Mark Seeley is fascinated by anything to do with the weather.
That might explain why, 40 years after moving to Minnesota, the native of California (“where the weather is boring") remains fascinated with the state.
“In Minnesota, weather affects everything,” he said.
Seeley can find a weather-related angle to just about any topic. As a University of Minnesota professor and Extension Service climatologist, he has become the go-to source for farmers wondering when they can plant in the spring as well as sports fans who questioned whether the Twins’ move from the controlled climate of the Metrodome to the open skies of Target Field was going to impact home runs.
(The short answer for the latter question, by the way, was yes. The long answer involved multiple pages of data on temperature and air density showing that hits don’t carry as far in chilly April as they do when things heat up in June.)
Far from being an outlier, his Twins research highlights what Seeley’s associates say makes him unique: a knack for taking complex scientific research and boiling it down.
He has “the wonderful ability to explain complicated concepts in an engaging way,” said Cathy Wurzer, who, as host of the “Morning Edition” on Minnesota Public Radio, has talked weather with Seeley on Friday mornings since 2001. “I just get to sit back with the listeners and learn right along with them,” she said.
Seeley’s explanations are becoming fewer and farther between. Officially, he’s retiring, but there’s a lot of latitude in that terminology.
After time off for knee surgery, he plans to return to the U as a professor emeritus and to resume his gigs on MPR and TV’s “Almanac.” He also intends to write another book (his third), contribute articles to professional publications, continue his role as caretaker of the state climate database and maintain a passion for public engagement that has resulted in him traveling across the state to speak to everyone from church groups to highway department crews.
“But I’m not going to be putting in 50-hour workweeks anymore,” he insisted. “Yes, I’m very grateful at age 70 to still be able to do that, but it also gets wearing.”
Seeley has been an ideal ambassador. Outgoing, humble and gracious, he’s a “master storyteller,” said meteorologist Paul Douglas. “He has a passion that you can’t fake. He takes his work very seriously, but he never takes himself too seriously.”
While he has a Ph.D. after his name and other people refer to him as “Dr. Seeley,” he never does so.
“I’m not an ivory tower guy,” he insisted.
Despite the revolutionary technological advances he’s seen during his long career, he maintains that there’s still no substitute for experiencing the weather.
“That’s why the 1,500 volunteer weather observers in Minnesota are so important,” he said. “They’re the backbone of our system. They love the weather so much that they go out in it every day and file reports.”
In doing so, they provide valuable information that no multimillion-dollar computerized system can, he said.
“There is no substitute for a human being making a measurement,” he said. “Instead of just a number that we could get from a machine, we get lots of added information, important information.”
Leaving his mark
Asked what he’s proudest of from his 40 years at the U, Seeley lists three things.
The first is the “Minnesota Weather Almanac,” first published in 2006 and updated in 2015. “It was and still remains the most comprehensive document on Minnesota weather history,” he said.
Second is his work with “Morning Edition” and “Almanac” and the fact that his media appearances help people understand the weather, “which affects everything from our natural resources to public health.”
And lastly, what he calls “living snow fences,” strategically placed areas of mixed perennial vegetation that interrupt wind flow and prevent drifts from forming on highways.
“Road engineers are still using them,” he said. “Anytime you produce something that is still being used 20 years later, that makes you feel good.”
As a climatologist — as opposed to a meteorologist — he’s focused on documenting what is happening with the weather today rather than predicting what will happen tomorrow. “I’m more about measuring things and then interpreting what the patterns are,” he said.
And those patterns are not encouraging, he said. Without mentioning “climate change” or “global warming” (terms that he knows will cause some people to immediately tune out), he makes it clear that things aren’t the same as they used to be. Yes, there always have been cold days and hot days, blizzards and torrential rains, droughts and floods. It’s the number of those things that’s bothering him.
“You look for a shift in the frequency distribution,” he said. “If you have something that used to happen on average once every 10 years and suddenly it’s happening three or four times every 10 years, that’s concerning.”
A change in plans
Although not a native Minnesotan, he has ties to the state, of which he’s very proud. Starting in 1854, three generations of Seeleys farmed in Minnesota before the family relocated to California.
Originally intending to become a lawyer, he got a degree in political science from the University of California, Berkley. While waiting for his wife, Cindy Bevier, to finish her master’s degree before he entered law school, he became a volunteer weather observer for a TV station, and was intrigued enough by the topic that he took classes in meteorology. He was hooked. A master’s degree in meteorology and a doctorate in climatology followed.
His people skills are completely natural.
“I never took any teaching classes per se,” he said. “And I had nothing to do with broadcasting. I didn’t know anything about public speaking. I just learned by going out and doing it.”
He realized early on that if he’s passionate about what his audience is passionate about, there’s an instant connection. And since he’s passionate about just about everything, it doesn’t require much of a leap. But that passion can be a double-edged sword, he warned. Sometimes it gets out of control.
“My biggest flaw is that I can go on and on about things,” he said. “I’ll be at a social gathering, and a topic will come up and I’ll suddenly realize that I’ve been going on about it for 40 minutes. ”
But his admirers, Wurzer among them, hope that enthusiasm never fades.
MPR listeners “relate to Mark as someone who is like them, someone who is endlessly fascinated by our ever-changing weather — the good, the bad, the ugly,” she said. “Listeners naturally assume Mark’s a native Minnesotan by his speech and manner, and they are always surprised to find out where he grew up. Given his roots and what he’s done for the state, I suppose it was destined that he’d someday become a Minnesota icon.”