Antonio Busalacchi crosses disciplines to study our climate
His fist tucked under his chin, Antonio Busalacchi listened intently to the pink-shirted woman in the second row, who felt a bit helpless in the face of climate change. “But what can the average home do to help solve this?” she asked after viewing a new 24-minute video recently released by the National Research Council on scientists’ current climate change understanding for the lay person.
“There’s no silver bullet — but one of the most economical approaches that we can all participate in is conservation,” Busalacchi answered, his thumb and forefinger pressed together to punctuate his points for the citizen audience at the Koshland Science Museum of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. “There’s going to be a mixed approach of renewables, carbon sequestration, and nuclear — but the easiest one we can all do is conservation.”
Trying to make the complexities of earth science more accessible is one of AAAS fellow Busalacchi’s challenges as chair of the Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate for the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council.
Busalacchi's climate science expertise has also taken him around the world as chairman of the Joint Scientific Committee for the World Climate Research Program. The committee coordinates international science and research, provides oversight, and looks at new opportunities for where international climate research should go, explains Busalacchi, who has silver hair, thin-framed glasses, and a trimmed mustache.
Back at home in Maryland, Busalacchi serves as director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland, a joint center across the departments of atmospheric and oceanic science, geology, and geography, as well as NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. As chair of the University’s Council on the Environment, he helps coordinate environmental research and education activities on campus — across disciplines such as behavior and social science, agriculture, public policy, public health, and architecture.
Busalacchi's current research includes studying the ocean via NASA’s new Aquarius satellite, which can remotely sense the salinity of the ocean’s surface. Satellites have long been able to measure the sea surface temperature, but can now measure salinity. “One of the things we’re looking at is salinity in the tropical oceans, and what that can mean for improving the lead time for El Niño predictions,” he says.
Interest in climate science grew from childhood wonder: He first scuba dived at age 11 in Acapulco, Mexico — and marveled at the ocean’s mysteries. “I realized that we knew less about our own oceans than some parts of outer space,” remembers Busalacchi, who later researched El Niño for his Ph.D. at a time when nearly no one had heard of the phenomenon. He earned his degree from Florida State University in 1982 — the same year as a major El Niño event.
“After the 1982 event, it became a topic at cocktail parties,” recalls Busalacchi, who was hired out of college by NASA as an oceanographer working on El Niño. He counts his work with El Niño Southern Oscillation and the role of equatorial wave dynamics in support of El Niño among his most important accomplishments.
As branch head and lab chief at Goddard, Busalacchi oversaw a hydrospheric lab that explored land/atmosphere interactions, biological oceanography interactions, precipitation, and more. “A common element throughout my career has been these interactions of the coupled climate system,” says the researcher, who has worked with satellites to observe tropical oceans. One satellite, orbiting 1,300 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, can measure sea level to the precision of two inches. “It would be like standing on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and measuring the changes in the height of the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, Florida, to [the precision of] two inches,” he says. “I’m still amazed.”
When he’s not at work, Busalacchi's alter ego is a wine expert who runs a wine and vineyard consulting business called Vino Veritas LLC, through which he helps restaurants develop their wine lists and does consulting for vineyard managers.
Though he’s already earned trade certifications in the wine industry, Busalacchi is currently studying for the fourth level of sommelier certification. When he attains that level, he’ll be the second Master Sommelier in the Washington, D.C. area and one of only 120 across the country.
Merging his two interests, he studies the influence of climate change on global viticulture. “I started looking at how climate change will influence the wine industry going forward,” says Busalacchi, a visiting lecturer at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Bra, Italy, who’s particular to wines from Italy and the Rhône Valley in France.
Because established grapevines can produce for decades, a large grower needs to have a perspective 30 to 50 years in the future, explains Busalacchi, who helps grape growers plan for shifting growing zones in their area.
Scaling climate change data to particular regions and areas is one current challenge for climate scientists around the world. “Nobody really cares about what the global mean temperature is or mean sea level is,” Busalacchi says. While such global facts are interesting, regional data hits closer to home.
To that end, his group at ESSIC developed one of the first regional Earth system models for the Chesapeake Bay region that incorporates ocean, atmosphere, land, and water models to look at the present state of the Bay, so that policy-makers can look at “if-then” scenarios to make informed decisions. Busalacchi continues, “We look at the Chesapeake as a natural laboratory for the Earth system because it is undergoing and has undergone a lot of the same sort of stressors that the planet as a whole is experiencing.”