Forecasting Change for Minnesota

Minnesota’s leading climatologist on big changes—in the weather and our culture.

Mark Seeley has been a climatologist/meteorologist at the University of Minnesota Extension for 37 years. He is currently working on a major revision of his Minnesota Weather Almanac and gearing up for Minnesota 2015: Democracy in a Sustainable Future, a conference in which dozens of former world leaders will convene to discuss climate change in the run-up to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. In the short term, while he personally isn’t yet drawing conclusions, he notes that some colleagues in his field propose that last winter’s extremity might be related to melting ice in the Arctic. What we called the polar vortex could well be coming our way again. 

“I was basically a jock in college. I went to UC Berkeley for football and track and field in the 1960s. I tried chemical engineering first, then I switched to political science. After I taught in Service to America in Utah—basically a domestic Peace Corps—I became a volunteer weather observer and went back to college in meteorology. I always say it’s OK to take a do-over, which my college career ended up being.”

“I found weather totally infatuating. I ended up joining the PhD program in climate science at the University of Nebraska. When I finished, the only job available was at the Johnson Space Center. It was basically spying, looking at satellite images of Russia and China and our trading partners to see which countries were going to fall short in their agricultural production and therefore would be coming to us for wheat trade.”

“After the drought of 1976 and its effect on the state economy, the University of Minnesota created a position for a climate scientist to work at the Extension. I’ve been the only one to hold it since it was created.”

“The change in our climate has continued to be rapid. We’ve set so many thousands of records, and we occupy a region of the North American continent that is seeing the most change. If you compare us in terms of temperature and precipitation to other regions, the argument can be made that some of the greater changes are happening in the Minnesota landscape than anywhere else.”

“Every place in the state is warmer overall than it has been since measurements started in 1807. Most places in our region are wetter than they have been in the past, but superimposed on that trend is a change in variability. Think of it like walking a dog on a leash—you get from one point to the next, but the dog wanders in either direction, and that’s the variability in wetness and temperature. We were walking the dog on an eight-foot leash, but today that leash is more like 12 [in terms of variability].”

“We find ourselves defending our discipline more—not just climate science but simply defending science. It’s because the accelerated pace of knowledge is overwhelming to people, and new knowledge challenges some of our basic tenets: our religion, our freedom, our democracy, our understanding of capitalism. Integrating knowledge is a challenge, and it’s threatening to a lot of us who want to maintain the status quo.”

“In my lifetime, all the role models were older people. I don’t know how much longer that’s going to work. The younger generation today is coming along and showing us how to think about things such as waste generation, recycling, transportation alternatives, food production, social issues—it’s almost like reverse role modeling. That gives me optimism. Climate change is going to have a high impact on our society and is going to challenge us in so many ways and show that many of our systems are not sustainable. But we have the brainpower to tackle this. We just need to get going in the right direction.”