Farm Progress

The drought of 1976 prompted additional funding for a new climatologist faculty position that attracted the California native to Minnesota.

Paula Mohr, Editor, The Farmer

November 28, 2017

5 Min Read
EXTENSION EDUCATOR: University of Minnesota Extension Climatologist Mark Seeley took his land-grant mission to heart, sharing climate and weather research data with thousands of Minnesotans for four decades. His last official day is Feb. 2.

Mark Seeley was at the Houston Space Center in 1977, working with meteorological satellites to spy on Russia, China and other countries to track their agricultural production for USDA, when the University of Minnesota came calling.

The state’s drought in 1976 prompted the U-M Ag Experiment Station to seek funds for a new Extension climatologist faculty position. The Legislature agreed, and the university reached out to Seeley. The first time he declined, as NASA kept him busy. The university resumed its search, but didn’t find anyone. Six weeks passed and Seeley was contacted again. This time, he said yes to the tenured track position and better benefits than NASA was providing.

“So I blame the drought for the creation of my position and ending my satellite meteorology career,” Seeley says.

After 40 years of Extension service, Seeley will officially retire from U-M on Feb. 2. His last presentation as Extension climatologist is the 2017 Crop Pest Management Short Course and Minnesota Crop Production Retailers Trade Show at the Minneapolis Convention Center on Dec. 13.

“I’ve survived six university presidents, 13 college deans, seven Extension deans and five department heads,” he jokingly noted during his keynote address at the 25th Annual Kuehnast Lecture Nov. 16 at U-M’s McNamara Alumni Center. “You endure change and you go on.”

At the lecture, Seeley gave a presentation encompassing his career, discussing how science and citizenship can unite people. He also was recognized by other speakers for his contributions to the climate science community. Earlier in November, Seeley was presented with Minnesota AgriGrowth Council’s annual Distinguished Service Award at the council’s annual conference.

Pragmatic programs
The heat may have brought him to the North Star State, yet the winter of 1978-79 — the fifth-coldest winter in Minnesota history at the time — is what welcomed Seeley and his wife, Cindy, to the north.

“It was very challenging to move up from Houston, Texas,” Seeley recalls. “It was quite an introduction.”

GUEST LECTURER: Mark Seeley gave the keynote at the 25th Annual Keuhnast Lecture on the U-M Minneapolis campus Nov. 16. Earl Keuhnast (1919-1990) was Minnesota’s state climatologist responsible for organizing the extensive network of volunteer weather observers located across the state.

From those early years in Minnesota to roughly 1990, Seeley’s directive was to serve the agricultural community through his research, education and Extension efforts. He traveled across the state, working with irrigators; wheat, corn and soybean growers; ag industry personnel; plant breeders; ag lenders; Midwest gas providers — anyone who had connections to ag.

“It was all about pragmatism,” Seeley says, looking back on how climate has impacted ag practices. Whether it was avian influenza, winter application of manure, postemergent herbicide application, potato leafhopper migration or designing snow fences — Seeley was there, sharing research data with farmers to help them make informed management decisions.

By the early 1990s, climate change was becoming a major national issue, and Seeley was called upon to educate others beyond ag circles. For the past two decades, he has worked with school science teachers on integrating climate change into curriculums.

By 1992, Seeley says climate change was emphatic in Minnesota. It took three years for the state to recover from the 1988 drought, and data afterward were showing increased levels of precipitation.

“It was staring us in the face,” he says. “It was emerging in our measurements.”

Historically, climate behavior had been cyclical, and somewhat predictable weather patterns have been recorded.

“Now we’re seeing events outside of historical ranges,” Seeley says. “Specific to Minnesota, we’re experiencing wetter and warmer trends.”

With encyclopedic knowledge, Seeley recites several events experienced in Minnesota during his tenure.

• tornado and blizzard warnings on the same day — March 31, 2014 — in southwest Minnesota

• summers of 1995, 1999, 2000 and 2006 with extraordinary heat values

• 10 inches of rain in six hours in 1987

• drought in 1988 and again in 2012, with the latter possibly the worst since 1936, spreading into 57 counties

• flash flooding in 2012 in Carlton County and on the Cannon River in Goodhue County — the same year as the drought

• 48 tornadoes on one day, June 17, 2010 — Minnesota led the nation that year in tornadoes

• a heat wave index on July 19-20, 2011, ranging from 99 degrees F in Thief River Falls to 134 degrees F in Moorhead

• 2013-14, one of the worst winters in Minnesota history

• 17.9 inches of rain in June 2014 — the wettest month in Minnesota history, when more than 150 daily rainfall records were set or tied that month

“Never would I have guessed the quantity or consistency of these mega rain events in Minnesota,” Seeley says.

Climate change impacts on ag
Knowing farmers are on the front line of experiencing changes in weather, Seeley says future planning should include how to deal with more heat and more precipitation. Livestock will need protection from extreme heat, and fields will need to be managed for longer growing seasons, intense rainfall, and invasive diseases and pests.

Community leaders also need to look to the future and plan for weather events that will impact the state.

“Politicians need to get a handle on this,” Seeley says. “We’ve built our natural resources and management around historical climatic events, such as building our water systems a certain way. We need to change our management to make sure things still operate right.”

Seeley acknowledges there is an emotional and spiritual dimension for some people when discussing climate change, and those feelings and beliefs deserve consideration. He cites a quote from Theodore Roosevelt that he believes could encompass climate change: “Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation.”

“Extension should be a leader and partner in climate change,” Seeley says. “We don’t just bring knowledge to the table; we bring the whole university with us. We should never shy away from public engagement for science.”

Future plans
Seeley looks forward to a slower pace in retirement. The popular Extension speaker logged 90 to 110 meetings per year, tailoring each discussion to his audience and region. That will change as he settles down to spend more time with family.

He will continue writing and giving speeches. “I will stay engaged,” he adds. “I don’t intend to remain idle about climate change.”

About the Author(s)

Paula Mohr

Editor, The Farmer

Mohr is former editor of The Farmer.

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