May 7, 2007 — budsimmon
The Faithful Heretic
A Wisconsin Icon Pursues Tough Questions
Some people are lucky enough to enjoy their work, some are lucky enough to love it, and then there’s Reid Bryson. At age 86, he’s still hard at it every day, delving into the science some say he invented.
Reid A. Bryson holds the 30th PhD in Meteorology granted in the history of American education. Emeritus Professor and founding chairman of the University of Wisconsin Department of Meteorology—now the Department of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences—in the 1970s he became the first director of what’s now the UW’s Gaylord Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies. He’s a member of the United Nations Global 500 Roll of Honor—created, the U.N. says, to recognize “outstanding achievements in the protection and improvement of the environment.” He has authored five books and more than 230 other publications and was identified by the British Institute of Geographers as the most frequently cited climatologist in the world.
Long ago in the Army Air Corps, Bryson and a colleague prepared the aviation weather forecast that predicted discovery of the jet stream by a group of B-29s flying to and from Tokyo. Their warning to expect westerly winds at 168 knots earned Bryson and his friend a chewing out from a general—and the general’s apology the next day when he learned they were right. Bryson flew into a couple of typhoons in 1944, three years before the Weather Service officially did such things, and he prepared the forecast for the homeward flight of the Enola Gay. Back in Wisconsin, he built a program at the UW that’s trained some of the nation’s leading climatologists.
How Little We Know
Bryson is a believer in climate change, in that he’s as quick as anyone to acknowledge that Earth’s climate has done nothing but change throughout the planet’s existence. In fact, he took that knowledge a big step further, earlier than probably anyone else. Almost 40 years ago, Bryson stood before the American Association for the Advancement of Science and presented a paper saying human activity could alter climate.
“I was laughed off the platform for saying that,” he told Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News.
In the 1960s, Bryson’s idea was widely considered a radical proposition. But nowadays things have turned almost in the opposite direction: Hardly a day passes without some authority figure claiming that whatever the climate happens to be doing, human activity must be part of the explanation. And once again, Bryson is challenging the conventional wisdom.
“Climate’s always been changing and it’s been changing rapidly at various times, and so something was making it change in the past,” he told us in an interview this past winter. “Before there were enough people to make any difference at all, two million years ago, nobody was changing the climate, yet the climate was changing, okay?”
“All this argument is the temperature going up or not, it’s absurd,” Bryson continues. “Of course it’s going up. It has gone up since the early 1800s, before the Industrial Revolution, because we’re coming out of the Little Ice Age, not because we’re putting more carbon dioxide into the air.”
Little Ice Age? That’s what chased the Vikings out of Greenland after they’d farmed there for a few hundred years during the Mediaeval Warm Period, an earlier run of a few centuries when the planet was very likely warmer than it is now, without any help from industrial activity in making it that way. What’s called “proxy evidence”—assorted clues extrapolated from marine sediment cores, pollen specimens, and tree-ring data—helps reconstruct the climate in those times before instrumental temperature records existed.
We ask about that evidence, but Bryson says it’s second-tier stuff. “Don’t talk about proxies,” he says. “We have written evidence, eyeball evidence. When Eric the Red went to Greenland, how did he get there? It’s all written down.”
Bryson describes the navigational instructions provided for Norse mariners making their way from Europe to their settlements in Greenland. The place was named for a reason: The Norse farmed there from the 10th century to the 13th, a somewhat longer period than the United States has existed. But around 1200 the mariners’ instructions changed in a big way. Ice became a major navigational reference. Today, old Viking farmsteads are covered by glaciers.
Bryson mentions the retreat of Alpine glaciers, common grist for current headlines. “What do they find when the ice sheets retreat, in the Alps?”
We recall the two-year-old report saying a mature forest and agricultural water-management structures had been discovered emerging from the ice, seeing sunlight for the first time in thousands of years. Bryson interrupts excitedly.
“A silver mine! The guys had stacked up their tools because they were going to be back the next spring to mine more silver, only the snow never went,” he says. “There used to be less ice than now. It’s just getting back to normal.”
What Leads, What Follows?
What is normal? Maybe continuous change is the only thing that qualifies. There’s been warming over the past 150 years and even though it’s less than one degree, Celsius, something had to cause it. The usual suspect is the “greenhouse effect,” various atmospheric gases trapping solar energy, preventing it being reflected back into space.
We ask Bryson what could be making the key difference:
Q: Could you rank the things that have the most significant impact and where would you put carbon dioxide on the list?
A: Well let me give you one fact first. In the first 30 feet of the atmosphere, on the average, outward radiation from the Earth, which is what CO2 is supposed to affect, how much [of the reflected energy] is absorbed by water vapor? In the first 30 feet, 80 percent, okay?
Q: Eighty percent of the heat radiated back from the surface is absorbed in the first 30 feet by water vapor…
A: And how much is absorbed by carbon dioxide? Eight hundredths of one percent. One one-thousandth as important as water vapor. You can go outside and spit and have the same effect as doubling carbon dioxide.
This begs questions about the widely publicized mathematical models researchers run through supercomputers to generate climate scenarios 50 or 100 years in the future. Bryson says the data fed into the computers overemphasizes carbon dioxide and accounts poorly for the effects of clouds—water vapor. Asked to evaluate the models’ long-range predictive ability, he answers with another question: “Do you believe a five-day forecast?”
Bryson says he looks in the opposite direction, at past climate conditions, for clues to future climate behavior. Trying that approach in the weeks following our interview, Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News soon found six separate papers about Antarctic ice core studies, published in peer-reviewed scientific journals between 1999 and 2006. The ice core data allowed researchers to examine multiple climate changes reaching back over the past 650,000 years. All six studies found atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations tracking closely with temperatures, but with CO2 lagging behind changes in temperature, rather than leading them. The time lag between temperatures moving up—or down—and carbon dioxide following ranged from a few hundred to a few thousand years.
Renaissance Man, Marathon Man
When others were laughing at the concept, Reid Bryson was laying the ground floor for scientific investigation of human impacts on climate. We asked UW Professor Ed Hopkins, the assistant state climatologist, about the significance of Bryson’s work in advancing the science he’s now practiced for six decades.
“His contributions are manifold,” Hopkins said. “He wrote Climates of Hunger back in the 1970s looking at how climate changes over the last several thousand years have affected human activity and human cultures.”
This, he suggests, is traceable to Bryson’s high-school interest in archaeology, followed by college degrees in geology, then meteorology, and studies in oceanography, limnology, and other disciplines. “He’s looked at the interconnections of all these things and their impact on human societies,” Hopkins says. “He’s one of those people I would say is a Renaissance person.”
The Renaissance, of course, produced its share of heretics, and 21 years after he supposedly retired, one could ponder whether Bryson’s work today is a tale of continuing heresy, or of conventional wisdom being outpaced by an octogenarian.
Without addressing—or being asked—that question, UW Green Bay Emeritus Professor Joseph Moran agrees that Bryson qualifies as “the father of the science of modern climatology.”
“In his lifetime, in his career, he has shaped the future as well as the present state of climatology,” Moran says, adding, “We’re going to see his legacy with us for many generations to come.”
Holding bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Boston College, Moran became a doctoral candidate under Bryson in the late 1960s and early ’70s. “I came to Wisconsin because he was there,” Moran told us.
With Hopkins, Moran co-authored Wisconsin’s Weather and Climate, a book aimed at teachers, students, outdoor enthusiasts, and workers with a need to understand what the weather does and why. Bryson wrote a preface for the book but Hopkins told us the editors “couldn’t fathom” certain comments, thinking he was being too flippant with the remark that “Wisconsin is not for wimps when it comes to weather.”
Clearly what those editors couldn’t fathom was that Bryson simply enjoys mulling over the reasons weather and climate behave as they do and what might make them—and consequently us—behave differently. This was immediately obvious when we asked him why, at his age, he keeps showing up for work at a job he’s no longer paid to do.
“It’s fun!” he said. Ed Hopkins and Joe Moran would undoubtedly agree.
“I think that’s one of the reasons for his longevity,” Moran says. “He’s so interested and inquisitive. I regard him as a pot-stirrer. Sometimes people don’t react well when you challenge their long-held ideas, but that’s how real science takes place.”—Dave Hoopman