Antonio “Tony” Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), has a sense of history and the future.
He sees that atmospheric science is now at a juncture similar to the one it faced in the 1950s, when UCAR and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) were formed to help accelerate atmospheric research in support of numerical weather prediction. This new juncture, he says, involves the growing ability, brought about by advances in science and an explosion in observational and computer capacity, to observe and predict the behaviors of the interlinked physical, chemical, and biological processes that form the coupled Earth system.
That earlier effort led to a multibillion dollar weather enterprise across academia and the public and private sectors that has made detailed weather forecasts readily and widely accessible. Busalacchi said that a “grand challenge” of predicting the coupled Earth system could lead to significant societal benefits in numerous areas related to agriculture, water resources, energy, extreme weather, and space weather.
Busalacchi took the reins at the nonprofit UCAR in Boulder, Colo., last August. He spoke with Eos about challenges such as developing Earth system prediction capability and the role of science during politically choppy times. He also talked about organizational priorities, including an upcoming competition to select an organization to manage and operate NCAR that is expected later this year. UCAR, a consortium of 110 colleges and universities in North America, currently manages NCAR for the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and hopes to continue doing so.
A Grand Challenge
Busalacchi says that the challenge of predicting the Earth system requires a better understanding of the complex interactions among physical systems—including the atmosphere, oceans, land, and cryosphere—with chemistry, biology, ecosystems, humanity, and the effects of humanity on the environment.
Helping to meet that challenge, he said, are advances in observational capacity that include Earth-observing satellites and new platforms such as CubeSats, drones, and the Internet of things. If, for instance, even a small fraction of the 40 billion smart sensors that could be in place by 2020 enable environmental observations, that could mean “disruptive change in a positive sense,” he said.
“There are some tantalizing clues that, yes, we can make considerable progress on the prediction of the Earth system to the point where it will yield actionable information, very much akin to what we saw coming out of the weather enterprise,” Busalacchi told Eos. He emphasized, too, the importance of seamless prediction from the microscale to macroscale and at different timescales.
An “Amphibious” Background
Helping to lead the charge with that grand challenge is a key reason why he took the job at UCAR, said Busalacchi, who previously was director of the University of Maryland’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center and a professor in the university’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science. Busalacchi received his doctorate in oceanography from Florida State University in Tallahassee, but he calls himself “amphibious” because he has also studied other areas, including meteorology and geophysical fluid dynamics.
Although he grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wis., Busalacchi loved the oceans from an early age. He knew that they were relatively uncharted scientifically, and he wanted to be an oceanographer. At age 11, he scuba dived for the first time, in Mexico, and later dived in Wisconsin’s rock quarries.
Busalacchi, who comes from a family of restauranteurs, is an advanced sommelier, and he sees a link between his expert knowledge of wine and the Earth sciences. His wine consulting firm, Vino Veritas Consulting, provides weather and climate forecasting services for vineyard management, and he gives public lectures on the impact of climate change on global viticulture.
Competition for a New Cooperative Agreement
At UCAR, one of the top internal priorities Busalacchi faces is an upcoming competition for a cooperative agreement to manage and operate NCAR, he said. This cooperative agreement will run from 1 October 2018 to 30 September 2023. Last August, NSF announced that it expects to issue a program solicitation early in 2017.
UCAR has managed NCAR from the beginning, but the organization is “not resting on [its] laurels,” Busalacchi said. “We have an all hands on deck approach” to the upcoming recompetition, he added.
Busalacchi said he looks at UCAR’s management of NCAR not from an institutional perspective but for what it means “in terms of the science we can deliver to the country.” He pointed to the NCAR-supported community Weather Research and Forecasting Hydrologic model (WRF-Hydro) as a good example of what NCAR, and UCAR’s management of it, should and could be doing. WRF-Hydro forms the core of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Water Model, which simulates streamflow throughout the continental United States.
A View to Washington
Busalacchi hopes that the new Congress and the Trump administration support science efforts at UCAR and NCAR. He noted two bills before Congress: the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act (H.R. 353) and the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (S. 141) to improve forecasting in those areas.
Prior to the recent election, UCAR prepared a white paper for the new Congress and new administration to highlight research and education priorities for federal investment in academic research. Those priorities include a continued focus on weather, water, climate, air quality, space weather, and training the next generation of scientists.
“That’s remained unchanged because, when you come down to the very heart, [the] core elements of what we do, it’s about the protection of life and property, support of economic development, and support of national security,” said Busalacchi. “Those four topics are apolitical. It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you are on; those things remain the same.”
With the Trump administration stirring concern among many scientists about restricting federal agency communications with the public, instituting a temporary federal hiring freeze, and threatening sharp cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, Busalacchi said he is taking a wait and see attitude for now.
“Bottom line, I’m a scientist, I’m not a politician,” he said. “My job as a scientist is to describe the state of science: What is it we know, what is it we don’t know, and what is it going to take to move us from what we don’t know to what we do know.”
Busalacchi said that hiring freezes are nothing new and that previous administrations also instituted them. Other actions of the new administration, however, are causing more immediate concern at UCAR. For example, UCAR issued a letter stating that President Donald Trump’s January executive order banning citizens from seven countries from entering the United States “is counter to UCAR’s mission and values.”
Additionally, Busalacchi expressed concern about the consequences if the United States significantly reduces its climate research. He said that one telltale sign about the administration’s view of science will be the upcoming budget for fiscal year 2018; the administration will release its request later this year for Congress to consider. He said that climate research would continue internationally with or without the United States but that it would be to the country’s disadvantage if another nation such as China steps into a potential void as a leader in that field.
Busalacchi said that the science community needs to be vigilant about whether the administration’s initial measures are just interim actions or if they become policy. “Once you start muzzling the civil servants, the scientists employed by government whose job it is to inform the nation, then you are on a slippery slope,” he said. “I do believe it is too soon to tell.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer