A young faculty member in The University of Arizona atmospheric sciences department will help Arizona gauge drought in the context of past climate with a grant awarded by the University's Arizona Water Sustainability Program.
"The goal is to monitor drought retrospectively," Assistant Professor Christopher L. Castro said. "We'll use climate records, such as records on precipitation and temperature, and records from local stakeholders -- for example, agriculture and other water resource interests -- to build 'customized' drought indices. The unique thing about this focus is that we'll analyze different time scales of drought, which is important depending on who you are."
Castro's grant, and several other projects recently funded by the Arizona Water Sustainability Program, comes from the Technology and Research Initiative Fund, known as TRIF. TRIF is supported by Proposition 301, an initiative that Arizona voters passed in 2000 to funnel taxes directly into the state's schools and universities in the areas of optics, biotechnology, information technology and water. The 2007-2008 water sustainability projects are listed online at http://www.uawater.arizona.edu/grants/grants07.html.
Recent multiyear drought has heightened government concern about possible water shortages, especially in rural areas, Castro said. "Arizona is a very arid state, and also a very fast-growing state, so it is uniquely vulnerable to weather and climate extremes. This project aims to evaluate short- and long-term drought indicators and relate them to quantifiable impacts that affect strategic decisions by Arizona stakeholders."
Castro's "Arizona Drought Monitoring Sensitivity and Verification Analyses" project is designed to validate and improve Arizona's status reporting system, provide drought information to guide water policymakers, and complete the first step toward developing regional drought prediction capability.
His colleagues on the project are Michael Crimmins of the department of soil, water and environmental science, Gregg Garfin of the UA Institute for the Study of Planet Earth and Francina Dominguez of the department of hydrology and water resources.
Castro joined UA's atmospheric sciences department in 2006. Castro, who as an undergraduate at Pennsylvania State University switched from pre-law to meteorology, said he got "really passionate about climate and climate change" as the result of a summer internship offered by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.
The organization published a brief profile on Castro this month in its publication Highlights 2007. Castro is the first alumnus from its Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science program to land a faculty post.
While in graduate school at Colorado State University, Castro joined the 2004 North American Monsoon Experiment as a rawinsonde (weather-balloon) operator and site translator in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico. Meteorologists lack data they desperately need from this part of western Mexico to understand the basics of U.S. southwestern monsoons for improved Arizona weather and water forecasts.
Castro directed his doctoral and postdoctoral studies at Colorado State to analyzing North American summer climate using a regional atmospheric model. His research at the UA focuses on understanding the physical dynamics of summer climate in the U.S. Southwest and developing models for improved regional climate prediction.
"There is such a critical need in this state to come up with improved forecasts on seasonal time scales for various stakeholders who depend on climate information," Castro said. "In terms of climate-change projection, there are a lot of scary scenarios that have been published in the literature regarding what's going to happen with Arizona's climate in the future. But those predictions are based on coarse-resolution general circulation models, which can't even simulate some basic processes of Arizona climate, for example, the summer monsoon," he said.
Ironically, funding to the federal agencies that support university atmospheric sciences research has been cut at a time when hard data on climate change has become increasingly important, Castro said. Funding from NASA, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Department of Energy has become so competitive that it can be difficult for faculty, especially young faculty, to establish new, innovative research, Castro said.
"Speaking personally, not as a representative of the UA faculty, we as a country need to make a decision to support young scientists like me who are coming up in the ranks. If the country does invest in them, the dividends will translate into big payoffs in terms of education, economic benefits and future quality of life. If we don't do that, we're shooting ourselves in the foot."