David Battisti, professor of atmospheric sciences
David Battisti, professor of atmospheric sciences

David Battisti isn’t trying to save the world. He’s trying to understand it, he says. A professor of atmospheric sciences at the College of the Environment, he works to increase our collective knowledge on the global climate system and its natural variation. He’s interested in how the oceans, sea ice, atmosphere, and land interact and lead to variability in the climate—what we experience as weather.

“I love what I do: I get to solve puzzles concerning how nature works, and I get to share that journey with other people,” Battisti said. “These really are the golden years of climate science.”

Among other academic achievements, Battisti’s pioneering research was fundamental for understanding the El Niño climate phenomenon—the largest source of year-to-year weather variability on Earth. Each year his work is used as a tool for agricultural decision-making in many regions. It’s this climate-agriculture connection that drives much of Battisti’s work these days.

Having grown up around a 230-acre farm in Upstate New York, Battisti is familiar with the challenges of cultivating crops and tending to livestock. His connection to food and agriculture is absolutely genuine—it has been part of his world since day one. In his science, Battisti emphasizes mapping large-scale climate patterns back to agriculture and those whose livelihoods depend on it.

The “bread basket” regions of the world, including the United States, are at a near optimal temperature for staple crops, but that’s not the case everywhere.  And, critically, along with a changing climate comes a change in this stability, putting large swaths of the global population’s food supply at risk. There are already a billion malnourished individuals on the planet whose subsistence is in jeopardy, meaning that one in seven people on Earth are unable to consume enough calories to fuel a healthy, productive life. Ninety-five percent of malnourished people live in the subtropics, they are poor, and they rely on agriculture for both food and income. For them, the climate-agriculture connection is critical to understand, as a sustained decrease in agricultural productivity could spell disaster.

“It’s a very likely that we will double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere between pre-industrial times and the end of the 21st century,” Battisti said. “Pressures on regions where people are absolutely dependent on food crops will be severe.”

One of Battisti’s current projects aims to identify the reason(s) for summertime climate variability, which impacts weather conditions and, in turn, agriculture. Working with agricultural economists from Stanford University and with funding from the National Science Foundation and the Tamaki Foundation, Battisti hopes to make substantial headway on a relationship that he calls, “a fundamental theoretical problem.” Understanding and building on the existing data will help farmers, land managers, and others plan for near- and long-term changes in weather and climate during the growing seasons, which will ultimately help increase food security.

Many scientists devote their professional lives to the discovery of new information about our complex and changing climate, from the nitty-gritty details to the massive system as a whole. Applying his research through the lens of agriculture has allowed Battisti to collaborate with an interdisciplinary group of experts from institutions across the globe (including Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and University of Bergen), as well as community members, business owners, farmers, and other key constituents.

“The science being done at the UW’s College of the Environment is exciting—better than any other place in the world. A big part of our success is that there are no barriers to collaboration across disciplines,” Battisti said.

Battisti’s science delves precisely into our climate system—analyzing its past, deciphering its present, and projecting its future—and he maintains that his work alone isn’t the key to saving a billion food-insecure people.

“Achieving food security today is primarily a policy problem and a political problem, not a science problem,” he said. “There’s enough food to feed everyone, but distributing it and making it accessible is a different story. If food was truly treated as a human right, we could make real, meaningful progress.”

It’s extremely important, though, to understand how climate variability and change will affect people, and that knowledge is part of the solution. Connecting the dots between his own research and others’ expertise, Battisti contributes to the mosaic that is our understanding of climate and its impacts. These partnerships don’t just benefit the academic community, but also gain the attention of policymakers—individuals who can shape the world as we all experience it in our own communities.

“Pointing out the severity of the problem is something that people in positions of power should hear,” Battisti said.

Written by: Kelly Knickerbocker, kknick@uw.edu