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When the Data Scream, Listen

Climatologist Mark Seeley offers parting advice.

Photo by Rob Levine

Tucked at the end of a hallway in the Soil Science building on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus—which is either charmingly retro or hopelessly antiquated depending on your view—you’ll find the newly emptied office of a local legend. Climatologist Mark Seeley, who for four decades has been one of the U’s best-known professors, officially retired in early February.

Seeley held the job of Extension climatologist and meteorologist during a time when discussing the weather grew to include a lot more than predicting the next blizzard. “When the climate change issue raised up in the ’90s, it was screaming in the data,” he says, sitting at a library table down the hall from his half-packed office last November. “Time after time after time.” Between 2006 and 2015, “we set 17,000 daily climate records in Minnesota, and 155 all-time state records you can’t find anywhere in history.” He notes a particular day in March 2014 when southern Minnesota faced both tornado and blizzard warnings. “It screams at you that you had better tell your fellow citizens things are changing pretty fast.”

You’d probably recognize Seeley, a weekly guest for two decades on MPR’s Morning Edition with Cathy Wurzer, by his voice. He says people in restaurants catch a whiff of his folksy cadence—which is Minnesotan by way of California—and can’t prevent themselves from trundling over to say hello. At the 25th annual Kuehnast Lecture, which doubled as a retirement fete for Seeley in November at the McNamara Alumni Center, Wurzer described his segments as her show’s most popular. “Minnesotans love the weather,” she said. “Dr. Seeley’s weather segments work because he has that special gift that all the great educators have—he is able to make complicated subjects interesting and accessible.”

Over 40 years, Seeley has set foot in all 87 of Minnesota’s counties, participated in up to 100 meetings per year, and listened to the concerns of everyday people. His specialty has been applying climate data to agricultural production and the management of natural resources. In so doing, he has become a trusted source for climate science, even among those who might typically count themselves as skeptics. He recalls his early mentors—U climatologist Don Baker and state climatologist Earl Kuehnast—telling him, “You don’t want to research the theoretical aspects of isobaric changes in pressure. You want to be practical, focus on something people can use.”

Seeley was hired by the U in 1978, when the Minnesota Legislature created his position after a drought devastated agriculture across the state. He’d earned a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley, a master’s in meteorology from Northern Illinois University, and a doctorate in climatology from the University of Nebraska. He was working at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, spying on Soviet and Chinese crop health using satellite data, when the U came calling.

“I moved up here during the fifth coldest winter in Minnesota history,” Seeley says. “There were 66 consecutive days when it did not reach the freezing mark.” It’s a memory that shows how Seeley fixes life’s big events in time. Once in Minnesota, he discovered that his ancestors had farmed near Appleton until a drought pushed them west. The fact that weather had so dramatically bent the branches of his family tree inspired him to write, in 2006 and 2015, two editions of the book, Minnesota Weather Almanac.

Seeley has studied the genetic stability of hybrid crops under various climate scenarios, the prevalence of avian pneumovirus, efficient ways of applying crop manure in winter, heat stress on swine, sugar beet fungus, alfalfa winter injury, and how weather intersects with insect invasions, among many subjects. He also helped develop, for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, a winter climate database used to precisely implement “living snow fences,” made of woody shrubs like dogwood and lilac, along highways to reduce plowing, make roads safer, provide wildlife habitat, and give motorists something nice to look at.

According to the DOT’s Dan Gullickson, there are about 100 miles of living snow fence along state maintained highways in Minnesota. He cites a 2012 study that found a 40 percent reduction in severe crashes when the fences were used to protect road curves from wind-driven snow. “It was truly an honor to work with Mark,” he says.

Given that experts like Seeley predict a future filled with tumultuous weather, what is his advice going forward? “Adapt,” he says. Use more alternative energy, but also adjust to meet future weather patterns. That means changing the ways we address natural resources management, treat ailments like mold allergies during lengthening allergy seasons, and build infrastructure—from drinking water systems to bridges to culverts that divert storm runoff.

Toward that end, a statewide climate adaptation partnership Seeley helped launch a decade ago convenes regularly for conferences where attendees share information and practical solutions. “This is not a bunch of academics getting together to talk about theories and studies,” Seeley says. “More often than not, you get the manager of public works in Brainerd or of a watershed district in western Minnesota.”

It’s crucial, he says, “to build the notion of climate adaptation from the ground up. Building it from the top down, from politicians, doesn’t seem to be working. That is where I see my hope for the future.”

Jennifer Vogel is the editor of Minnesota Alumni.

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