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.

If nothing else, the gathering demonstrated that the concept of global warming has become mainstream--very nearly routine. So routine, in fact, that save for an op-ed piece by Sando in the Star Tribune, the conference received scant media attention. Unlike many similar events held nationwide since global warming first began making headlines in the late 1980s, the conclave didn't focus on whether or not greenhouse gases cause global warming. That, says J. Drake Hamilton of the advocacy group Minnesotans for an Energy Efficient Economy (ME3), was a given.

"I talked to people in other cities," Hamilton notes, "and they said, 'How did you get beyond the debate?' Well, the debate may be alive in the minds of certain utilities. But in the scientific community, there is no debate." WCCO-TV meteorologist Paul Douglas--a self-described middle-of-the-road type--told attendees that given current weather trends, the world is either experiencing the consequences of greenhouse warming or "the mother of all coincidences."

Not so long ago, the greenhouse effect was hotly contested in the halls of both industry and government, with proponents often lambasted as alarmists. Yet mounting evidence over the past decade has made converts of most skeptics. After all, according to climate reconstructions, 1997 was North America's warmest of the millennium; in Minnesota, this November was the warmest on record, with temperatures running a little more than nine degrees above average.

So what exactly does this mean? There is no shortage of scenarios. Among the most nightmarish is the theory that a period of greenhouse-induced warming could significantly alter ocean currents. By a complex mechanism, it is thought, this could lead to a colossal weather "flip-flop" that would then usher in a new ice age--possibly jeopardizing agriculture in much of the Northern Hemisphere, transforming Western Europe into a new Siberia, and generally wreaking havoc with many of the world's population centers. The theory, first widely publicized in a 1998 Atlantic Monthly article, is similar to one developed earlier by R.G. Johnson, a University of Minnesota geologist who postulated that a reduced flow from the Nile River in Egypt, coupled with greenhouse warming, could trigger the development of a "major ice sheet growth in Canada" within 100 years.

So what will it be? Hot or cold? Fast or slow? And why can't anyone just come up with a forecast and get it over with? For an answer--and a glimpse of just how messy, intriguing, paradoxical, and demanding a creature weather really is--look no further than the converted upstairs bedroom in Bruce Watson's Roseville home.

 

The place is a warren. Two computers are set up on a makeshift plywood workstation; a TV nearby is constantly tuned to the local weather radar station, so Watson can keep an eye peeled for interesting developments. Documents, computer discs, books are stacked in precarious piles, the whole ensemble suggesting that some especially violent weather may have recently passed through the room.

"I'm sure all this stuff will find its way into the state climatology office after I croak," Watson says wryly as he burrows about for a copy of his standard weather-reporting form. Bits of pop-culture detritus are strewn about the office: An old Turtles LP. A copy of the Weekly World News. (Though a big fan of the tabloid, Watson allows that he differs with the News' apocalyptic take on global warming.) A not-so-naughty poster of adult-film star Traci Lords. ("I'm a big fan," Watson confides with a toothy smile. "She's just so beautiful.") And, near the desk, an old Sacred Heart of Jesus postcard--a relic from Watson's childhood in Eau Claire, where his mother made a practice of lighting devotional candles during big storms.

Agatha Watson's son was always fascinated by weather, starting with a boyhood during the dust bowl years of the Thirties, when the radio played a song called "It Ain't Going to Rain Anymore." "I thought the song was real," he recalls. "It made a real impression on me. I asked my mother: Is that true? And she said, 'No, it's just a song.'" Watson's father was a traveling salesman who had once worked as a milkman and had been active in union politics. But there were also scientists in the family--including an uncle who taught at the local college--and they encouraged young Bruce's passion. By age 14 he had set up an observation post in the back yard and was putting out his own weather forecasts in a small newsletter, which he passed out at school and on his paper route for what was then the Minneapolis Tribune.

He first profited from his forecasting prowess as a college junior, in 1953. A meteorology major at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, he heard about a promotional contest sponsored by the Peerless Brewing Company, with a prize of $100 for whoever could predict the time and date of the winter's first subzero temperature. Watson pored over the weather records and bet on the early morning hours of January 6. The prize paid a semester's tuition.

After graduating from college, Watson enlisted in the army, figuring he'd be able to acquire "some forecasting experience right off the bat." He got that, and then some. Stationed in Nevada, he was helping to test new weather instrumentation during the last of the open-air nuclear tests: "One day we were supposed to be 14.5 miles from ground zero in a certain direction. Somebody goofed, and we were only about four and a half miles away. The blast knocked us over. The doors got ripped off the jeep. I had dirt in my mouth. We had to drive through the fallout cloud. It was a real disaster."

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