About three or four times each week, Mary Knapp, 64, makes the just under a mile roundtrip trek from her K-State office to a weather station north of Call Hall — rain, shine or snow.
And Knapp would know about the elements, since she makes that trip as part of her duties as the assistant state climatologist for Kansas.
In her position at the university, Knapp says she handles a wide variety of weather-related tasks, including collecting, archiving and making available weather and climate data for state and federal agencies. The weather data collection — which is still done manually at some of the state network’s stations, including the one on campus — is a K-State tradition that dates back to 1857 with Isaac Goodnow’s early efforts, and it’s one that Knapp prides herself in continuing.
“It’s a very, very long record,” Knapp said. “For most of the early part of the record, individuals were responsible for the observations, but K-State — before it was a university and it was still just a college — took on the responsibility as an institution, and we’ve kept up the work.”
Her inclination toward documenting was evident back in high school, when her adviser suggested that history was one of her talents. But she didn’t want to do history, so she graduated from K-State with an agronomy degree. After that, she spent a few years in the Peace Corps as a rice extension agent in the Dominican Republic, working to identify suitable rice growing techniques and qualities for the region.
After that, she returned to K-State as an entomologist researcher, making her way to the computer information systems department in K-State’s extension division and worked with then-state climatologist Dean Bark. In the almost 40 years Knapp has worked at K-State, she said she’s loved the small-town setting in the Flint Hills.
“It’s a small town with all of the amenities of a big town, and I like having all four seasons,” Knapp said.
Other parts of her job include responding to requests for data, which “run the gamut” from the mundane to the unusual. Oftentimes, the requests are for agricultural data to help document crop and animal performance, and crop suitability conditions. Municipalities will also ask for data on historical flooding, and businesses will ask for heat histories to figure out their heating and cooling system needs.
But the more interesting requests have a personal touch. One time, Knapp said she helped someone corroborate some ancestral history.
“Someone was doing genealogy search, and there were reports that a great-great-great-great-ancestor had died crossing the plains in the 1800s, and they wanted to verify what the weather was like during their reported time of their crossing the plains, to refute or substantiate those reports, essentially,” Knapp said.
“There were actually some severe winter storms during that time period that would have validated the possibility that he had died in a winter storm crossing the plains.”
At K-State, Knapp doesn’t have any formal teaching responsibilities, but she frequently guest lectures in classes, and throughout the community, she gives presentations on the weather as part of the university’s extension component. She said the most rewarding part of the job is being able to answer people’s questions.
“It’s just having that information available and getting it out of the dusty archives and into the hands of someone who wants to use it,” Knapp said.
And as much as the weather changes, Knapp stays consistently busy with the job.
“The change in seasons just means what people are looking for changes,” Knapp said. “There’s not really a quiet season. There’s always somebody who’s looking for something.”
Tornadoes are a big point of discussion, especially with people moving into the state or living in the area temporarily.
Knapp said given Kansas’ location in tornado alley, those people are sometimes a bit scared of the weather. Even though Kansas gets its fair share of tornadoes, the state doesn’t even rank in the top 10 for tornado fatalities.
Knapp said she leaves the storm chasing to her colleagues, as her preference is to document.
“If you want to know how many tornadoes fell in a certain month, time period, or in a county, any of those things I can come up with statistics, but I’m not going to go looking for them,” Knapp said.