Meet an Austinite: Dr. David Hillis, weather-predictor

I emailed the amazing weather-predicting professor, Dr. David Hillis (from a couple blog posts ago) to say I was a fan, and he agreed to an interview.  Score!

What follows is a weather exclusive on what to expect over the next few years in Texas, brought to you by Move to Austin.  Courtesy of someone much smarter than me. When you look at Dr. Hillis' bio page at UT it says: "Some of my general areas of interest are phylogenetic relationships, speciation patterns and mechanisms, molecular evolution (including the use of experimental systems), and the consequences of hybridization and hybrid zones."  Sounds much better than my areas of interest -- quoting old episodes of ALF while snacking on burnt cheese.

First off, it must feel pretty cool to predict the weather. How did you get into that study? I'm not that well-versed in scientific terms, but it seems like your area of expertise is more biological than environmental. How does it relate to your work?
There are three primary reasons that I am interested in the weather. First, I am a biologist interested in the biodiversity of Texas, and our long-term weather patterns are related to yearly population increases and decreases of many species. I have been collecting information and studying our weather patterns to understand these cycles.

Second, I maintain Texas Longhorn cattle at my Double Helix Ranch. Ranchers in central Texas must plan for the drought cycles, or else they get caught with too large of a herd with not enough grass to feed all the animals. Buying hay in a drought can be very expensive, so it is important to plan for the droughts and wet periods well in advance. It is a huge help to be able to understand the long term weather patterns in planning for a cattle herd.

Third, I am an avid fruit and vegetable gardener, and I soon realized that some crops do well in Texas only when we have El Niño or La Niña years. In a La Niña winter, for example, I enjoy fresh, ripe tomatoes until well after Christmas from my fall garden, but I need an El Niño spring to have success with my spring/summer crop of tomatoes. People get frustrated gardening in Texas if they don't pay attention to the weather cycles, but they can have great gardens year-round if they pay attention and plant appropriately. They just should not expect every year to be the same. I'm expecting a bountiful crop of fruit from my plum and peach trees after this nice, cool, wet winter, which will be a change from the last few years. My pomegranates probably won't produce such great fruit this year, though, since they need hot, dry conditions to produce the best quality fruit (they were fantastic last year). By planting some fruit trees that like cool/wet as well as some that like hot/dry conditions, I can always enjoy good success from some fruit trees.

How long is the El Niño/La Niña cycle? You mentioned we're supposed to return to near-normal conditions this summer, but how long until we're in another drought?
The cycle is somewhat variable, but we usually get an El Niño episode about once every three to five years. La Niña episodes have occurred at about the same frequency in the past. In recent decades, however, El Niño episodes have been somewhat more frequent than La Niña episodes. This is consistent with global warming, which may favor El Niño conditions.

It is hard to say at this point exactly when we can expect the next drought. Most of the models for the next year do not favor the development of La Niña conditions, which lead to droughts in central Texas. In the past 25 years, we have had five major La Niña episodes, each associated with a major drought. So it is safe to assume that we will likely see another drought within the next five years or so, but probably not in 2010.

As an aside, the local news media can be counted on to say that almost every drought is "the worst drought on record" or "the worst drought in 50 (or 100) years". But if you look back, you can see that they say the same thing every three to five years. They seem to have a very short memory. In truth, the drought of the early 1950s in much of Texas has not been approached in severity or longevity in any recent decades. Many Texas rivers dried up completely during that drought and have not stopped flowing again since then. I would hate to see central Texas in another drought that severe, especially with our huge growth in population. Another 1950s-like drought with the population of today would spell widespread disaster for much of Texas.

How did you come to live in Austin?
I have always loved Austin and visited here often when I was in college, so I jumped at a chance at a faculty position at the University of Texas when the opportunity arose in 1987 (I was on the faculty at University of Miami at the time). Although I was born in Denmark, parts of my family have lived in Texas for at least eight generations, so moving to Austin was kind of a home-coming for me.

What part of town do you live in, and what's your favorite thing about your neighborhood?
We live in Tarrytown, and I love the central location, the older neighborhoods, big trees, and the ability to walk to local shops. I like to ride my bike to work when the weather in nice, which is easy from my home to UT. I enjoy the fact that people at the local businesses know me and call me by name, and that I can do most of my shopping, car repair, etc. within walking distance of my home. Our kids enjoyed the local elementary school (Casis), although they went across town to the science and liberal arts magnet schools for junior high and high school (which they loved). I was very impressed by the Austin public schools, and both of my sons received great educations here.

I took the quiz (on your website) about places to live in Austin, and it suggested Hyde Park would fit my interests and needs. That neighborhood would also be a good fit for my family, and it is the other area of Austin where we looked for a home.

What would a perfect weekend in Austin be for you, assuming you had no responsibilities?
I spend most of my free weekends with my family at our ranch west of Austin, camping out, taking care of the Longhorns, riding horses, and enjoying nature in general. I also love canoeing on our local rivers, fly-fishing, and swimming in just about any natural body of water where there aren't large crowds of people (in the rivers, springs, and lakes of Texas).

What's your favorite restaurant?
It is hard to pick a favorite restaurant without specifying the occasion. Fonda San Miguel is one of my favorites for a nice dinner, but there so many great casual dining places all over Austin, and my family tends to frequent these casual places (like Magnolia Cafe, Taqueria Chapala, Madam Mam's, or Korea Garden).

Where's your favorite breakfast taco?
Taqueria Chapala at 2101 E Cesar Chavez Street in east Austin. When my son's Ultimate Team visits from college and we need to take 25 college-age boys out to eat, there is no better place! Great food at a bargain price, and they can even fill up hungry college students and make them smile with contented delight. I love their nopales, which I always order with any dish.

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