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.

Watson says he never suffered adverse health consequences from the incident, nor did he or any of his fellow soldiers complain. "We thought it was our fault, so we just kept our mouths shut."

After his two-year tour of duty, Watson bounced around the meteorology universe, job-hopping as a civilian employee of both the army and the navy and working for various defense contractors from RCA to General Electric to, finally, Honeywell. But he had always harbored a wish to live like "royal society" English noblemen, who pursued scientific enthusiasms without the constraints of employment or supervision.

By 1969 he had struck out on his own, working as a consultant and building a client base that came to include entities from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to Le Bulletin de l'Agriculteur, a Quebec-based farming publication. (Though he never took any French in school, Watson says he has "good weather French"--adequate for forecasts in Le Bulletin. He has also taught himself a smattering of German, Spanish, Dutch, and Russian).

Jeff Tolbert

Over the years Watson has become a fixture in local climate circles. He speaks at senior centers, schools, and universities; appears occasionally on public television; and is quoted regularly as an expert source by the dailies. In addition, he's always working on the Weatherguide, published in conjunction with WCCO Radio and the Freshwater Foundation since 1976. It's a glossy, full-color wall calendar filled with climate information and brief essays on phenology (the study of climate's relation to the natural world). He also works occasionally as an expert witness, typically in insurance cases with an "act of God" climate angle. But, he acknowledges, the paying gigs are just a way to further his own goal--to delve further and further into the mysteries of weather.

 

Most of Watson's voluminous data are collected in his back yard, where a standard-issue weather-observation box sits on four-foot stilts amid scattered garden plots and a pair of rain gauges. The box is about the size of a big television, with wooden louvers on all sides that allow air to circulate freely.

"The secret to making a shelter last is to put refrigerator paint on it," Watson says by way of an aside, as he pops open the door to reveal a surprisingly low-tech set of instruments: several glass and mercury thermometers, a humidity gauge, and a simple gizmo that creates a continuous chart of measurements along a time line.

Watson owns a digital thermometer as well--the type now favored by the U.S. Weather Bureau. But he doesn't care much for the technology, insisting that the old-style mercury instruments are more accurate. The base on the glass tube, he explains, has a greater surface area than the exposed wire on the electronic thermometer, and thus is less susceptible to minor fluctuations in temperature. Besides, he adds, it's just a better data-collecting practice to stick with the old method. In science, he insists, "you've got to go to first principles."

Watson has been monitoring Twin Cities climate closely since 1966, recording some 100 data points daily. There are the basics--high, low, and mean temperatures, precipitation, dew figures, and the like. And then there is the arcane--observations about cloud types and the way pavement reacts to the prevailing conditions, along with a category called "beautiful event of the day" and filled with scribbled observations on everything from "pencil-like contrails" and "evening fog" to a grandkid's cold and a dinner outing.

As anyone who has had a barbecue rained out knows, weather forecasting is a tricky business, full of uncertainties, variables, and just plain chaos. Even with sophisticated equipment, forecasters have trouble predicting what will happen next week, let alone next year or next century. Which is why most of Watson's work is based on the study of past events. That's where the data are. That's where the patterns can be found.

Patterns are a favorite with Watson: Spotting them, he says, is the art at the core of his chosen science. An avid Packers fan, he chooses a sports metaphor to elaborate. "When Brett Favre drops back in the pocket and looks downfield, he can see the pattern developing.

"I remember back in 1977, in February, the Strib called me after we had a big storm. I said, 'I expect this is going to break the weather pattern we've had for some years, and we're going to go into a new regime.' And that's exactly what happened. It was just like a quarterback, seeing somebody open in the end zone. I didn't do a study, I just saw the change."

Among his greatest accomplishments in pattern recognition, Watson counts the identification, in the early Seventies, of a shift in Minnesota's climate that caused December to supplant February as the second-coldest month of the year. The warmup--a product of more dominant Pacific winds--usually commenced around January 20, just as the Leinenkugel Brewery traditionally began its sale of bock beer, and ended in April as the last bottles disappeared from the shelves. Watson dubbed the trend "the bock-beer warmup."

The finding confirmed a suspicion Watson had harbored for a while. Having been among the organizers of Minnesota's first Earth Day celebration in 1970, he had become convinced that greenhouse gases were changing the climate. "I used [the concept] in my speeches all the time," he recalls, "and hardly anyone had heard of it. Some people were insulted when I said this was a bigger problem than acid rain."

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