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Originally published December 8, 2009 at 1:21 AM | Page modified December 8, 2009 at 2:16 AM

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UW climate scientist warms to work on food supply

University of Washington climate scientist David Battisti's research on the fundamental workings of ocean and atmosphere helped refine the understanding of global warming's regional impacts. But his interests have changed. He's now focusing some of his efforts on studying what a warming world could mean to agriculture.

Seattle Times science reporter

The bureaucratic brawl over greenhouse gases continues today in Copenhagen — and University of Washington climate scientist David Battisti is glad he's not there.

Battisti's research on the fundamental workings of ocean and atmosphere helped refine the understanding of global warming's regional impacts. But what happens at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Denmark is mostly politics, not science, he says. And anyway, his interests have changed.

These days, Battisti is just as likely to be meeting with Mexican wheat breeders as puzzling over prehistoric storm-track dynamics. He's collaborating on a seed bank for Indian farmers whose crops are threatened by rising temperatures. He joined forces with economists to predict what global warming will mean for rice fields in southern China.

"It's refreshing to do work that people care about," Battisti said. "Most people find my basic research really boring."

Battisti, 53, is not the only climate researcher shifting some of his efforts from pure theory to the real world. Many young scientists are more keen to explore the impacts of climate and climate change than the basics of atmospheric circulation, said John M. Wallace, a pioneer of the UW's climate programs.

"We have seen a lot of movement in that direction ... and I would include myself," said Wallace, who has turned his attention to the problem of snowpack in a warming world.

As he's done throughout his career, Battisti caught the wave early.

It started eight years ago with an appeal for help from a group of agricultural economists at Stanford University struggling to forecast rice harvests in Indonesia. They knew El Niño was key but needed a climate expert to figure out how the system worked.

Battisti fit the bill. His early analysis of why El Niño patterns shift was a breakthrough, Wallace said. In a field where a scientific paper is considered influential if it's referenced by 30 other studies, several of Battisti's publications have garnered more than 100 citations.

And the plain-spoken New York native can explain science without making people's eyes glaze over.

"David is a good storyteller," said doctoral student Robert Nicholas, who was lured to Seattle by Battisti's energy and enthusiasm.

Tall and thin, Battisti sports an Errol Flynn mustache and a halo of curls that might encounter a comb on special occasions. He talks fast and thinks faster.

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"He throws out ideas left and right," Nicholas said. "When I get out of a meeting with him, I have to go through a blitz of note-writing so I can remember everything we talked about."

It's not uncommon for colleagues to receive e-mails from Battisti at 2 a.m. During the day, it's tough to catch him in his office. He's more likely hunched over a stack of papers in one of several coffee shops, where he consumes an average of eight "espresso units" a day.

"I don't think he ever sleeps," said Walter Falcon, Stanford professor of international agricultural policy.

Climate curiosity

Battisti never had applied his climate skills to agriculture, but he was primed to care about farmers in the developing world. As a boy, he spent his weekends and summers milking cows and baling hay on his grandparents' dairy.

He quickly immersed himself in the minutiae of rice cultivation, international markets and Indonesian culture. "There's almost nothing that doesn't interest him," Falcon said.

The collaboration yielded a model based on ocean temperatures that the Indonesian government uses to forecast harvests and plan supplementary rice purchases. Battisti and Nicholas pulled together a similar model for a wheat-growing region in northern Mexico.

Battisti said it's great to see his work actually helping others. But he admits his main motivation is still curiosity about what makes climate tick.

"I like problems that make you rethink how the world works."

In Mexico, for example, he and Nicholas turned conventional wisdom on its head when they discovered rainfall in winter, not summer, was the key to filling reservoirs and ensuring good wheat harvests.

Climate change looms large in agriculture, and Battisti and his colleagues soon began asking themselves what the future might hold.

In Indonesia, they found unchecked warming could halve rice harvests in some areas within 50 years. On a global scale, they calculated that average growing-season temperatures around much of the world likely will be higher than ever before in recorded history by 2100. Crops such as corn, rice and wheat grow faster when it's hot, but produce less grain. So yields could drop 20 to 40 percent.

Battisti now is convinced that global warming's threat to the food supply is far more pressing than the melting glaciers and rising sea levels that grab most of the headlines.

He's always careful, though, to separate science from policy.

"I don't have any special place to say what, if anything, should be done," he said. "But I do have a special role to make sure the science is not misrepresented."

Initially a skeptic

Few would accuse Battisti of being part of what some climate skeptics call Al Gore's zombie army. Battisti originally was skeptical himself that global warming would be a serious problem, and his research helped undermine two of the most calamitous global-warming scenarios: that disruption of the Gulf Stream "conveyor belt" might plunge Europe into a deep freeze, and that climate might flip abruptly.

He wasn't among the climate scientists whose hacked e-mails have led to accusations of data manipulation and fraud. But in typical fashion, Battisti deconstructed the most damning messages for students in his introductory course to global warming. His conclusion: The arrogance revealed in some messages is troubling, but there's no indication of scientific fraud and nothing that negates the evidence for global warming.

Basic climate science remains Battisti's bread and butter, accounting for 90 percent of his research funding. But he spends nearly as much time working on agriculture projects, paid for by a patchwork of private foundation money and small federal grants.

The future of agriculture will be barely a blip on the agenda at Copenhagen. A group of 60 of the world's top agricultural experts pointed out the oversight last month in a statement calling for more work to preserve and develop crops that will thrive in a hotter, drier world.

The signatories included a single climate scientist.

Guess who?

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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