Conversation with Dr. John Knox

Conversation with Dr. John Knox – Interview Performed by Shannon Walsh

            Dr. John Knox is a professor at the University of Georgia and meteorologist who studies clear-air turbulence. In 2012 Dr. Knox was named in Princeton Review’s “Best 300 Professors” list, and received the honor of Georgia Professor of the Year in 2014. He has been teaching and advising students (both graduate and undergraduate) at the University of Georgia for about 17 years, in addition to his ongoing research.  

Can you provide a short bio for me? Where did you get your degree? How long have you been in this profession? Etc.

Sure. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and I did my undergraduate work at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB, not to be confused with the Tuscaloosa school, that really is just about football) and I did my degree in mathematics. Then I went on and did a PHD in atmospheric sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Then I was a post-doc at Columbia University in New York City, and then I taught at Valparaiso University for a couple of years in Indiana, and then we came here and I’ve been here for almost 17 years.

What inspired you to study weather and climate?

I was in a severe thunderstorm at a baseball game when I was four years old, the next year when I was five my Aunt gave me a book on weather and I told my befuddled family that I would be a meteorologist… and it really happened. What’s funny is there’s a lot of meteorologists that have that story, of being affected by weather when they were young and then deciding early. So when you go to orientation… [and ask] “so how many people are undecided?” most people raise their hands, and there will be two or three people who will be like, “atmospheric sciences,” and you can tell they decided a long time ago, there’s no doubt.

Can you explain a bit about what you’re currently studying in your research or field work?

Yeah, one of my areas is called “clear air forecasting,” so I try to make airplane flights less bumpy. And I’ve been working on that for about 20 years, off and on in different projects, and we just continue to come up with and refine techniques that are used by aviation forecasters to help planes avoid bumpy air.

Have you had the opportunity to travel during your research?

Not as much as some people. I go to conferences, but I don’t do like, field work in the same way.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Teaching students. I like teaching more than research. In fact, in my position I’m in a teaching intensive position, which means I’m kind of like 55/45, more teaching than research.

So are you a full time professor every semester?

I kind of do everything all the time. So I teach 5 courses a year which is more than the load in this department, which is normally 4 a year (which is more than the load in a lot of other departments), and I also advise all of the undergrads in the atmospheric sciences program, and I do research, and I advise 3 graduate students right now.

What has been your personal favorite experience with nature? (It could be through your work or otherwise.)

That’s an interesting one to ask; I don’t have a set answer for it. When we were less busy and in grad school my wife and I would go and if it was a good sunset we would drive and see it…. Oh I’ll give you one other answer. When we were on vacation- right after I got this job is 2008- we were in Atlanta to go see the SEC basketball tournament with my brother who’s a sports journalist, and instead what we did was we watched the tornado hit Atlanta. We were at the window watching the powerlines snap! We were in a high-rise hotel; we had a perfect view. That was… highly unlikely, and quite amazing.

Do you consider yourself an environmental activist?

No. No, I have a different approach. I want to tell people the truth and I want them to believe it- about the atmosphere, the environment. I’m not a policy expert. People that know policy need to be able to take the knowledge and translate that into action that will take care of things. If I am a policy person at the same time I’m trying to tell you the science, you don’t know if I’m spinning it or not. I don’t want to spin it. Now not everybody in my field agrees with this… I gave a talk down in Tampa about this and I gave this answer, and I have a former gubernatorial candidate from Florida… who said to me “you know you really need to do more activism stuff.” But I just think I lose credibility if I do that.

So something that we were talking about in class is the influx of hurricanes lately, and if that has to do with global warming or human effects. What are your thoughts?

It might. Again, to state that as a scientist is a pretty high bar. We would have to do what are known as attribution studies. The word comes from, can we attribute weather phenomenon x to climate change? And sometimes the answer is yes; we can simulate it and show that in the absence of warming it wouldn’t have happened or it would have been weaker… and other times, no. You run the simulations and it’s like, we can’t prove that it was affected by it. And it’s not always obvious which ones… If I gave you a list of ten events and had you pick the six, we’ll say, that were affected by climate change, you might not pick those six. It’s not always obvious. So again, there’s a who science of this called attribution science (attribution studies) that grinds through it.

So I can only give you my hunches. I think the number of storms we’ve had… maybe. The number and intensity- because all these storms have gone to major hurricane 6- when they do the studies, that’s where I think there’s more of a chance that they’ll be able to say that without the oceans being warmed more… all they could say is it’s highly unlikely that in a non-warmed… it’s all about probability. And the way we explain this in our field is baseball. Baseball and steroids. Any one homerun that Barry Bonds hit, could you prove that it was steroids? No, he’s a great homerun hitter anyway. But when he hit like 73 in a year? Then in becomes statistically unlikely that would have happened without being on drugs. So, essentially our climate system is on drugs; it’s called too much fossil fuel burning and too much greenhouse gas. And so did one storm get juiced because of that? Hard to prove. How about an entire season’s worth? … Now it’s becoming more possible to prove. But you still have to do the research.

Ok I’ll end with this question. During the last hurricane when we were all stuck in our houses, what were you doing? Were you interested in studying it?

Irma? We were in the basement because we have a lot of tall trees and my wife have already planned for this- she’s a climatologist so she knows her stuff- and so she had already planned a day in advance for us to be in the basement so that if trees hit the house we would not be affected. She had flashlights out… so she was set 12-24 hours in advance. I got home just as the winds were really cranking up that day because I did a radio interview with Georgia Public Radio to let people know where the weather stood, and then I hightailed it home before the winds got too bad. We hid out in the basement and our power flickered about a dozen times, I mean really flickered, but it never went out. And we fortunately didn’t lose any trees onto our house or otherwise.

So we paid careful attention to it, were paying attention to how strong the winds were- they were almost exactly what we thought they’d be- and we were ready for it in case it was worse than expected whereas a lot of other people didn’t seem to know what we knew; there were definitely going to be power outages. About half of Clarke County lost power, but people were like “how could this happen?” We’re like “well when you have winds that gust over 50 mph, trees blow down, and power goes out. What part of this were we not communicating to you? But people still seemed to be shocked. It was really almost exactly as forecasted.

Dr. Knox’s office is in the Geography/Geology building on UGA’s campus.


A penguin statue found in Dr. Knox’s office, looking out the window.

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