Retiring climatologist Mary Knapp reflects on 40 years with K-State

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Sep. 8—Assistant state climatologist Mary Knapp said her interest in weather and climate sciences was piqued in 1966.

"When the tornado came through Manhattan and then another hit Topeka, I was a kid in Junction City," Knapp said. "I got to see live reports of that Topeka event."

Knapp, who started her career at K-State in 1980, is retiring after four decades with the university. A retirement reception is set from 1 to 4 p.m. Monday at Call Hall.

Knapp began her career growing crops for entomology research at K-State after spending a couple of years in the Peace Corps. In 1991, she succeeded Dean Bark and began taking on climatologist duties.

"It was really nice that the university has recognized the value of a position such as state climatologist," Knapp said. "They did that back in the 1970s, at a time when climate sciences was not really very well supported."

Knapp said her position is an interesting one, as it's split between research and extension. She said she's received some unusual inquiries during her 40 years at K-State.

"I had a call from someone doing genealogical research, and their family notes had said a relative had disappeared in Kansas in the 1800s," Knapp said. "They wanted to check what the weather was during the time of his disappearance, because family lore was, he got caught in a blizzard and died."

Knapp said she looked back on state weather records from the 1800s and confirmed there was a blizzard in southwest Kansas during the time of that person's disappearance.

Knapp said she enjoys atmospheric and climate sciences because "the possibilities are endless."

"It touches on everyone's life," Knapp said. "Whether you're in an urban setting or an agricultural one, everybody is impacted by weather and climate."

Knapp said the advancement of science and technology in just the past 20 years of atmospheric and climate research is also interesting.

"When you think of both computing power and satellite availability of data ... our ability to see the planet and document events on our planet have increased dramatically," Knapp said.

A Junction City native, Knapp graduated from K-State with a degree in agronomy before joining the Peace Corps in the late 1970s. She spent three months training in Costa Rica before moving to the Dominican Republic to work as a rice extension agent. Knapp said she experienced both an earthquake in Costa Rica and a hurricane while in the Dominican.

"With the earthquake, I woke up with my bed bouncing across the room," Knapp said. "This would've been Christmas of 1977. Later that morning, I was on a bus, and it switched lanes without the driver's action because of the aftershocks."

She said the hurricane she experienced was Hurricane David in August 1979, which was a strong enough storm that the National Hurricane Center retired the name "David" for future hurricanes. That storm killed more than 2,000 people and caused $1.5 billion in damage.

"I remember it hit the south side of the island (of the Dominican Republic) near Santiago, and I was on the northeast side," Knapp said. "The winds were in excess of 155 miles per hour when the anemometer broke."

She said she later drove along the east coast of the Dominican and found "chunks of coral that were as big as a bus" that had been picked up from the ocean and carried several miles inland by the force of the hurricane.

"The landscaping looked like a forest fire had gone through, it was burnt by the salt spray from the ocean," Knapp said. "It was pretty remarkable."

Knapp said she enjoys documenting and categorizing weather and climate data but prefers not to seek more adventurous weather events.

"I do not do storm chasing," Knapp said. "That's one advantage of being a climatologist."

Chip Redmond is a storm chaser and network manager for the Kansas Mesonet system of weather monitoring stations. Redmond will be taking on some of Knapp's responsibilities when she leaves the K-State climate office, including communicating atmospheric data to the public.

"She's a whale of a communicator," Redmond said. "One of Mary's greatest talents is taking complicated subjects like this and putting it in a way that people will understand. Whether it's a toddler or someone much wiser, she can put it into a form that just makes sense."

Redmond said the university will hire a new assistant climatologist to fill Knapp's position, while he will work as a meteorologist in the agronomy department along with his Mesonet duties. He said it will be "a changing of the guard" for Kansas climatological studies.

"Mary is a good friend to a lot of people, including us," Redmond said. "Her boots will be filled but having her as a point of contact is going to be important going forward."

Knapp's official "last day" is Sept. 17. She said she's looking forward to traveling more and "adjusting to the more relaxed schedule that a retiree can have."

"I like interacting with the public, and I'll miss that," Knapp said. "Hopefully people embrace the new assistant climatologist when they get that position filled."

Knapp said she's excited for the future of climate studies at K-State.

"We're just beginning to ramp up or further extend our climate classes at the university," Knapp said. "Many of the students (in those classes) are interested in integrating climate information and research into their particular areas of study, whether it's biology or horticulture, agronomy or landscape engineering. ... There's just a whole number of areas where they can integrate that climate component."

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