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Tennessee Climate Office established at ETSU

JOHNSON CITY — After several years of careful planning, the Climate Office for the state of Tennessee has been officially recognized at East Tennessee State University by the American Association of State Climatologists (AASC).
The Tennessee Climate Office (TCO) at ETSU has been fulfilling the basic responsibilities of a state climate office since its establishment in 2016, providing climate data services to state agencies, researchers and citizens and studying the impact of drought, extreme rainfall, severe storms and other hazards. An earlier state climate office had operated under the direction of the Tennessee Valley Authority but ceased operations in 2006. 
The TCO at ETSU is led by Dr. Andrew Joyner and Wil Tollefson, state climatologist and assistant state climatologist, respectively. Joyner is an associate professor and Tollefson is a lecturer in the Department of Geosciences in ETSU’s College of Arts and Sciences.
“Andrew and Wil have actively worked for the past five years to drive the vital plan to build the TCO at ETSU, and now it is established and received official recognition,” said Dr. Arpita Nandi, chair of the Department of Geosciences. “It is a significant accomplishment and a point of pride for our department, college and the university.”
The TCO is involved in research that enhances its capabilities to provide public service. It gives undergraduate and graduate students from ETSU and other universities across the state opportunities to participate in research and extension activities.
To meet the needs of the entire state, the TCO has formed partnerships with climate data representatives at universities in each region of the state, including the University of Tennessee-Martin, the UT Institute of Agriculture, UT-Knoxville, the University of Memphis and Vanderbilt University.
“ETSU is the ideal university to host the state Climate Office and coordinate this partnership,” Joyner said. “This is because of the university’s commitment to public service. The main goal of a state climate office is based on public service, centered on providing useful and applicable climate data and products to state and federal agencies, researchers, farmers and others.
Joyner explained that while most state climate offices are located at state flagship or agricultural schools or state agencies, two of Tennessee’s neighboring states – Kentucky and Alabama – have regional public universities that host state climate offices. He points to the Kentucky Climate Center at Western Kentucky University and its climate observation network, known as a “mesonet,” as one of the best in the country, and it is that office on which he and Tollefson are working to model the TCO at ETSU.
Joyner knew Tennessee was one of only two states in the nation (the other being Massachusetts) that did not have an acting or official state climate office when he was hired by ETSU in August 2013 after earning his Ph.D. at Louisiana State University that spring. Seeing an opportunity, he convinced Tollefson, whom he knew from LSU, to come to ETSU as an adjunct faculty member the following year, and the two set to work.
“We knew how important this type of office is, and the lack of an office meant that there was no clear and easy way to get to sources of reliable climate data,” Joyner said. “In 2015, we began to develop our idea for a state climate office, and in 2016, we launched the Tennessee Climate Office, which has served as the acting state climate office since then.”
In the years since, Joyner and Tollefson have used a “build it and they will come” mentality, following the advice of ETSU legislative liaison Bridget Baird. In doing so, they have provided weekly input to the U.S. Drought Monitor and monthly climate summaries to National Weather Service (NWS) offices that serve Tennessee, including those in Morristown, Nashville, Memphis and Huntsville, Alabama. They have also developed such products as climate risk assessments for state- and county-level hazard mitigation plans that are required by FEMA for certain types of post-disaster funding and a wind speed map for West Tennessee. In addition, they have collaborated on various climate-related research projects throughout the state.
“This approach has allowed us an opportunity to build our capacity and network, showing many people across the state why having a state climate office is important,” Joyner said. “In July 2018, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation became interested in our efforts and reached out to us to help pursue official designation.”
This process included gathering letters of support from not only TDEC, but also the TCO’s partner institutions, the NWS offices serving the state, and the Southern Regional Climate Center at LSU, where both Joyner and Tollefson worked as graduate students.
This support led to a Tennessee Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) report on resilience capacity in Tennessee that recognized the TCO as providing the services of a state climate office. The TACIR report was the catalyst for requesting official state climate office recognition from NOAA and the AASC. In early December 2020, the AASC wrote a letter of recognition that was delivered to the ETSU administration, and a letter of response from the university administration, including ETSU President Brian Noland, completed the recognition process.
“One other interesting thing that makes ETSU a really good fit for the state climate office,” Joyner says, “is that with our official recognition, we are now easily the closest state climate office to the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information and AASC headquarters, which is in Asheville, North Carolina. This has allowed us to meet with and collaborate with the national/federal group there more often than all other state climate offices. Our proximity to Asheville has already provided several student research opportunities that otherwise would not have been possible.
“Our next goals are to pursue state-level support, develop collaborative grants, and eventually build a statewide mesonet, in addition to continuing our weekly drought input, monthly climate summaries, climate risk assessments, climate products, and Tennessee-specific climate research. We think there may be opportunities to incorporate the goals of the TCO into university-wide curriculum and program goals, as well.”
For more information, visit the TCO website at etsu.edu/cas/geosciences/tn-climate/ or email tnclimate@etsu.edu.