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Tim Barnett, UC San Diego scientist who developed reliable way to predict El Ninos, dies at 84

There were moments in 1997 when catching game fish off San Diego was startling easy. A natural phenomenon called El Nino made the ocean unusually warm, causing prized species like yellowfin tuna to swim north from Mexico in high numbers.

The El Nino also brought death and destruction, enhancing storms that killed 17 people in California and destroyed everything from roads to piers to hillside homes. San Diego got 17.16 inches of rain, mostly during the winter months. That was nearly double the city’s average.

Pretty much all of this was preceded by a warning that would change science.

At considerable risk to his reputation, Tim Barnett, a bold, no-nonsense marine physicist at UC San Diego, predicted that a powerful El Nino was developing and that its effects might be felt worldwide.

Researchers are citing the achievement to honor Barnett, who died at his home in La Jolla on August 12, not far from where he worked for decades at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He was 84 and had been battling Parkinson’s disease, according to his family.

Other scientists also were seeing distinct signs of El Nino. But Barnett and his colleagues candidly spoke about it publicly during a workshop at Scripps that August, and made it clear to the journalists present that people should prepare for possible trouble.

It was the clearest public declaration of its kind at the time, and it turned out to be right. The El Nino was one of the worst on record, inflicting pain from San Diego to Somalia. Time would show that Barnett and a colleague at Scripps, David Pierce, had produced a reliable way to forecast the rise, spread and strength of El Ninos — science that’s since become very sophisticated.

The breakthrough was one of several landmark findings by Barnett and Pierce, whose work enriched Scripps’ reputation as a diviner of how the ocean, sea, and humans interact.

In 2005, the duo and their colleagues in Northern California published a paper that clearly showed carbon dioxide and other pollutants were contributing to the warming of the world’s oceans. The researchers said the greenhouse gases were tied to human activity, and could eventually lead to water shortages in the western U.S.

Over time, the study helped scientists around the world definitively prove that humans are behind global warming.

Barnett and Pierce built on that study in 2008, predicting that there was a 50 percent chance that Lake Mead — which provides water to California, Arizona, Nevada and parts of Mexico — could largely go dry by 2021. They tied the threat to climate change, natural variation in climate, and the problematic way that reservoirs in the west were being managed.

The lake, formed long ago by the Hoover Dam, did not go dry last year. But the nation’s biggest reservoir is currently at 27 percent capacity, the lowest its been in 85 years, says NASA.

“Tim had a keen sense of what the important problems and issues were and how to address them scientifically,” said Dan Cayan, a Scripps climate change researcher who gave the opening talk at the August 1997 workshop on El Nino. “He was a pioneer.”

Barnett’s life and work were inextricably linked to the ocean from the very beginning.

He was born on September 23, 1938 in Long Beach, where his father, Fred, and his mother, Maryanne, hustled to make a living as commercial fishermen.

They got their son involved at an early age. All three often went to sea for 10 days at time, trying to grab their share of fish like albacore, back when albacore were plentiful.

The family moved to the Bird Rock section of La Jolla in 1967, shortly after Barnett finished earning a doctorate in oceanography at Scripps. He often waded into the sea in front of their home, doing short dives to collect abalone for dinner.

It was a heady time to enter science. In quick succession, researchers had produced the first accurate computer model of Earth’s climate and began using research satellites, helping them hone in how things were changing.

Barnett, an avid surfer and diver, spent a lot of time trying to decode what nature was telling him. He pored over water temperature data from broad swaths of ocean, noting when and where things were changing. He’d find tell-tale signals in the noisy data.

Those signals helped him demystify El Nino, a phenomenon that involves a grand chain reaction.

First, westward-bound trade winds in the Pacific weaken. Then much of the warm surface water heads east, along the equator. This alters the path of the jet stream, making it more likely to carry storms into the southern region of the U.S., and up the West Coast. Calamitous storms frequently follow.

Such research was badly needed. In 1982-83, California was pulverized by an unexpected El Nino.

“There was a big science meeting at the time and no one knew El Nino was brewing in the ocean,” Pierce said.

Computer modeling improved, leading to the famous prediction Barnett and Pierce made in 1997. They warned of a big El Nino. Columbia University said the opposite.

The Scripps prediction caused a sensation among the public and lawmakers. Barnett appeared before Congress and was pointedly asked what he thought about the “over-reaction” to his announcement.

“Worries the hell out of me, very frankly,” he replied. “They’re not leaving any room for uncertainty.”

Some Congressman were skeptical not only of the forecast, but of the broader idea that humans were causing the planet to turn warmer. Barnett countered with disarming charm.

“He would get visitors from Congress or the Senate or sometimes the Cabinet — people who were not susceptible to the idea that the climate was changing,” Pierce said.

“He would talk to them about hunting or sportfishing and these Congress people would just roll over and purr for him. He could talk to Nobel Prize winners equally as well. It was extraordinary, really.”

That didn’t mean Barnett enjoyed it all.

“He didn’t like BS or bureaucrats,” said Blake Barnett, one of his three sons. “He measured people by what they produced.”

The thing he found sweet and irresistible was the ocean. For years, Barnett, his wife Judie, and sons Blake, Steven and Willie, would vacation in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, far from the madding crowd.

“This was when we were boys,” Blake Barnett said. “We’d go live in a tent on the beach for three weeks. No shower, no toilet. No radio. There was a Coleman stove.

“We’d go out in a 14-foot boat to catch fish for lunch and dinner, and later dive for clams. My father would say, ‘Take only what you need. Respect the ocean. Make it sustainable.’ ”

Barnett is survived by his three sons and seven grandchildren.

File source

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