Climate Science

UA College of Science Dean Joaquin Ruiz talks climate change and Biosphere 2

UA College of Science Dean Joaquin Ruiz oversees an award-winning team of research scientists who are looking at everything from the tiny building blocks of atoms to monstrous black holes that are 13 billion light years away. He recently spoke about the latest research on climate change and what's up at Biosphere 2.

Are there days where people come up to you and tell you something that just blows your mind?

Every day. The best part of my job is the conversations I have with faculty members about what they're doing, and then finding ways to connect them with other folks who are doing similar things to make it even better. It's really extraordinary what happens in this college and in this university.

Talk a little bit about the impact of the College of Science on our local community.

I'm not an economist, so I can't tell you the exact numbers and multipliers, but I can tell you that the budget that we have from the state in the College of Science is about $80 million, and we bring in a total of about almost $200 million worth of research every year. That means that we employ people with federal funds that come and buy houses and things in the supermarket.

And you're working with some of the private sectors in the bio-sciences and other areas.

That's right. We have a strong partnerships with Ventana, in particular Sanofi, and of course Raytheon. We've been doing some work with Tucson Electric Power, and I just wish there was more industry around that we could actually work with.

Let's talk a little bit about climate change. I keep seeing these glaciers melting in this footage that's out there. It gets me a little worried. What do we know about where climate change is at this point?

We know a lot, and one of the disappointing things that comes back to haunt us is how little we know how to communicate because there's still this feeling that global climate change within the scientific community is still a big, raging debate, when it's not. The consensus in the community that does climate change research knows that it's real, that the Earth is warming up, that the consequences of global climate change involves water. Some places there's going to be more water, other places less water and I think that the raging debate right now is not whether it's happening or not, or whether humankind had something to do with it or not, because we know that the answer to that is also "yes." The raging debates are exactly what's going to happen. The rate of change is very fast. Now we're all alarmed, in fact, about how quickly the glaciers are melting. We're alarmed about how quickly the ice sea of the North Pole is just sort of disappearing.

Is there something that can be done to slow it down or reverse it?

Sure. Clearly to slow it down, we need to get rid of what we call greenhouse gases. And I'd like to take a moment to just say that one of the problems we've had is that these gases aren't like a glass that's keeping the heat in the earth. CO2, methane, even water—what happens is that you get radiation coming from the sun trapped by these molecules, and the molecules kick off heat, and that's why small amounts of changes in the amount of these molecules in the atmosphere make such a big difference because there's an amplifying effect of how they do that. The only way really that we could stop the earth from keeping warming up is if we get rid of these gases that are heating up the earth, or we cover it up with some stuff so that the sun rays aren't as effectively hitting the earth as they are now, and all these have been discussed.

The College of Science acquired Biosphere 2 a few years back. How is that going?

It's terrific. What makes the UA certainly unique is that we specialize in big science: telescopes, going to Mars. And with the Biosphere we've expanded our portfolio of big science into the environment. So we have now a program at the Biosphere called the Landscape Evolution Observatory. It's a 10-year program, a fantastic project that was developed by atmospheric scientists, hydrologists, geoscientists. It's examining what happens to water in semi-arid environments as global climate change progresses. The question is very simple: If you look at Tucson, for example, and we believe the models that come our way, atmospheric scientists are pretty much convinced that the winter rain is going to go away. Because that's an easy sort of model. The jetstream in the Pacific is going to move north, and it's going to leave us hot and dry. The monsoons are more complicated because the system is very complicated. There's water from the Pacific and water from the Gulf of Mexico and they don't understand it very well. So some argue it's going to rain more, some argue it's going to rain less, some argue it's going to rain more but in shorter periods. Anyway, if we lose the winter rains, the ecology that we live in and we love is going to change, because the plants that we have in our desert require not only a certain amount of rain, but a certain periodicity of rain. And if they change then—let's assume we have a grassland instead of having a mesquite forest—then, when it rains, the amount of rain that goes underground, the amount of rain that runs off, the amount of rain that washes everything out is different. So trying to understand the available water that's going to be around as vegetation changes is critical, and I think we're the only program in the country that has a facility of the scale of the Biosphere where we can actually do experiments that really mean something.

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