Neilson member of Nobel Prize-winning panel of scientists

October 17, 2007

PORTLAND, Ore., October 17, 2007. -- It all started as a graduate school thesis project.

"I've always had a burning desire to figure out why things live where they do," says bioclimatologist Ron Neilson, with the Pacific Northwest Research Station. "Why do species live in different places? I've been studying the distribution of vegetation species for more than 30 years. So I even made this question the basis of my masters and doctorate theses back in the mid-1970s."

That burning desire led Neilson to develop the Mapped Atmosphere-Plant-Soil System (MAPSS) model. Over the years he expanded the use of it from a regional system to a global one. So global, that he became one of hundreds of scientists worldwide, who shared in the Nobel Peace Prize for contributing to the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which issued landmark studies on global warming.

The prize will be split between the scientists, and former Vice President Al Gore, who helped explain scientists' findings on climate change to a lay audience through his book and 2006 documentary film, "An Inconvenient Truth."

In one particular project Neilson and his colleagues, members of IPCC, provided the world with 14 future ecological scenarios. Neilson first contributed to the 1995 assessment, but was a lead author on the panel's 1998 Special Report on the Regional Impacts of Climate Change, and has remained a continuing contributor. Many of the concepts used to develop the MAPSS models were gained in the 1970s while studying the distribution of two species of oak in six Western States, long before climate change was really an issue.

Before joining the Station, Neilson was recruited by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1987, to help build the first national assessment on climate change and to help design a national plan for research. He completed the projects in 1989, and in 1992 joined the PNW Research Station's global change research program.

Fast forward to October 12, 2007: Neilson is at home in Corvallis, Ore., and gets a phone call from a local reporter asking him about his contribution to the IPCC. "An e-mail had been sent around my office earlier that day about the prize, but at first, I really didn't put two and two together," says Neilson. "It's still a bit of a shock. It's still sinking in."

"I couldn't have done it without my colleagues Jim Lenihan, Ray Drapek, Dominique Bachelet (now Director of Climate Change Science at The Nature Conservancy), and many others. "We are going to keep going," says Neilson. "Our current models [MAPSS and others] are Model Ts; now we want to build Cadillacs."
-end-
The PNW Research Station is headquartered in Portland, Oregon. It has 11 laboratories and centers located in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington and about 500 employees.

USDA Forest Service - Pacific Northwest Research Station

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