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Mark Seeley: Climate Change

Mark SeeleyThis is the 14th in a series of interviews that CFANS Dean Allen Levine is conducting with key faculty and staff in the college. He interviewed Professor Mark Seeley from the Department of Soil, Water and Climate on Feb. 12, 2008.

Allen Levine: You’re one of the most well-known voices and faces in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, and probably in the University of Minnesota. Everybody knows Mark Seeley. So how did you end up here at the University?
Mark Seeley: As it turns out, my major adviser at the University of Nebraska, where I got my Ph.D., was a dear friend of Dr. Don Baker, one of our most esteemed faculty members who’s arguably the godfather of climatology here at the University of Minnesota and started the program. When I left Nebraska to take a job as principal scientist at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Minnesota was suffering through the 1976 drought, which was devastating for the western part of the state. When they opened up a new Extension climatology position here at the University, my adviser suggested that his friend, Don, contact me, and I agreed to come up here.

AL: Everybody expects you to know everything about meteorology and climatology; what is really the difference between the two?
MS: They’re both highly numeric, highly quantitative. Meteorology is taking today’s atmospheric conditions, modeling them and extrapolating into the future – being able to forecast the next 24 or 48 hours or the next week using the variety of tools that we use, 99.9 percent of which are computer-based. The climatology side is framing today’s weather in the context of the past, the historical side and looking at the patterns and extremes and interpreting the meanings of those patterns. I’m actually most comfortable as a climatologist, because I’ve had a real love for history for most of my adult life.

AL: So what was your Ph.D. scholarship in? What did you study for your dissertation?
MS: I came out of the hybrid corn industry and had worked for Dekalb ag research in corn breeding. In the early ’70s, we looked at the traits that were stable from year to year in the inbred line that they used for breeding. I was assigned to look at climatological variation and its effect on certain ontogenetic stability characteristics. I gave a paper on that at a meeting in Chicago, and somebody from Nebraska said ‘hey, you ought to come to Nebraska and study agriculture in more detail.’ It took a little convincing to get my wife to move from Illinois to Nebraska, but we did it.

AL: I came out of the medical side of things and never really thought about climatology as being part of agriculture. I thought of it as something that everybody talks about, in a geology and geography sense, yet here we have it in Soil, Water and Climate department.
MS: It took us a while to get there; some of us think that if we keep making progress we’ll get the name changed to “Climate, Water and Soil.” But you’re right, historically the genesis of meteorology and climatology is that historically close association with agriculture. You might recall that in the 19th century, the National Weather Service – back then called the U.S. Weather Bureau – was actually part of the Department of Agriculture.

AL: But now people think of it differently at some level, because it’s affecting them personally in other ways, not just related to their food. They’re saying ‘I could be in a flood zone,’ or ‘I could be affected by fire,’ or whatever; it’s affecting them beyond the agricultural commodities that they’ve historically thought about. There’s a whole new concern about climate.
MS: Some of our most meaningful work has been with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, because weather plays a critical role there not just in terms of road repair and what winter does to our roads. We were awarded a state partnership award for our work in analyzing snow fences and developing a model for snow fences to more effectively mitigate snow blowing across roads. But before we could do that, we had to know a lot about the snow climate in this state.

AL: Everybody’s talking about global climate change. Did you ever have a time in your life when you thought “there’s nothing to this”?
MS: Oh yes, I readily admit that to my audiences. I’m a latecomer to digesting all this science. When you’re out there in the field making measurements, you’re awestruck by the natural variation, especially right here in the mid-continent. Let’s face it, there are few places in the world subject to the degree of natural variation that we are. So you go out and measure these things and it gives you great appreciation for these things. You think “how could we ever decipher significant human-induced signal change out of this background of natural variation?” But I finally began to digest the data, looking at our regional data for example, and seeing that even in the context of our immense natural variation, we have some dramatic and rapid-paced changes in the western Great Lakes region that are unprecedented. They are tied to the human fingerprint, there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it.

AL:  It’s such a politically difficult situation, because for some people it becomes a religious issue, either one way or the other.
MS: That brings up a good point, that’s true for all of us here in the college. When we try to convey messages of science to the public in general, we have to be cognizant that our message resonates with their value system. You don’t just bring science to the table, but the manner in which you represent your discipline – you’ve got to be willing to engage in the value systems. How is it important, how does it relate, and in the case of climate change, for example, how should we be absorbing this message and come together as a community of citizens to address it?

AL: That’s an important point. As a nutritional scientist – everybody eats, everybody has an opinion on what’s good for you – and they base it on their own experience. In weather, every person sees what’s going on with the weather and they tend to judge based on their own experience. That’s what’s hard about science to convey to the public: you can’t make a judgment just based on your own experience. You just don’t know enough.
MS: It’s funny, it’s your own experience that weighs heavily on things that you put in the context of risk assessment. I learned this in the aftermath surveys when we’ve had weather-related disasters in this state. The citizens who suffer the consequences of those events are forever bookmarked emotionally by those events. When they hear “the risk is such and such” of a similar situation, it’s much more frightening to them than someone who hasn’t experienced it.

AL: In your own area of work, what are you really passionate about – you’ve done so much outreach and Extension work over the years, you’ve worked so much with the community. Is there an area where you really feel you have expertise?
MS: Having taken seven years to write the Minnesota Weather Almanac, I do consider myself an expert in Minnesota’s weather history. For the moment, since we’re in the midst of our sesquicentennial year, I’ll be called on to talk about that history a lot and will be involved in several sesquicentennial activities. I’m also quite hyper-sensitive to that issue because my great-great grandfather was a pioneer politician in Minnesota; he was a member of the first Territorial Legislature from 1854 to 1858 and a member of the first state Legislature from 1858 to 1862.

As far as climate change goes, I’m really interested in one aspect of our climate change that’s surfacing in recent data: the character change of our precipitation. The simple message is that more and more of our annual precipitation is coming from thunderstorms. There’s inherent character change because it’s so spatially variable and it infers a degree of stress on the landscape, because more often than not you get too much too fast. Research-wise, I’m really intrigued by this. As you know, we’ve got some new hires in the department, and as a group, the water-vapor signal and the character change in precipitation will be areas we’ll be looking at more intently.

AL: I guess most people don’t think about that, because they hear the average – how much water fell. They don’t think about the rate, the absorption, how much has run off,  what kind of flooding results or how that affects our crops. Average water won’t mean as much to a crop as the way it’s delivered.
MS: Exactly. Averages in general don’t have as much relevance as looking at the range of distribution and what the consequences might be.

AL: So you’re lucky – you’ve had a passion for history and have allowed that to enter into your scholarly activities.
MS: I’m a late-comer to atmospheric science. I was going to be a lawyer. In my mid-20s I became a volunteer observer for the National Weather Service, and lo and behold that triggered a whole new path for me.

AL: We always end these interviews with this question: If you weren’t doing this kind of work, what would you be doing?
MS: Well, I love spending time with my granddaughter — that’s my personal preference. On a professional level, I have embarked on two new book projects and I do enjoy writing. As I look to the future, I think I’ll be doing more writing on a variety of topics.

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