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This Get to Know post is the latest in a series of posts highlighting and celebrating the contributions of exemplary scientists emeriti. Their work, experience, and contributions are essential to the mission of the USGS.

How is Julio Betancourt contributing significantly as an emeritus to the current mission of the USGS, your mission area, and your science center? 

Julio first joined the SDC when he retired in May 2018, bringing to our small center scientific breadth, deep institutional memory, and a distinguished record as a scientist, leader, and mentor. During a career that now spans four decades, Julio published a couple of books and nearly 200 articles in an impressive array of journals, and he keeps growing and expanding the list as Emeritus. In 2021, he co-authored a multidimensional and timely study of a massive fire in Arizona, a unique analysis of ancient DNA, and a detailed reconstruction of past rainfall in the Central Andes. As testament to both his breadth and national and international reputation, Julio has received honors from five different professional societies and received the Presidential Rank Award from the White House in 2008. He also brings to the SDC a unique set of experiences in support of policy and management decisions, having mounted a successful regional non-profit, an enduring and popular national network, and the Council of Senior Science Advisors (COSSA) — an impactful advisory body that includes many of our top scientists in the Bureau. Below, enjoy reading about the Emeritus that ignored advice early on to follow a narrow path, stumbled over a cliff along the way, but ultimately found success carving his own fascinating journey. 

Emily Pindilli 
Center Director 
Science and Decisions Center 


What attracted or brought you to work for USGS in the first place?

I began with the USGS when I was a graduate student at the University of Arizona in the 1980s. I was based at the Desert Laboratory, a long-term ecological research site and intellectual watering hole just west of downtown Tucson. Also at the Desert Lab was an outpost of the USGS National Research Program (NRP) of the Water Resources Division, which hired me to conduct research on the hydrology, ecology, and paleoecology of the semi-arid West.

Julio Betancourt

My student wages came from the USGS Minority Participation in Earth Science (MPES) Program, which ran successfully from 1972 until 2003, when it was ended by legal and administrative challenges to affirmative action. My wife and I started having kids while in graduate school. Without MPES support, my scientific career could have taken a different turn, the so-called “leaky pipeline” that often derails women and minorities.

As a graduate student and part-time USGS employee, I was given free rein to initiate exciting research and quickly published several journal articles unrelated to my thesis. I finished my Ph.D. as my boss, the late Ray Turner, was retiring, and the NRP hired me to replace him. I turned down two good faculty jobs to join the USGS, and never looked back.

How long did you work at USGS before you retired and how long have you been an Emeritus?

I worked for the USGS for 35 years, all of it in the Water Mission Area, 30 years while based in Tucson and five years in Reston. I have been an Emeritus since retiring in 2018.

What was your last title/position at USGS before you retired and became an Emeritus?

I was first hired as a GS-5 temp in 1983 and became a permanent hire as a GS-11 in 1987. I rose through the RGE ranks until promoted to ST (rank for scientists in the Senior Executive Service) in 2004. I retired as an ST (Research Hydrologist) in 2018.

What Science Center do you answer to as an Emeritus?

The Science and Decisions Center in the Northeast Region.

What are you most proud of during your career with the USGS?

I take pride in working the seams between disciplines to explore fundamental science questions and address societal issues, including global change and its impacts. This interdisciplinarity was facilitated by collaboration with many talented colleagues and students and the steady trust placed in me by the USGS and the University of Arizona, where I served as Adjunct Professor for three decades in three different colleges. There were lots of advantages for a federal scientist to be co-located at a major research university with an intentional culture of multidisciplinarity.

I devoted much of my career to studying how climate variability and change drive regional drought, flood, and fire frequencies in the U.S., as well as defining baselines of environmental change at seasonal to millennial timescales in the Americas. My early work on how tropical Pacific variability (El Niño and La Niña) influences the annual occurrence of floods and wildfires in the American Southwest challenged critical assumptions in flood frequency estimation and helped jumpstart the emerging field of fire climatology. Later, I used both tree rings and instrumental records to show that decadal-to-multidecadal scale variations in hydroclimate, characterized by a patchwork of regional wet and dry spells across the U.S., are modulated by complex interactions between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. In the 1980s, abrupt and persistent regional warming began to obscure these ocean-hydroclimatic teleconnections, leading to longer and hotter growing seasons, earlier snowmelt, less snow accumulation, diminished streamflow, falling reservoir levels, widespread tree mortality, and longer, more severe wildfire seasons across the American West.

These worrying trends motivated me to analyze patterns and drivers of large-scale variations in the timing of seasonal transitions (spring and fall), consider their influence on evolutionary, ecological, and hydrological processes at different spatial scales, and help forge an interdisciplinary community of practice focused on seasonal timing in hydroclimate and phenology (defined as the study of events in the annual life cycle of plants and animals and their timing). To remedy the dearth of long-term and broadscale phenological data, in 2007 I helped establish the National Phenology Network (NPN), funded in large part by the USGS. The NPN is a large-scale network of repeated and integrated plant and animal phenological observations and the tools to analyze them at local to national scales. The network is now in its 15th year and brings together thousands of volunteer observers, government agencies, non-profit groups, educators, and students of all ages to make routine and standardized observations of seasonal phenomena.

I spent much of my life and career in Tucson and fell in love with the Sonoran Desert and its Sky Islands. Beginning in the early 2000s, I became concerned that invasive grasses, including African buffelgrass, were altering fire regimes and converting fireproof desert scrub to flammable grassland. At jeopardy are public safety, a vibrant tourism industry, and protected public lands, from world-renowned national parks and monuments to military facilities vital to our national defense. In 2008, I helped establish a non-profit partnership, the Southern Arizona Buffelgrass Coordination Center, that sparked congressional field hearings, mounted an energetic outreach and volunteer effort, coordinated multi-jurisdictional efforts, and assembled technical knowledge needed to inform mitigation. The effort to curtail buffelgrass spread is still vibrant and ongoing.

I enjoy a hard-won perspective on plant invasions and ecological responses to climate, having played a leading role throughout my career in reconstructing vegetation dynamics of the North and South American deserts over the last 50,000 years. My tool of choice is urine-cemented heaps of plant and animal remains accumulated by woodrats (packrats) and preserved for thousands of years in caves and rock shelters. I used these fossil rodent middens to chronicle plant community disassembly and assembly, track plant migrations, and assess physiological and evolutionary responses to shifting climate and atmospheric CO2 levels during the current glacial-interglacial cycle. I also pioneered midden research in the South American deserts, where other rodents produce similar cave deposits. I am particularly proud that Chilean students that I recruited and trained to study South American middens are now tenured professors and represent the vanguard of desert paleoecology worldwide.

What led you to decide to become an Emeritus?

Julio Betancourt-Field Work
I spent many fun and productive field seasons with colleagues and students reconstructing the environmental history of the hyperarid Atacama Desert and Pacific slope of the Andes in northern Chile. Here is a photo from our 2002 field season, with me on the far right. We are standing in a wispy steppe grassland at ~13,000 ft in elevation with the volcanic peak in the background towering above 22,000 ft.

In 2013, I moved my office to Reston, but left a functioning paleobiology lab in capable hands in Tucson. Before we both retired, my long-term technician and I entered digitized midden data in an international community database, closed the Tucson lab, and migrated (repatriated) our sizeable midden collections to the University of Arizona and Pontificia Universidad Católica in Santiago, Chile. Migration of the North American midden archive required executing a long-term cooperative agreement with the University of Arizona and shipping the South American midden collection to Santiago in an 800-lb crate via diplomatic pouch. We also found proper homes in the USGS for all our lab equipment and supplies. I mention this because retiring from a long and productive scientific career takes considerable planning, time, and labor. When we retire, some of us become emeriti to defer closing our offices and labs and archiving our data and physical collections. That was not the case for me. I became an emeritus because I felt strongly about continuing to provide the USGS with institutional memory, mentoring, vision, and leadership. Taking care of business before I retired freed up time to push papers out the door, start new collaborations, and engage in meaningful service.

What exciting research or service activities are you currently working on, and what are you planning for the near future?

Like most emeriti, my research entails refining studies that I was already pursuing on several fronts before I retired. For example, my colleagues and I have been mining both our North and South American midden databases and fossil archives for novel analyses. We showed that woodrat body size across western North America adapted symmetrically to both warming and cooling during the last 25,000 years (Balk et al 2019 Quaternary Research). In another study, we established that plant community assembly in the Sonoran Desert lagged the regional warming that occurred with the last disappearance of ice from a previous glaciated region (deglaciation), with many communities still not in equilibrium with present climate (Butterfield et al. 2019 Global Ecology & Biogeography). In a related paper, we identified plant dispersal traits associated with both the resistance to warming and the lagged colonization (Butterfield et al 2019 Ecology). In the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, we used rodent middens to chronicle the timing and magnitude of wet episodes and relied on transient climate model simulations to link them to both high and low latitude atmospheric teleconnections during the last 16,000 years (Gonzalez et al. 2021 Science Advances).

We are also helping pioneer the analysis of ancient DNA (aDNA) in middens. We used shotgun metagenomics to study the aDNA obtained from North American woodrat middens up to 32,000 years old. Plant taxonomic diversity from the metagenomics roughly tracks diversity in the assemblages determined by morphological examination of the plant remains (Moore et al 2020 Ecology & Evolution). We also report the results of the first targeted investigation of insect ancient DNA to positively identify beetle remains to species, and place them in a current phylogenetic context, in middens up to 34,000 years old (Smith et al 2021 Scientific Reports).

I’m also excited about two other collaborations. A multidisciplinary team, which I originally assembled for an earlier study, synthesized emerging evidence that semi-permanent climate dipoles, defined as recurrent geographic patterns of antiphased climate variability, can push and pull population and ecosystem dynamics (phenology, demography, migration) in terrestrial and marine systems at continental to global scales (Zuckerberg et al. 2020 Trends in Ecology and Evolution). A promising future application would be to explore how climatic dipoles entrain socioeconomic dynamics, from water and energy use and demand, to commodity futures, at continental to global scales.

My most recent collaboration involved the 2020 Bighorn Fire, which burned 120,000 acres in the Santa Catalina Mountains and led to unprecedented evacuations of Tucson subdivisions in during the second hottest and driest summer on record. I co-led the study with a former undergrad in my lab who is now director of the Desert Lab and other former collaborators and students. Our study entailed a multidimensional analysis of the fire's spread along the grassland-desertscrub ecotone in the wildland urban interface, which is in various stages of buffelgrass invasion. The study addresses the spread of broad ignition fronts from grass-invaded desert shrublands to forested highlands, and vice versa, that could transform the fire and vegetation mosaic in the western U.S. (Wilder et al 2021 Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution).

As a member of the College of Fellows, I am active in service for the American Geophysical Union (AGU). In 2018 and 2019, I chaired the James B. Macelwane Medal Committee. The Macelwane Medal is awarded to five honorees each year, selected from a nomination pool of 60+ outstanding early career scientists across all AGU sections. Now regular events at AGU Fall Meetings, from 2018 to 2020 I helped organized the Macelwane Early Career and Student Breakfast and organized the New Generation of Scientists Union Session, a panel discussion involving each year’s Macelwane Medalists and their mentoring experiences. I am a member of the AGU Honors & Recognition Committee and chair its Canvassing Oversight Committee. Also from 2018 to 2020, I co-chaired and participated in the College of Fellows’ Mentoring Network in which senior scientists meet once a month with six-newly minted Ph.D.’s for a year. Mentoring during the pandemic exacerbated many existing challenges for early career scientists.

What do you enjoy and appreciate the most about being an Emeritus?

The USGS presently has over 500 emeriti. Our Scientist Emeritus Program is arguably the finest in the federal government, and it certainly rivals that of most academic institutions. Even though I no longer collect a paycheck, I am afforded a myriad of opportunities to contribute to my science center and the Bureau. In 2016, with the blessing of then USGS Director Suzette Kimball, my fellow senior scientists and I helped establish the Council of Senior Science Advisors (COSSA). COSSA is an advisory group to the USGS Director made up of all our Executive Service scientists (STs and SLs) and past Presidential Early Career in Science and Engineering (PECASE) awardees across all disciplines (65 COSSA members in all). The idea for EarthMAP, a bureau-wide initiative to modernize and integrate our science, was hatched at a 2017 workshop led by COSSA. I am still active in COSSA, serve as an ex-officio member of its executive committee, and value my occasional interactions with bureau leadership.

Here I am at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico in 1979 with Tom Van Devender, who taught me how to collect and analyze fossil woodrat middens and inspired my lifelong interest in natural history.

Have you had any great career mentors, and if so, what made them great?

Julio Betancourt-Chaco Canyon, New Mexico Field Work
Here I am at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico in 1979 with Tom Van Devender, who taught me how to collect and analyze fossil woodrat middens and inspired my lifelong interest in natural history.

I have had an embarrassing wealth of fantastic mentors at every stage in my career. Each gave me something different, a mirror to see my reflection, a model for being a thoughtful scientist, collaborator and mentor, a sound board for crazy ideas, affirmation for my decisions, and lifelong friendships. Mentors come in all flavors. The good ones spark enthusiasm, introduce you to useful tools, ideas, and colleagues, and leave room for discovery. They highlight good areas to roam but don’t prescribe every step. And great mentors should never, ever begrudge your successes. When I hear from former students and younger colleagues that I’m a good mentor, I recognize that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. It took a village of outstanding mentors to raise me right.

What is your best advice for early and mid-career scientists?

Everyone’s path is unique, so carve out your own. Follow your instincts and curiosity and avoid arbitrary formulas and checking off boxes to advance. Seek advice but don’t follow it blindly; some of the counsel you get may be wrong for you. In my first performance review in the late 1980s, a Research Grade Evaluation (RGE) panel indicated that my multidisciplinarity could become a distraction, and that I should focus on just one or two subjects. After receiving reassurances from the head of the NRP, who actually hired me, I ignored the guidance and am glad I did.

What’s the biggest risk you have ever taken?

Without a doubt, the biggest risks I ever took involved the many years of rock climbing (mostly without ropes) to collect middens in faraway and cliffy places. I suffered my first bad accident Down Under in July 2000. While helping a colleague search for Pleistocene middens in Australia, I fell off a cliff in a box canyon east of Alice Springs and suffered a gruesome compound fracture to my left leg. My rescue was complicated and involved a retired Australian Marine Corps officer and his wife, their canoe, a long rope, and a 4-wheel ambulance sent from Alice Springs Hospital. There was only one orthopedic surgeon in Alice Springs, a gifted and earnest Sri Lankan who had just completed his residency. That night, as attendants rolled me into the "theater" for the first operation, my surgeon informed me that my leg was shattered badly… and that he may to have amputate. He managed to spare my leg and I spent three weeks in Alice Springs Hospital, avoiding blood clots and grumbling incessantly that I fell off a cliff on the flattest continent on Earth. To this day, my family and I are still grateful for all the strings that then DOI Secretary Babbitt and his staff pulled to get me home safe and sound.

Where did you travel last, domestically or internationally?

Julio Betancourt Trip to Vermont

In early October of 2021, my wife Terry and I vacationed in Vermont during peak foliage. Some quick highlights include the 1,400-acre Ethan Allen Homestead in Burlington, upper treeline on Mount Mansfield, the Stowe Recreational Path, Robert Lincoln’s (Abe’s son) summer home in Manchester, and all the beautiful hikes and covered bridges in the Green Mountains. I would do this trip again in a flash.

What advice would you give someone who is contemplating retirement and the life that follows?

We all retire for different reasons. I never counted the days to retirement but knew all along I would call it quits at age 67 and planned accordingly. Though I still had a lot of gas left in the tank, I retired to make way for the next generation of USGS scientists, spend more time with my nuclear and extended families, and devote gobs of time every day to enjoying nature. I anticipated that I would flunk retirement, so I carefully set into motion research collaborations and service to keep me busy and useful for years to come. This initial groundwork removed a lot of the uneasiness associated with retirement, which has gone better than I expected thus far.

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