater popcorn machine - then add dry ice and boiling water. Voila: A miniature twister is born. He uses the tornado machine when proselytizing to children on a topic that he's especially passionate about: the importance of wearing bike helmets when preparing for tornadoes. He believes so strongly in this safety measure that he's created a "Tornado Helmet Safety"Facebook page. "The brain is the most precious organ in your body,"he tells students.
And he urges the students in his college courses to stay in touch should they feel lost. It's easy for the brain - that breaker switch - to switch off when pelted with this flurry of physics, physical science and even geometry. After his class, a female student with a streak of blue hair and an oversized backpack approaches him and asks for clarification on how to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit. Akyüz goes to great lengths to explain it to her, sketching on a white board until she digests the formula.
"I love to teach something to students that they've never heard before,"Akyüz says. "If I can help them break a misconception they've carried throughout college, that student will always remember that moment a new idea replaced a misconception. That's exciting."
- TAMMY SWIFT