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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Fair
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Madison's Peace Prize winners
Local scientists played quiet part in Nobel endeavor
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Ken Skog: 'It was an honor.'
Ken Skog: 'It was an honor.'

For Ken Skog, it came as a pleasant surprise.

"It was kind of a fun thing," says Skog, an economist with the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, on hearing last month that he'd won - sort of - the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. "Folks at the lab made a big to-do about it."

Skog, 58, is one of hundreds of scientists who've played a part in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the award with former Vice President Al Gore. He was a lead author of a chapter in an IPCC report, released in 2006, which dealt with carbon storage in harvested wood products.

Several UW-Madison scientists played similar roles on the IPCC. But their achievement has gone locally unrecognized and unheralded. "There was no pick-up," says UW research spokesperson Terry Devitt, referring to a press release on this topic.

Perhaps that's understandable. Al Gore has star power and international name recognition. He has given his presentation on global climate change hundreds of times, all over the world. He's won an Emmy and an Academy Award - not to mention a certain major election.

But being a spokesperson for a cause is different from being a foot soldier on the front ranks. Aside from paradigm-shifting breakthroughs like the ones that popped from Einstein's noggin, the real work of science is not showy or glamorous. It's meticulous and collaborative. And it takes a lot of time.

Both approaches are important. As The Nation has noted, "Gore and the IPCC needed each other: Gore might have sounded like a kook were he not able to rely on the authoritativeness of the IPCC, while the IPCC might have been ignored without Gore's evangelism."

Skog, in an email to friends, said the scientists who make up the IPCC "collectively have advanced our understanding of climate change, [the] need for action, and ways to act."

All told, there are four Madisonians who have some claim to the Peace Prize awarded to Gore and the IPCC.

Jonathan Patz, a professor at the UW's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, was a lead author on a chapter on North America in an IPCC report released early this year. He was also a lead author on IPCC reports in 1995 and 2001, and served as a co-chair for a health panel of the U.S. National Assessment of Climate Change.

John J. Magnuson, a UW-Madison professor of zoology and limnology, now emeritus, was a lead author of chapters in the 1995 and 2001 reports, focusing on the impacts of climate change on freshwater ecosystems. These reports were a part of an IPCC working group on impacts and adaptation.

Magnuson, who has long charted the decline in the number of days that Lake Mendota has been frozen, says he was brought into the picture when reviewers of the near-final 1995 report "vigorously pointed out that inland water ecology had not been treated." An international group of lake and stream ecologists was assembled to correct this deficiency.

The results, he says, were eye-opening: "The impacts on aquatic ecosystems turned out to be far-reaching and included not only the loss of the cryosphere, but also fish ecology and distribution, biodiversity, biogeochemistry of lakes and streams, water quality, invasive exotics, and other topics."

John Kutzbach, a famed UW-Madison climatologist, now retired, helped analyze the IPCC's climate models. He and other UW researchers used these models to estimate global and regional patterns of moisture change for the next century. "If greenhouse gases continue to increase," he says, "the polar regions and the equatorial regions will get wetter while the subtropical regions will get drier."

Skog's involvement with the IPCC began in 1998, when he was appointed by an official within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which includes the Forest Products Lab). He says he's one of about 15 Forest Service scientists involved in IPCC projects, albeit the only one from Madison.

Skog, a Michigan native who came to Madison to work at the lab in 1979, usually studies the markets for forest products: "We look at how demands are changing." For instance, he's tracked how timber production in the U.S. has shifted from the western to the southern states. He's part of a group that makes long-range projections, and looks at the potential role of forest products in biofuel.

The IPCC assignment involved attending several international conferences, in Brazil (Rio de Janeiro), the Philippines (Manila) and Australia (Sydney). There was also a conference in Moscow, which Skog missed.

At these conferences it was decided who would write what and how to incorporate feedback on draft chapters from other scientists and nations. The summary of the latest IPCC assessment is due later this month.

"It was an honor to be part of the IPCC because of its strong sense of international cooperation and commitment to these issues," says Skog. His work group helped devise guidelines for nations to report their greenhouse gas emissions, as well as their "sinks" - things that absorb carbon. These reporting requirements are part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

"I think virtually every country is a party to the U.N. convention on climate change," says Skog. The U.N. "provides guidance to countries on how to do their inventories." The guidelines his working group helped draft "have to be definitive enough and straightforward enough that every country can file a report."

Skog has some perspective as to where he and other scientists stand, vis-à-vis Al Gore: "We do things which are not quite as flashy, but which are important for countries tackling the climate-change problem."

Spoken like a true scientist.

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