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AAAS Fellow Antonio Busalacchi Brings Together Climate Science and Wine Making

Antonio Busalacchi
AAAS Fellow Antonio Busalacchi, Ph.D. Photo by Maria Busalacchi.

As you sip your Riesling or Pinot Noir with your turkey this week, you may not be thinking about the effect of climate change on winemaking around the globe. But these two seemingly disparate fields, which are actually very much interconnected, are on the mind of climate scientist and wine expert Antonio Busalacchi, Ph.D., a AAAS Fellow and 2014 chair of the AAAS “Section W” on Atmospheric and Hydrospheric Sciences.

One of the many examples of the ways in which winemaking and climate change are inextricably intertwined is in the devastating fires in California which impacted so many vineyards.

“This year, something like a dozen wineries burned down in Napa and Sonoma,” notes Busalacchi. He explains that even when they don’t burn, vineyards can be ruined by smoke, which can render grapes to become no longer viable for making wine.

“That’s just a perfect example of more to come with more heat, drier conditions, etcetera, and it’s happening around the world,” says Busalacchi, who is an advanced sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers, a certified wine educator, certified specialist of wine, and certified specialist of spirits with the Society of Wine Educators.

His affinity for the study of wine, like his other field of climate science, is rooted in his childhood. “My family has been in the restaurant business for about 60 years,” notes Busalacchi. “I started coming back to the family ties and then bringing the two together.”

Busalacchi is the president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a nonprofit consortium of over 120 colleges and universities across North America focused on Earth system sciences research and training. Among its various efforts, UCAR brings together educators and researchers to exchange ideas, share their knowledge and findings, and discuss challenges.

UCAR manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), which was established by the National Science Foundation in 1960 to provide the university community with resources beyond the reach of individual institutions such as supercomputers, research aircraft, and extensive data sets. NCAR’s focus is on weather, water, climate, air quality, space weather, education and outreach.

“NCAR is the nation’s preeminent center dealing with the earth as a coupled system—looking at how the different parts of the Earth’s system couple together,” says Busalacchi.

During hurricane season, for instance, scientists at NCAR and UCAR closely monitor tropical storm activity and the potential for strong winds, torrential rains and widespread flooding, and are available to speak to the media and educate the public about topics such as how climate change may impact hurricanes and what we can expect in the future.

Busalacchi notes the importance of seeing the Earth’s systems as being interlinked, not separate and unrelated entities. “So many of the questions that society is asking deal with the coupled system and the earth in a coupled manner,” he says.

He notes that the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, “is a perfect laboratory that epitomizes the multiple stressors of the Earth’s system.” They are contending with multiple challenges including hurricanes that intensify over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico; heavy precipitation that flush nutrients down the Mississippi River, causing noxic and dead zones within the Gulf; overfishing; harmful algal blooms; and rising sea levels.

“For too long, we’ve been stovepiped at universities, at the agencies, and we need to go much more in the direction of looking at the earth as the coupled system that it is,” he adds. “One of the priorities of NCAR is to look at the earth as a system with the atmosphere as the constituent fluid that is coupled to the ocean, land surface, and cryosphere resulting in a much more seamless approach to our predictive capabilities in both time and space.”

To his point, Busalacchi explains that our way of having separate research communities — scientists focused on numerical weather prediction, others focused on short-term climate such as El Niño, still others focused on decadal to centennial climate change — should be more integrated and work together to view weather and climate as inter-related phenomena. They should understand that weather and climate are not separable in neither space nor time.

“Everything is integrated — climate change can exacerbate and intensify hurricanes, and El Niño in the Pacific Ocean lessens the impact of hurricanes in the Atlantic,” says Busalacchi. “We need to be much more integrated into space, from the global scale down to the regional and local scale, and in time — seamless in time from minutes to hours to days, months, years and beyond.”

Busalacchi is an old hand at seeing the interconnections and relationships between different disciplines. “I cut my teeth as a student [pursuing a Ph.D. in oceanography at Florida State University] doing interdisciplinary research on El Niño,” says Busalacchi. “Half my classes were in oceanography and half in meteorology — I was an amphibian breed of scientist in that one foot was in the ocean and one foot was in the atmosphere.”

Upon graduation, he went to the NASA Goddard Space Center where he eventually became head of the laboratory for hydrospheric processes.

In addition to his distinguished career in geosciences and management of academic and government programs, Busalacchi has advised policymakers and testified before Congress on the importance of federal support for Earth system science.

And Busalacchi has seen firsthand how the sea, the land, and the air are inextricably linked, so too are climate change and wine production, Busalacchi’s other passion. As the director of Vino Veritas, he brings his scientific expertise to a consulting company that provides wine education, wine list, and wine program consulting, and viticultural weather and climate forecasting services, both nationally and abroad.

“Over the last decade or more, as a community, we’ve been going in the direction of the provision of climate services,” says Busalacchi. “So, much like a weather service, [we are] providing climate services to agriculture, to hydrology, to various different sectors of the economy.”

Busalacchi knows his position is unique.

“I kind of stand in the middle and serve as an honest broker between what the industry needs and what the science can provide—that’s what climate services are all about.”

Antonio Busalacchi checking grapes during harvest.
AAAS Fellow Antonio Busalacchi checks the grapes to see if they're ready for harvesting. Photo by Maria Busalacchi.


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