Retiring state climatologist shares warm memories

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Retiring Nevada state climatologist John James.

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Retiring Nevada state climatologist John James.

CARSON CITY- Retiring state climatologist John James compares Nevada's extraordinary weather with his own struggles with Parkinson's disease. Everything goes along normally until there is an abrupt change for the worse.

After 23 years as Nevada's top weatherman, James recently has seen the weather move toward record-breaking high temperatures and extended periods of drought.

"There has been more extreme, more unusual weather," he said. "We see it right before our eyes. There is no way we can continue to have growth with the kind of weather numbers we are recording. I see Nevada weather dragging along slowly like me, but getting worse in the long run."

As an example, he pointed to temperatures in March. Las Vegas hit a high of 92 degrees, breaking a 70-year record for that month. Eight other Nevada cities set monthly heat records, and California's Death Valley reached 102 degrees, the first time in 100 years that the century mark was topped there before April.

Also, Las Vegas temperatures in 2003 were the warmest in 67 years of record keeping, despite a December snowfall that was the largest in 13 years.

James said he wonders whether the person holding his position 20 years from now will live in a state with enough water to sustain its population.

"Occasionally you will have a good year, but the rainfall in the state is going down in the long term," he said.

James, 72, retires in June after serving as climatologist longer than anyone in Nevada history. A replacement is expected to be named soon. James also spent 33 years as a geography professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. He also has retired from his teaching position.

James was diagnosed three years ago with Parkinson's, a nerve disorder that occasionally causes him to stutter, lose his balance and his legs to shake. Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox have the same incurable disease.

It is a hard knock to take, since he has been an athlete much of his life, playing tackle on the University of Oregon football team and throwing the shot on the track team.

James said he will miss the trips he took into Nevada's hinterlands to check mountaintop rain and snow gauges and chat with the 80 or so volunteers who keep track of daily weather in backyard stations.

Most are ranch women who do the work for free.

Nevada's earliest weather records go back to the 1860s when soldiers at abandoned Fort Churchill, about 35 miles east of Carson City, monitored daily temperatures.

E.B. Kiel kept weather records at his Las Vegas Valley ranch as early as 1895, and former Las Vegas Age publisher Charles "Pop" Squires took readings outside his Fremont Street home for nearly 50 years. Their records are in the state archives.

James said he has noticed a growing interest in people who want to keep weather records and talk about Nevada's heat and the drought.

The state climatologist, who must spend half his time as a UNR geography professor, collects and archives data about Nevada's weather and prepares a monthly weather summary.

He also advises state agencies, farmers, political leaders, businesses interested in locating in Nevada and others about the effects of weather.

James does not give forecasts, although he said most people expect that from him. Still, as a former meteorologist, California cloud-seeding program operator and radio weatherman, he usually obliges.

One winter, he took a job predicting weather for a Lake Tahoe ski resort and forecast 15 of 17 weekends correctly. But he blew the forecast for the traditionally busy President's Day weekend, and the ski operator fired him.

Through his travels over the years, James has discovered what he considers the most beautiful spot in Nevada: Hinkey Summit in the Santa Rosa Mountains, north of Winnemucca. He enjoys the solitude and scenery from the 8,000-foot elevation.

Although pessimistic about the drought, James thinks Las Vegas has no shortage of people willing to pay whatever is necessary for water.

"It's the same with gas," he said. "They aren't cutting back on gas because of high prices, and they will pay whatever it takes for a house with a pool. I have seen nothing that shows me people in Nevada are concerned about water."


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