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 He has been studying it, speculating about it, tracing its patterns through historical documents.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.)

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."

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).

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."

But contrary to popular perceptions, Watson's data suggest that a hotter climate doesn't necessarily mean a return to the parched summers of his childhood. The warming of the Nineties has been concentrated in late winter, specifically in a gradual rise of the nightly low temperature. According to Watson's analysis, since 1971 average February temperatures have risen 3.5 degrees from historic norms dating back to 1820. Meanwhile, the daily maximum temperatures from July through December have not risen appreciably.

This, Watson explains, means that climate change could actually have some positive effects for Minnesotans. Though the bock-beer warmup's most pronounced effects occur in February, it lingers into May, possibly benefitting farmers by adding two weeks to the growing season.

"You can't say this whole thing is bad," Watson concludes with the kind of ambivalence that comes naturally to a weatherman, but doesn't do much for politicians or news types. "We can't even be sure that the global warming hasn't counteracted global cooling. And it would be much worse for us if it got colder. I think what the greenhouse effect really does is just increase uncertainty--and people don't like uncertainty."

 

Lee Frelich has heard Watson make his argument, and while he respects the meteorology behind it, he's not sure he agrees with the conclusion. For more than a decade, the University of Minnesota forest ecologist has been reconstructing the weather history of the Great Lakes through land surveys performed for the federal government between 1850 and 1900.

Because the surveyors were required to note evidence of forest fires and blowdowns, Frelich and his colleagues were able to cobble together evidence of major storms in the last century. Some areas affected were as large as 20,000 acres. But that, Frelich points out, is beans compared to more recent events. Both the so-called Flambeau Blowdown--which occurred in northern Wisconsin in 1977--and this summer's BWCA storm flattened forests on more than half a million acres. "I think we've seen a genuine increase in the frequency of severe storms," Frelich offers, "and I think that it is caused by global warming."

Those storms, in turn, could alter the landscape in much of the state, Frelich continues. "I don't think any trees are going to pack their bags and leave because it gets up to 80 degrees in northern Minnesota in the summer instead of 75. But if this leads to more big storms, that will change the forest quite rapidly." Especially, Frelich adds, if the state becomes drier--a development that, he says, could disrupt the natural succession in forest types.

A couple of years ago, Margaret Davis, a renowned paleo-ecologist at the U, told state legislators that Minnesota may wind up looking "like northern Nebraska"--a largely treeless tract of grassland--by the end of the next century. The conclusion was based on some 40 years of research in which Davis has documented the changing ecology of the upper Midwest by examining pollen sediments in lakes and bogs; among other things, she found that between 8,000 and 5,000 years ago, a dramatic decline in rainfall allowed the prairie to replace forests in much of western Minnesota.

Some of the early global-warming models anticipated a drier climate for much of Minnesota in the next century. More recent studies have suggested there might be more rain, at least in parts of the state. Either way, says Davis, the warming may cause the region's climate swings to become more pronounced, increasing the likelihood of both excessively wet and very dry weather. "I think the aspect of climate change that would cause us the most problems would be an increase in variability," she says. "If there's an increase in drought variability, that would be very bad news for this area."

One thing most researchers agree on is that, as the old saw goes, when it rains, it pours. Warm years often follow warm years. Cool years follow cool years. Scientists have learned that major changes in climate can sometimes occur over relatively short periods of time--and that once in place, a pattern can stay put for centuries. In the mid-1700s, the peak of a 500-year-long "Little Ice Age" brought 40-below temperatures to places like Paris and London. Paintings from the period depict ice skaters on the Thames.

But within any large weather regime there are smaller ones, periods of warming and cooling called Bruckner cycles that can last anywhere from 8 to 35 years. They, too, are part of nature's pattern, Watson says, visible to anyone who cares to look closely. Since 1989, for instance, the Twin Cities have experienced regular January rains. "You get a preponderance of the same kinds of weather, so you see that the weather from one year to the next is not totally random," he explains. "Cycles tend to perpetuate themselves." In Watson's estimation, we are in the midst of a cycle he calls "the little steam age."

 

Because it sits at the center of the North American land mass, Minnesota has always had an especially turbulent and variable climate. Many researchers argue that that makes the state more vulnerable to climate change. But, Watson argues, it is also worth remembering that violent weather was always a part of this landscape--people just didn't pay as much attention. That's why he doesn't entirely trust the conclusions Frelich and others draw from historic evidence: "It's anecdotal. In the olden days, because the land was empty, you didn't have people observing tornadoes. Nowadays, with the built-up country and urban sprawl and radar and satellite, tornadoes don't get missed, so the data is being gathered by two different methods."

The scientist in Watson doesn't care for this departure from first principles. That's why he's particularly fond of "the Farmington data," the product of one of the state's longest-running high-quality weather stations.

These days the Farmington data is collected by retired electrical engineer Jerry Stoeffel, who lives in a rambler on a road named for his in-laws, longtime farmers in what is now an outer-ring south-metro suburb. Since 1888 the Akin family has been faithfully recording the vagaries of the local climate. Stoeffel took over the duties about 14 years ago, after his father-in-law's death.

"Quite frankly, I'm not much of a weather buff," says Stoeffel, who mails his data off to the Weather Bureau once a month. "It's just kind of a community service." Stoeffel also keeps one of Watson's instruments--a hygrothermograph that records temperature and humidity--in his observation box.

The Farmington data have confirmed the bock-beer warmup. But the station is an indicator of another trend: Back in the Sixties, when Stoeffel built his home, the spot was surrounded by open fields. It was that way until the mid-Eighties, when his father-in-law quit farming and sold off. In short order developers covered the land with homes and condos, scattered about as though they'd sprung up from windblown seed.

Watson has noticed the change in his data. Farmington, he points out, is beginning to show signs of the urban heat-island effect, the warming that occurs when concrete and asphalt replace green surfaces. It's evidence of how climate is influenced by human actions in more ways than one: "One of the things everybody always talks about is the floods in the Red River Valley. Well, back in the early days, they didn't have all these dikes along the river. The dikes have channeled the water, so of course you're going to have deeper floods because you're constricting the water to a narrow pipeline. Instead of building levees, people just ought to stay out of the flood plain."

And so, for all his doubts about some of the global-warming disaster scenarios, Watson remains convinced it's a bad idea for humans to mess with something as complex, wily, and ill-understood as the weather. "I think the die is pretty much cast for the 21st Century," he says, noting that human additions of
carbon dioxide to the atmosphere can take more than a century to dissipate. "We're
going to be putting a lot of this stuff in the air for a good, long time. But maybe we can mitigate the effects for the 22nd and 23rd Century." In the meantime, he says, things just might get "a little more pleasant for the average Minnesotan."

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