By STEVEN NALLEY
On Monday, Charles Wax ended a 33-year-old tradition.
When Wax founded Mississippi State University’s meteorology program, he said he saw a glaring need for television weather forecasters to be better informed about weather. Today, Wax said he estimates about 60-70 percent of all television weather forecasters in the U.S. come from MSU, and students routinely win the National Collegiate Weather Forecasting Contest. When Wax travels, he says he routinely sees his former students giving weather forecasts, and thanks to the program’s strong distance learning contingent, he has received thanks for his taped lectures from people he has never met before.
In all these years, Wax said he has never been far from where meteorology began at MSU.
“I introduced the first weather course at MSU (Introduction to Meteorology) in 1979, and I have taught that course every year since then without interruption,” Wax said. “I just finished the last class for that course at 10 a.m. (Monday) morning. When I think about the growth of the program over the years, I am overcome. I certainly did not create the program by myself; many others contributed to its development and growth.”
MSU will hold a retirement ceremony for Wax Monday from 2-4 p.m. in the Mitchell Memorial Library’s John Grisham Room, celebrating Wax’s career as a professor, geosciences department head, state climatologist for Mississippi and more.
MSU geosciences postdoctoral associate Robert Thornton said the ceremony is free and open to the public, with Wax’s family and several friends and colleagues already planning to attend. He said Wax served as state climatologist from 1983 to spring 2012, and he still received a request from Delaware recently to comment on Hurricane Sandy’s effects.
“Dr. Wax has brought national attention to the state of Mississippi in the years he served as state climatologist,” Thornton said. “During his career, Dr. Wax has compiled climate data statistics for Mississippi, spoken to local civic groups, co-authored a book, coined the term “feast or famine” to describe Mississippi’s climate, answered climate data requests and performed agriculturally-related water research.”
Wax has also presented at several national conferences, where Thornton said he is popular for his use of humor. As one of Wax’s former students, he said he can attest to Wax’s sense of humor being a valuable asset in the classroom as well
“He enjoyed using the word ‘perspective’ and used it quite often in his lectures. He ... used humor very well in the classroom, by either having a joke to begin class or several PowerPoint slides with humorous content,” Thornton said. “Dr. Wax also knew his subject matter and was passionate about it. He could take difficult concepts and make them understandable for students. In addition, he cared very much for his students, and his door was always open for those who needed to talk about grades or life’s issues.”
MSU Provost Jerry Gilbert said Wax also helped guide the geosciences department toward becoming a leading producer of meteorologists as geosciences department head in the 1990s. He has known Wax for nearly 25 years, he said, and when Gilbert was head of MSU’s agricultural and biological engineering department, Wax worked closely with Gilbert’s faculty and staff.
“I have very fond memories of those early years in (agricultural and biological) engineering when Charlie was around,” Gilbert said. “As state climatologist, he has interfaced on the state and national level with other climatologists in coordinating climate data for the state of Mississippi. During his career, he served as president of the American Association of State Climatologists, and this and other honors brought national recognition to MSU. Charlie Wax has left his mark on MSU, and we will miss him.”
Wax said the decision to retire has been 12 years in the making, because he divides his career into three trimesters. After 12 years as a professor and 12 years as a department head, he said he decided early to spend 12 more years as a professor before retiring.
“I enjoyed each of the three periods, but the last 12 years have been the best,” Wax said. “I came here as the youngest person in the department; now I’ve been the oldest person in the department for many years.”
Before developing an interest in climatology, Wax said he got an undergraduate degree in political science, went into military service, got a master’s degree in geomorphology and finally switched to climatology for his Ph.D. In the many years since, Wax said he has seen computer technology bring about massive changes in climatology. Where there were once papers, pencils and hand-held calculators, he said, there are now personal computers for climate data distribution and supercomputers for weather modeling.
“People tend to think that this has increased the “exactness” of climate science, that the discipline is more precise or accurate now. I think maybe the opposite is true in some cases,” Wax said. “With all the new capability for analysis, we are seeing things we did not see before, and it is widely held that all these things are new. That’s not necessarily the case. Things that seem to be ‘unprecedented’ in weather and climate today may be just the result of better detection with new technology.”
Wax said he believes global warming is an example; he has been skeptical about the topic since it arose in the 1980s and remains skeptical about its causes. He said it is not known for certain that climate change caused by humans is a threat to Earth’s continued habitation, despite frequent media coverage.
“There is a much larger population in all areas of the Earth today, and there is much more economic development and infrastructure everywhere today,” Wax said. “Therefore, when a severe weather event such a flood, a drought, a blizzard, a hurricane or a tornado outbreak occurs, the resulting impact to society is much greater than it used to be. This is a fact, and it needs to be included in all discussions of climate change.”
Wax said he hopes to impress upon the next generation of meteorologists the need to properly interpret weather measurements and analysis. Just as he has seen new information come to light in his years as a meteorologist, he said he expects the next generation to face more information about the atmosphere than ever.
“That new information is a great resource for developing good stewardship and management strategies for sustaining our lifestyles,” Wax said. “I am an applied climatologist who has spent many years in research relating to conservation of water resources. As such, I am very excited to see what new methods will be invented to use increasing knowledge about the atmosphere to help us be better stewards of our natural resources.”