Greg Spoden is Mother Nature's MN scorekeeper

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 10, 2012 - 9:36 PM

Greg Spoden steps up to be Minnesota's new climatologist.

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Greg Spoden

Photo: Bill Mcauliffe, Star Tribune

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Minnesota has a new state climatologist -- only the third since 1976.

But after 25 years as assistant state climatologist, Greg Spoden will bring plenty of historical sense to the job of collecting, maintaining, interpreting and disseminating the state's continually expanding climate record.

"There probably isn't a weather question he hasn't answered," said Pete Boulay, who has worked with Spoden since 1998 as a fellow assistant state climatologist, analyzing data and answering phone calls from the public, media and researchers. "He brings a lot of professionalism to the job. "

University of Minnesota professor and climatologist Mark Seeley was Spoden's graduate adviser in 1980, when Spoden was working on a master's degree. He said the new climatologist has a "great appreciation for the measurements that go into making our state's climate database," including expertise in weather measurement systems as well as computer programming and modeling.

In a recent interview, Spoden addressed a range of questions about weather, climate and his job as "Mother Nature's scorekeeper."

Why he became a climatologist:

Spoden's father and grandfather were both farmers, and Spoden did graduate work on climate data and agricultural productivity before being swept into full-time climatology work for the Minnesota DNR by the drought of 1988.

Spoden's father still notes on a calendar the first time he hears thunder in the spring. "That means that six months later we'll have our first frost. It's not far-fetched at all. No one is more in tune with the weather than the farmer."

What keeps him interested:

"It's never the same every day. How fortunate I am to get paid to talk about something that people talk about every day."

Where Minnesota's climate is headed:

At mid-continent, Minnesota's normal climate is a dash among extremes, Spoden said. But the data clearly show that Minnesota is, on the whole, becoming warmer than it used to be, particularly in winter, and even more particularly on winter nights, he said. Natural variation is still a factor, but the trend is clearly toward warmth more than cold.

"The numbers I see every day say Minnesota is on an upward trend in temperatures. That is easy to separate from the natural variation," Spoden said.

Minnesota's climate is also getting wetter. And that means infrastructure designed through the middle of the 20th century, which was a drier period, will have to be retooled, he added.

How the job has changed (and hasn't):

Computers have expanded what the DNR climatology office can do, replacing laborious phone calling to weather observers with e-mail and Web surveys, surpassing first-class mail with broad and instant access to regional and national climate research data, and improving on pencil and paper with digital, color mapping tools. Interest in climate change, meanwhile, makes the work more visible, Spoden said.

"We want to make sure we have the highest quality record possible, that those data are conveniently obtained, and that we remain advocates for the continuation of a strong observer network," Spoden said.

But some of the old ways are still invaluable.

"Those volunteer weather observers scattered around Minnesota -- without them, we're nothing. The vast majority of climate data is still gathered by weather enthusiasts going into the back yard or farm yard once a day and looking into the rain bucket, or putting their stake into the snow to measure its depth, and looking at their thermometers. Their diligence is remarkable. I'm just so grateful."

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

  • GREG SPODEN

    Age: 55

    Hometown: Brooklyn Park

    Education: B.S., meteorology, University of Wisconsin

    Career: Graduate assistant to University of Minnesota climatologist Mark Seeley, assistant state climatologist since 1988.

    Most valuable piece of clothing: "My beat-up old winter coat with the big hood." Rarely worn last winter.

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