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May 2007 Issue

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"Cheesy" means
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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


Heavy Metal II
Upping the Ante on Mercury Controls

In 2004, Wisconsin electric utilities agreed to a Department of Natural Resources administrative rule controlling power-plant mercury emissions, and they began preparing to reduce them 75 percent by 2015.

With full implementation still eight years away, the DNR recently proposed a rule change, boosting the reduction to 90 percent but extending the deadline to 2020.

Between adoption of Wisconsin’s mercury rule and the proposal to revise it, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized its own mercury rule—the first attempt to control such emissions on a nationwide basis—requiring a 70-percent reduction by 2018. Wisconsin law and the state’s existing rule call for the Wisconsin regulation to be reconciled with the federal rule. It remains to be seen how that will be done, as the current state rule says its standard “may not be more restrictive in terms of emissions limitations than the federal standard.”

Coal Use Up, Emissions Down

With U.S. coal reserves good for at least 250 years, coal will be involved in meeting this country’s electricity needs for a long time. Of the worldwide mercury emissions from human activity, as opposed to the roughly half that come from natural sources beyond regulation, U.S. power plants currently contribute about 1 percent.

For many, mercury reduction is an environmental priority and state and federal control plans may appear to be on a slow schedule. But the time until full implementation is not lengthy in the context of utility regulation. Deployment of emissions control technologies can require substantial lead times involving a comparatively limited number of service providers performing installations of specialized components that must be made to fit individual, non-standardized situations.

Meanwhile, technology installed to carry out other clean-air regulations has already cut mercury emissions at least 40 percent compared with 1970 levels, even though the nation’s utilities now generate almost twice as much electricity.

Much higher reductions have been achieved, but the technology is expensive and testing results vary. The most effective method has been to inject activated carbon into flue gases before they enter the smokestack. Tiny quantities of mercury collect on the activated carbon particles, which are then trapped by filters.

Mercury reductions exceeding 90 percent have been achieved this way, but obtaining such results consistently remains a challenge. Because of individual boiler characteristics, the same technique applied on different boilers will yield different results. Even on one boiler, results will vary depending on differences between loads of coal.

Benefits on Balance?

Wisconsin’s electric cooperatives have questioned whether consumers will benefit from the hundreds of millions of dollars in costs for a mercury rule applicable only in this state. Separate studies by a utility organization and by regulatory agencies have predicted that eliminating coal-based generation in Wisconsin would cut mercury deposited in our waters less than 5 percent. And the DNR admits it would not expect to lift a fish consumption advisory from any Wisconsin lake as a result of its mercury rule.

But does that say more about the fish or about the rule? An answer may be found in two studies published since last fall by the Harvard School of Public Health and England's University of Bristol. Both found the health risk associated with avoiding fish consumption to be greater than the risk associated with eating fish that may contain some level of mercury, because—again, according to the studies—the nutritional benefits of fish outweigh the minimal risk.

The announcement releasing the British study included the statement, "We recorded no evidence to lend support to the warnings that pregnant women should limit their seafood consumption." This conclusion was based on a survey and continued testing of some 12,000 women and their young children over a period of several years.—Dave Hoopman



by Perry Baird

Who’s On First

Dedicated July 26, 1967, the historical marker noting the
first Wisconsin farm to electrified by an electric
cooperative is unveiled near Richland Center.

Wisconsin claims a number of notable “firsts” in the history of cooperative rural electrification. For instance, co-op leaders here organized the first state association for cooperatively owned electric utilities in the nation (April 30, 1936).

And it was 70 years ago this month that members of eight electric co-ops in northern and western Wisconsin organized what would become the nation’s first facility financed by the fledgling Rural Electrification Administration (REA) to generate electricity. Less than a year after the May 2, 1937, organizational meeting, Wisconsin Power Cooperative’s new plant at Chippewa Falls went on line, beating by just three days an Iowa co-op power plant that had secured the first REA loan earmarked for power generation.

Another Seven-Decade Milestone

With Wisconsin gaining notoriety among its co-op colleagues on a national scale in those days, it’s understandable that local electric co-op organizations within the state became mindful of their own inaugural achievements. The accomplishment gaining perhaps the most lasting attention also occurred 70 years ago this month, and it’s worth marking the anniversary.

On May 7, 1937, Richland Cooperative Electric Association (as it was then called) threw a switch that sent electricity flowing to the James Hanold farm four miles west of Richland Center. It was the first time in Wisconsin that an REA-financed cooperative was able to begin providing electric service to a member. The occasion was sweet because the co-op’s pathway to reach that point had involved a bitter, pitched battle with an investor-owned company that had thrown up “spite” lines, legal challenges, and scare tactics to try and stamp out the co-op.

Interestingly, for years following the Richland hookup, differing accounts circulated of which co-op had performed the feat. In fact, the records in REA’s own Washington, D.C., office for at least 25 years erroneously named Columbus Rural Electric Cooperative (now part of Adams–Columbia Electric Co-op) as the first system energized in Wisconsin.

Confusing Connection

Confusion may have resulted because of the flurry of electric co-op organizational and construction activity underway throughout the state at the time—and the fact that the various electric co-op projects were obliged to report their progress regularly to REA officials. The Columbus Rural Electric Co-op (CREC) system had been poised to begin supplying power earlier the same week as Richland’s connection occurred, and REA almost certainly had been apprised of that status. As it was, CREC had performed a “test run” of its system the same day as Richland’s hookup, but the Columbus co-op didn’t actually connect the first of its members’ farms until the following day.

To the credit of the co-op leaders at Columbus, they took great pains for years to properly credit Richland, including a full explanation of circumstances spelled out in a 1960 booklet prepared for the dedication of CREC’s new office building. “After 25 years, it is doubtful that this narration will offer sufficient proof to REA to correct its records in Washington,” the CREC booklet lamented.

As far as state acknowledgement goes, the matter was put to rest with the 1967 erection of an official historical marker at the site of Wisconsin’s first electric co-op member to get service—on Highway 14 west of Richland Center.


There’s no better way to kick off June Dairy Month than to take in the Great Wisconsin Cheese Festival in Little Chute, June 1–3. (We’re including it in our May issue, rather than waiting until June, so our readers have time to make plans.)

The weekend festival traces its roots to 1988 when a local newspaper questioned the logic of a national cheese museum that was placed in Rome, New York. According to the Great Wisconsin Cheese Fest web site, then–State Senator Walter Chilsen penned a poem declaring that Wisconsin, the Dairy State, should have been the site of the museum, since it made the most and the best cheese.

New York reacted to his boast by holding an impromptu “cheese off,” and predictably, New Yorkers declared their cheeses to be superior. However, the Village of Little Chute offered to host another “cheese off,” held at the first annual Great American Cheese Festival. Carl Eilenburg, mayor of Rome, NY, attended. In that contest, Wisconsin cheese won in all categories, but Mayor Eilenburg protested that the samples to be judged were clearly identified as either “Wisconsin” or New York.” He called for a blind testing on live television. A TV reporter who was present was duly blindfolded, and you know the rest of the story. The reporter chose Wisconsin cheese as superior, and the Little Chute Cheese Fest continues to celebrate our superiority on the first weekend of each June.

If you choose to help celebrate this year in Little Chute’s Doyle Park, you’ll find many dairy-related activities and just plain wholesome fun for all ages. On Friday, carnival rides and food and novelty booths will open at 5 p.m., along with an animal petting zoo. A 7:30 “Celebrity” Cheese Curd Eating Contest will be followed by live music 8–midnight.

Saturday begins with the 10:30 Big Cheese Parade downtown. Other highlights include children’s activities, a chainsaw artist, a cheese carving demonstration from 1–3 p.m., free cheese tasting from 2–4, and a second cheese curd eating contest at 3:45—this one for any fest attendees who want to try wolfing down half a pound of fresh cheese curds in the fastest possible time. Musical entertainment goes until midnight.

On Sunday, start your day with the Big Cheese Breakfast at the Herald H. Van Hoof Memorial Library/Civic Center. This traditional Dairy Month breakfast is served from 8 a.m.–noon. Then enjoy more children’s activities, chainsaw demonstrations, a 12:30 Cheesecake Contest, and cheese tasting from 2–3. The afternoon closes with more musical performances.

If you and your friends or family like food and entertainment at its “cheesiest,” just mooove on over to Little Chute for the greatest cheese-off of them all.—Linda Hilton

For further information, visit www.littlechutewi.org/calendar_events/cheesefest.html or call the Little Chute Recreation Dept. at 920/788-7390 or the Village Hall at 920/788-7380.


©2009 Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News