Dr. Julio Betancourt
Dr. Betancourt in front of a saguaro cactus
His first brush with true seasons was in October 1961. Dr. Julio Betancourt was ten years old, and he and his family had recently fled Cuba and Fidel Castro for the U.S. Their first stop was the nation's capital, where his most vivid memory was raking autumn leaves in an uncle's backyard, anxious about the novelty of winter and learning a second language. A half century later finds Julio in Tucson, where he is stationed at the University of Arizona and employed as a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He lives a short commute away in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, with the giant saguaro cactus and Sonoran Desert as backdrop. Julio marks the seasons by fighting Gila woodpeckers for control of juicy oranges in December, by watching millions of paloverde trees flower yellow in April, and by awakening to spadefoot toads bleating with the first thunder in early July. "Even in hot and dry deserts," he quips, "to everything there is a season."
Julio was trained broadly in the earth and life sciences, and relishes working the seams between disciplines and across scales, from local to global and from years to millennia. He is one of only a handful of researchers that study unique cave deposits made by rodents to infer vegetation and climate change over the last 40,000 years in deserts of North and South America. Julio also uses width variations in annually-resolved tree rings to reconstruct long-term patterns in precipitation and wildfire occurrence. His analyses of historical weather records contribute to our understanding of how interannual to decadal variability in Pacific and Atlantic Ocean temperatures influence the frequencies of floods and droughts, and the timing of spring and snowmelt, across the U.S. For nearly 30 years, Julio was stationed on the hilltop of an 860-acre ecological reserve overlooking the city of Tucson, the site of permanent vegetation plots that were repeatedly monitored over the last century. There, he gained an appreciation for the value of long-term monitoring, not just locally, but also at multiple sites to reveal regional patterns in ecological responses to climate.
Down the hall from Julio's office is the National Coordinating Office of the National Phenology Network, a sibling of Project BudBurst. Beginning in 2005, he and Mark Schwartz led national discussions that resulted in both of these monitoring efforts. Julio's message to scientists, resource managers, and policy makers was that "understanding and predicting climatic effects on managed and unmanaged ecosystems, and on human society, will necessitate routine, standardized and sustained phenological monitoring on an unprecedented scale. It will require all hands on deck, from the federal government to the general public."