Hot Enough For Ya?

Back when no one believed in global climate change, local meteorologist Bruce Watson sounded the alarm. Now that everybody's predicting disaster, he's bucking the trend again.

On what is, fittingly enough, an unseasonably mild November day, Bruce Watson is scurrying up the steps to the second floor of the Minneapolis Convention Center, where a global-warming conference is under way. He has arrived late, owing to an automobile mishap, and looks a little out of breath. A short, stout, hobbitlike man with a spectacularly unruly mop of hair, he juggles an unwieldy armload of materials he plans to distribute--bright yellow photocopies of his list of notable local weather phenomena, and sample copies of the Minnesota Weatherguide, the climate-fact-filled calendar he co-authors.

Weather has been Watson's chief obsession for most of his 67 years. He has been studying it, speculating about it, tracing its patterns through historical documents. His meticulous, relentless accumulation of data has, in the words of assistant state climatologist Greg Spoden, earned him a reputation "the guru of Minnesota weather."

Most meteorologists work for the government, a university, or a media outlet. Watson is a freelancer, independent and proud of it. Maybe that's why he looks a little out of place at this conference populated by institutional insiders--politicians, bureaucrats, environmentalists, energy-industry execs. Dressed in a rumpled sweatshirt emblazoned with a howling-wolf-in-winter scene, he stands out among the pressed, the pleated, the tasseled.

As the conference's keynote speaker assumes the dais, Watson helps himself to a hearty portion of the lunch buffet, takes a seat and casts a pair of eager eyes toward the front of the room. Rod Sando, the former head of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, has come to offer his observations about the effects of human-induced climate change on the state. It's boilerplate stuff for the most part, data and conclusions that have become familiar in recent years: In the course of the past century, Sando notes, Minnesota's average temperatures have steadily risen, for a total increase of nearly one degree, and some of the effects are already apparent. The possum, the gray fox, and the common raccoon have expanded their range into the far northern reaches of the state. Moose on Isle Royale have been perishing from heat stroke. And milder winters seem to have allowed some blights--including Dutch elm disease--to spread to areas previously believed impervious.

"These kinds of surprises could become the rule of the day," Sando concludes, noting that the next century may see temperatures increase by as many as five degrees. "The debate [about global warming] has shifted from 'Is it real?', to 'What will the effects be?'" Watson nods approvingly at all this.

Then Sando passes on an additional caveat. The weather in the state, he says, seems to have become more severe, more violent. He cites the floods that struck the Twin Cities in the summer of '93, the bigger ones that hit the Red River Valley in '97, the massive tornado that flattened St. Peter last year. Finally, he recalls the enormous windstorm that obliterated vast swaths of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area this summer.

Watson pushes aside his plate and his craggy face lights up like a Christmas tree. "No, no, I can't agree with that at all. He's not looking at what happened in the past," he says, perhaps a little louder than necessary. He tends to blurt out his observations in short bursts, occasionally stuttering with excitement. There is very little about climate that doesn't excite Watson.

"You know, it's a very recent thing for people to cite severe weather as a greenhouse effect," he explains later. "They have done nothing to show the weather is more severe than it was 100 years ago or 200 years ago. Nothing. Nobody has studied the weather of the Twin Cities more than I have, and I can't see that there's been any discernible increase in severe [storms]."

The belief that Minnesota is in for a smiting from the weather gods has become something of a mantra in climate circles, as well as a favorite tease on the TV news every time a hurricane brushes up against the East Coast. It seems logical enough. Greenhouse gases--chiefly carbon dioxide, released into the atmosphere via the burning of fossil fuels like oil and gas--trap heat from the sun. Since many extreme weather events occur when hot air mixes with cooler air, the argument goes, a warmer globe will spawn more violent weather.

Watson doesn't dispute the existence of the greenhouse effect; in fact, he's been on the global-warming bandwagon for more than three decades. But, he insists, the claim that the phenomenon is to blame for recent climatic havoc in Minnesota is just not supported by "the data." And if there's one thing Watson cares about, it's the data--current orthodoxies be damned.

 

Dubbed "The Heat Is On," the November 16 conference was sponsored by the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, along with an array of environmental and industry groups. It was a practical affair, replete with seminars on strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions--improving the heating and cooling of public buildings, creating new transit options, expanding the use of renewable energy, and so on. There was even a session on the prospect of a carbon dioxide "credit trading" program among municipalities, a plan that would provide financial rewards to cities that act to reduce emissions. (Minneapolis and St. Paul, both of which have embarked on various carbon dioxide-reduction programs, are already compiling records with an eye toward participating in a future federal registry.)

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