Community, Demography

Montana’s Greatest Climatologist

My one class in climate studies was about 40 years ago at Montana State University.  The professor was Joe Caprio . . . yeah, “The Father of Scientific Phenology.”  It’s interesting how many state climatologists make their starts as meteorologists.  Anyway, I was back in school, getting enough credits in ag engineering to qualify as a professional with SCS, and when I took his class on climate, and when he learned of my experience in snow surveys, it became Mike and Joe – a very honored Mike that was told “Call me Joe.”

Dr. Caprio’s specialization and research was climate events that occurred simultaneously with the first bloom of the common lilac.  Phenology is the study of cyclical plant and animal life events and how climate influences them.  If memory serves, evapotranspiration has used 8.2 inches of soil water when the lilacs bloom.  The blooms come at different times in different places, but always at the same number of growing degree days.  Beans, cucumbers and squash should be planted when the lilacs are in full bloom – it correlates with soil temperatures.  Lettuce should be planted when lilacs begin to leaf out. I didn’t remember these over the past 40 years, I looked them up here, and the site has a lot of other correlates that will help planting your garden if you have a lilac around.

In Montana – heck, across the west, lilacs were planted at most homesteads, and in most towns.  The first leaf, the first blossom, full bloom, all provided specific points of data to Dr. Caprio.  Of course his research included standardizing the lilac, and providing clones to volunteers who would note the significant dates of blossoming, leaf growth, etc.  To Joe Caprio, climatology was everyone’s science, and while his research depended on many volunteers, the projects were inexpensive.  He taught that science is method, and in my later career, I realized that by using U-haul rates as a proxy for migration data that didn’t exist, I just extrapolated from the lessons Dr. Caprio gave me as I mixed sociology and ag engineering to begin my own professional career. 

This article describes the studies that originated with Dr. Joe Caprio at MSU: This one is also worth reading.