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Scientific (r)evolution

Nelson research center stays ahead of changing climate

Winter/Spring 2013 | By Steve Pomplun

It was the year in which the Beatles released their first single, “Love Me Do.” The space race was heating up, the civil rights movement was growing and U.S. involvement in Vietnam was escalating. Casting a shadow over everything, amplified by the Cuban missile crisis, was the ongoing Cold War.

It was 1962 and climate change was nowhere to be found on any list of public or political concerns – and yet that was the year the Center for Climatic Research (CCR) was established at UW-Madison. Its scientific mission: to understand how the climate works and why it changes. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide – now understood to be a key determinant of future climate – were not widely thought to play a significant role.

John Kutzbach
John Kutzbach, a former director of the Nelson
Institute Center for Climatic Research. Photo
courtesy UW-Madison Archives, S09890.

“There was a recognition that climate had changed in the past, manifested in events like the ice ages,” says John Kutzbach, former CCR director and an emeritus professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences. “But the things that people were primarily thinking of as causes of recent change were aerosols, volcanoes, perhaps solar  activity. The long-term effort to monitor the rise of carbon dioxide had just begun.”

In fact, says Kutzbach, the notion that human activities could in any way affect the climate had little support in the scientific community.

But Reid Bryson saw things differently. Bryson, an atmospheric scientist who had established UW-Madison’s meteorology department in 1948, had long been interested in the role of climate in the rise and fall of human cultures. He had come to believe that climate change had determined the fate of a number of societies – for example, the Viking settlements in Greenland – and that human activities could, in turn, influence the climate.

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Bryson, who died in 2008, argued that human-induced climate change could threaten food supplies and other critical resources – but his focus was primarily on land use patterns rather than the greenhouse effect. Case in point: the fall of a once-thriving culture in India nearly 3,000 years ago.

“Reid had this idea that the rise and fall of Harappan civilization had been related to climate” says Kutzbach. “He developed the idea of a feedback process: Overgrazing of an area along the Indus River, which had once been a green, moist environment, caused loss of vegetation, which caused a dusty atmosphere, which reflected sunlight, which caused additional lack of rainfall.”

Widening the field

Bryson had a voracious appetite for observational data. He measured land cover in India, solar reflectance in northern Canada, ice cover on Lake Mendota and other phenomena in far-flung locations. He saw the climate as systemically linked to land and water, to vegetation, phenology and agriculture, to human activities and the fate of civilizations, driving the science of climatology in new directions and broadening its reach.

Reid Bryson
Reid Bryson pioneered the establishment of inter-
disciplinary environmental research at UW-Madison.

But investigating all these links required a broad set of evidence – data that could only be gathered from things like lake sediments and fossil pollen, using radiocarbon dating and other tools and techniques beyond those typically employed in atmospheric science. Bryson wrote a proposal to the National Science Foundation to establish an interdisciplinary climate research center that would include laboratories to study tree rings, pollen and sediments and perform radiocarbon analyses.

“Up until that time, something like that would have been housed in a geology or archaeology department, and the chance of it being fostered by a climate scientist was close to zero,” says Kutzbach. “It was absolutely a first.”

Bryson’s revolutionary ideas drew Kutzbach back to his alma mater in 1963 to earn a Ph.D. Kutzbach joined the faculty in 1966, having developed a statistical technique to sort through volumes of data and identify large-scale weather patterns such as the North Atlantic Oscillation. He joined one of the world’s leading meteorology departments, with internationally known faculty that included Verner Suomi, Robert Ragotzkie, Heinz Lettau and Lyle Horn.

Bryson, meanwhile, continued to pioneer the establishment of interdisciplinary research into the environment – during a time when most scientists were content to work in their own labs with few collaborators. He organized a university-wide committee that ultimately recommended the creation of an interdisciplinary environmental studies program. In 1970, the university established the Institute for Environmental Studies – later renamed the Nelson Institute in honor of the late U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson – with Bryson as its first director. He appointed Kutzbach to lead CCR.

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