Julio Betancourt

Research Hydrologist, U.S. Geological Survey
Julio Betancourt

U.S. Geological Survey

I was born in Havana, Cuba and emigrated with my immediate family to the U.S. in 1961, at the age of 10. I attended primary and secondary parochial schools in Dallas, Texas and spent my undergraduate years at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas. I spent my senior year in Peru, taking a few classes in Lima and doing anthropological research, including an archeological dig on the coast, a history of an 18th century rebellion against Franciscans in eastern Peru, and an evaluation of contemporary missionary impact in the Peruvian 'selva.' That year, I developed the notion that most things in life were within my reach.

After graduating, I kicked around archeology for a few years, mostly Belize and the southwestern U.S., but eventually got serious and enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of New Mexico. I bailed out in the first semester after realizing that I was more interested in natural history than anthropology. The next step was pure serendipity.

That first semester in Albuquerque, I spent most weekends visiting a close friend and fellow archeologist, Mark Wimberly, at his ranch in Tularosa on the western escarpment of the Sacramento Mountains overlooking White Sands. One weekend, Mark asked me help him write a proposal to New Mexico State Parks. The gist of the proposal was to get Tom Van Devender, then at the University of Arizona and now at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, to develop a vegetation history in the Sacramento Mountains using packrat middens. Tom liked the proposal, as did State Parks, and upon learning of my changing interests, he invited me to transfer to the Department of Geosciences at the University of Arizona. If I wanted, he said, I could occupy a desk at the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill, a 400-ha ecological reserve and long-term ecological research facility on Tucson's westside. Before leaving Albuquerque, I managed to swindle Jim Judge of the National Park Service for enough funds to do another packrat midden study at Chaco Canyon. A month later, I jammed my VW bug with all my worldly possessions and headed for Tucson.

Twenty-three years later finds me still occupying desk space at the Desert Laboratory, where I serve as Project Chief, National Research Program, Water Resources Division, U.S. Geological Survey and adjunct professor in the Departments of Geoscience and Geography at the University of Arizona. My research statement and bibliography fill in the rest of the story.

My wife, Teresa, and I have one son (Mark) and two daughters (Acacia and Francesca), all wonderful reminders that in life you can't hug your reprints.

Research Interests:  The main objective of my research is to study ecosystem and watershed responses to climate variability on different temporal and spatial scales. More often than not, these responses can only be studied and understood in retrospect and at regional to subcontinental scales. Hence, much of my research is observational and relies on historical evidence; ultimate success depends on developing and contributing to networks of sites and data that can be synthesized at regional scales, and in some cases, globally. Retrospective studies call for development, refinement and calibration of new methods and approaches. History presents opportunities for natural experiments of important phenomena, for example how ENSO modulates the pulse of fires and floods across the regional landscape, how natural vegetation responds to CO2 enrichment over the long term, and what are the ecological, hydrological and socioeconomic consequences of wildfires, plant invasions and regional droughts.

Historical studies may be the only way we can discriminate between natural and cultural causes of change, which is one of the great challenges facing environmental science in the 21st Century. It is neither possible nor wise to assess man's role in arroyo cutting, changing flood and fire frequency, shrub and tree encroachment of grasslands, and ultimately, global change, without historical context. Likewise, historical perspective is essential for gauging nature's impact on society- what is the historical range of natural variability for phenomena (e.g., drought) that affect risks from hazards and the relative success of resource and ecosystem management? In two decades worth of activities, I have addressed, to some degree, all of these issues.

My close colleagues, students and I have contributed to networks of rodent midden and tree-ring data in the Americas. We have designed, tested and/or applied a wide variety of approaches, including historical documents and photographs, instrumental hydrological and climatic data, long-term vegetation plots, tree rings, stable isotopes, ancient DNA, biometrical measurements, alluvial stratigraphy, and even ice cores to reconstruct the past. We have always made a point of applying this historical knowledge not only to fundamental questions of science, but also to contemporary issues facing management of water and other resources.