State Climatologist, a UMD Researcher, Calls for Diverse Scientific Voices as Climate Change Hits Globally
Photo by John T. Consoli
For a Baltimore urban farmer who needs to know spring rain trends for planting or a Chesapeake Bay waterman looking to confirm whether disruptively windy days are on the rise, Alfredo Ruiz-Barradas is ready with answers.
Since 2021, he has served as the Maryland state climatologist, in addition to his role as associate research professor at the University of Maryland’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science (AOSC). His office monitors Maryland’s climate; provides climate variability and change information to state decisionmakers, businesses and residents; and educates Marylanders on emerging climate trends and helps place extreme events in historical context.
The work of climatologists differs from that of meteorologists. While the latter focus on day-to-day ups and downs in temperature, sunshine and precipitation to help the public plan in the moment, the former assess these factors over longer periods of time.
“You can really appreciate more what is happening in the moment when you view things historically,” Ruiz-Barradas said, pointing to extreme weather events like flash floods and powerful thunderstorms, as well as evolving climate conditions.
Maryland’s varied geography, with mountains to the west, big cities in the center and a lengthy coastline, makes it challenging to generalize much about the state’s climate, though one thing is clear: “Warming is everywhere in the state,” he said. “There’s no escape, no matter where you live.”
That’s especially true in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. corridor, where buildings, concrete- and asphalt-covered surfaces absorb more solar radiation than in rural areas. While rural areas may be experiencing less intense warming trends, this should not be consolation: “We shouldn’t be satisfied with saying it’s just one degree or half a degree. The important thing is that temperatures are increasing everywhere, and if we don’t do anything to stop that, it will be difficult for everyone to have a comfortable life.”
Increasing spring and fall precipitation is another concerning trend, because it decreases the number of days available for planting and harvesting. Intense precipitation can lead to flash floods any time of year, but in spring they damage new crops, adversely impacting the state’s large agricultural sector. (Part of Ruiz-Barradas' research includes a study to understand climate vulnerabilities and develop a sustainable and resilient food production system in the state with investigators in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.)
Originally from Veracruz, Mexico, Ruiz-Barradas first came to the University of Maryland to pursue his doctorate in 1995. After earning his degree, he joined the faculty, researching historic climate issues such as the role of the Atlantic Ocean in the extended drought that led to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.
His expertise in the analysis and attribution of regional hydroclimate variability and change and statistical skills made him a natural fit for the state climatologist position, which traditionally is a researcher from AOSC, said department Chair and Professor Sumant Nigam. “Fortunately for us, we didn’t have to look far.”
Climate change’s far-reaching importance around the world means it’s critical to have diverse voices in the field, said Ruiz-Barradas. He encourages more young people to pursue climate science studies, which require specialists not only in the atmosphere or the ocean but in many other areas, such as applied math for modeling and data assimilation or chemistry for urban climate and pollution analyses. He hopes to bring students into the climatologist’s office as he expands its services.
These could include “more applications for tourism, for example, in the skiing areas around Deep Creek Lake out west or recreational activities and sailing in the Chesapeake Bay,” Nigam said.
Ruiz-Barradas is also looking forward to using data from the Maryland Mesonet Project, a network in the making of more than 75 weather-observing towers across the state that his office supports, and to joining the Maryland Commission on Climate Change in October as its first climate scientist, where he’ll take a more active role in making recommendations to mitigate the effects of regional warming, droughts, flooding and more across the state.
In the meantime, he encourages people to sign up for the office’s monthly bulletins and ask questions—even ones as specific as a recent query he got about the amount of rainfall in College Park in October 1967. “We are here to help every Marylander.”
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