CHAMPAIGN — Growing up in a central Illinois farming community impressed upon Trent Ford the importance of the soil. And when his family traveled from Roanoke in Woodford County to visit relatives in Texas, he was fascinated by changes in the weather along the way.
Those two interests led to a research-packed career for the geographer who is now the new state climatologist.
“A lot of my research is centered broadly on the influence of the land on the atmosphere and the interactions between those two,” said Ford, who began his job Thursday.
He’s working from Carbondale for a while until he and his wife can sell their home and relocate to Champaign County.
Ford replaces Jim Angel, who retired late last year after 34 years at the Illinois State Water Survey, 21 of those as state climatologist, the official go-to source of science-based weather and climate information for Illinois.
He was chosen from about 20 serious candidates in a nationwide search, according to Kevin O’Brien, director of the Illinois State Water Survey, based in Champaign.
“Trent really rose to the top in this group. He knows how to take science and be able to communicate that with the public. That was a key factor here. At the same time, he has an active research program,” O’Brien said.
“The extra bonus with him is he comes from a farming background. One of our major focuses here in central Illinois is the Farm Bureau and the needs of farmers. It was clear he could understand not only the science but how to develop the communication tools to help farmers do what they need to do,” O’Brien said.
At 30, Ford has already completed three degrees in geography: a bachelor’s from Illinois State in Normal, and a master’s and doctorate from Texas A&M in College Station.
He’s widely published and, since 2015, has been an assistant professor in the department of geography and environmental resources at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale — teaching, researching and working with students pursuing advanced degrees.
He’s looking forward to the broader reach that comes with being the state climatologist, and he’s even up for answering the always scintillating: ‘How much rain did we get yesterday?’
“For this position, I’m replacing my teaching with outreach. I really like that. If I do it properly, I will help somebody who cares about being helped. I’m excited,” he said.
Ford said Angel told him that farmers are the biggest consumers of information from the state climatologist “because their day-to-day decisions are strongly impacted by weather and climate.”
“But there is urban planning, water resource management, environmental issues like water or air pollution. All have climate applications,” Ford said.
Ford gets animated talking about how ground moisture affects life. His research has focused on trying to predict “extremes, the high-impact events: droughts, extreme heat, extreme flooding, cold.”
Although his parents were not farmers — they both worked at Country Financial in Bloomington — Ford had extended family and many friends who were. He was interested not so much in what kind of weather was happening but rather, where it occurred. That sparked his interest in geography and climate.
He chose ISU and Texas A&M because of educators at both places who helped him develop those interests.
At SIU, he landed grants from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for research that he’ll bring with him to the Water Survey.
One of the NOAA grants deals with pulling together information on soil moisture from sensors all over the country into one network.
Currently, there are 1,000 to 2,000 soil moisture monitoring stations nationwide run by different entities, such as NOAA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state level agencies and universities, Ford said.
As a researcher “I have to stitch all these resources together. It’s awful,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is pull these different sources of data together and serve them as one consistent product for drought monitoring.”
The NASA project, he said, involves “using their satellites, which observe soil moisture to understand how soil moisture influences the formation of thunderstorms.”
Lest his work sound overly academic, Ford and a colleague developed a fun seminar at Texas A&M combining sports and climate, designed to get students engaged with faculty members. It was a hit.
“We called it ‘Triple Digits and Two-a-Days.’ We went through different examples of how weather and climate can influence sports ... like how baseballs in Coors Field in Denver would fly farther because of the atmospheric influence,” he said. “We talked about how weather can be taken into account when talking about the economics of sports betting.”
Ford’s move to Champaign County will mark the fourth college community in which he’s lived. That his wife, Molly Giertz Ford, spent her childhood in Mahomet made this area even more attractive to them. The couple have a 17-month-old son and like the idea of being closer to family.
When he’s not immersed in soil moisture and predicting climate extremes, Ford likes to hike, bike, fish and hang out with family. He’s also a big Chicago sports fan, especially of the Bears and White Sox.
“I feel like I can serve the entire Illinois population well because I’m offensive to neither Cardinals nor Cubs fans,” he said.