A Scientist's Life: Adrian Borsa

Geophysicist measures the bending of the earth to better understand where water is and where it's flowing

Adrian Borsa is a geophysicist and professor at the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Borsa took an atypical route to science, beginning with a B.A. in Government from Harvard University, an M.A. in International Relations from what is now UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, and an early career in international business. He received his Ph.D. in geophysics from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 2005, and returned to Scripps and to full-time scientific research in 2012.

explorations now (en): What do you do for a living?

Adrian Borsa (AB): I measure the subtle deformation of Earth's surface to investigate how water moves through the earth's system. My research is at the boundary of geophysics and hydrology. I use the tools of solid earth geophysics to understand how water cycles through the Earth's system. One of the things I'm interested in is how my work translates in a practical sense to questions of policy or water management.

en: What are some of the main questions those in your field are trying to answer?

AB: One of the biggest questions we're trying to answer is how much water will be available to both human and natural systems in California. Thinking ahead to the impact of climate change in California, one of the big questions is will we see more or less water? Or will we see more snow versus rainfall? And how will that impact spring runoff? All of these questions get back to how much water will be available for farmers in the Central Valley or individuals living in cities. Of course, we're trying to speak to other scientists in our field. At the same time, we're hoping that water managers across the state of California or in the western U.S. will be able to use these results and better manage their own systems.

For example, knowing how much water is currently in the Sierra Nevada snowpack and understanding how much water may be available through the spring snowmelt allows water managers to better manage their systems. In the Central Valley, most farmers are pumping water every single year. This year promises to be a year when they have too much water. The question is how can we best manage that water? How can we best store it for the future?

en: What are the tools you use in your research?

AB: One of the primary tools I use in my research is the Global Positioning System (GPS). This is not the GPS that's in your phone, but scientific-grade instruments that are deployed across the landscape. We have GPS instruments on the tops of mountains and in deserts. This scientific-grade GPS can measure incredibly subtle motions of Earth's surface, below even one millimeter. The way we use those observations is to tell how much water is in the environment around us and how that is changing over time. If a large storm comes and drops a lot of snow on the Sierra Nevada, the mountains will depress under the weight of that snow. Snow melts, water runs off and the mountains rebound. In effect, we're using the Earth as a giant scale to weigh how much water is on its surface. GPS allows us to measure the motions of the Earth, and in turn we can go back and determine how water is distributed, how it's both entering and exiting the system. Tracking this over time, we can see signatures of individual storms, long periods of incredibly wet weather like we're experiencing now, or even droughts.

en: Can you tell us more about the classes you teach?

AB: Being a professor at a research institution like UC San Diego means that I do more mentoring and research than I might at a teaching university. That said, I teach a large, lower division undergraduate class aptly called “The Earth” with nearly 600 students enrolled. We cover the standard topics you would expect, like earthquakes and volcanoes, and we investigate rivers, deserts, glaciers, floods, and more. We cover the entire earth as a whole system, and with that we're getting to the idea that Earth is a living, breathing planet. On the topic of climate change, one student project uses Google Earth to investigate glaciers in Alaska. I asked them to go back in time and look at these glaciers as they're evolving over the past decades.

One of the shocks to the students on the first day is that I tell them they will be turning in their assignments on Instagram and they're wondering why we would ever use Instagram for something like this class. But what we're doing is creating a learning community. Because as soon as they start to interact with each other, it becomes more than just an individual student taking this class on their own.

Most of these students are not in the Earth sciences or not in the sciences at all. And it's exciting for me to impart knowledge about our planet to students, many of whom will go off into various careers, and my hope is that they will bring the knowledge that they took from my class and apply it to whatever they do. Maybe this will be knowledge about climate change, or about earthquakes in Southern California, but whatever it is, I feel like I have done my part in our broader academic and educational endeavor.

en: Why did you want to come to Scripps Oceanography?

AB: Scripps is at its heart an observational institution. We build instruments, deploy instruments, gather the data, and interpret those data to tell stories about Earth. I'm very much an observational scientist. I love looking at things. I love discovering things. In a way, Scripps is a place where exploration is happening in a different sense than it might have happened in the past. We now look at remote sensing data from satellites or from aircraft, and essentially it's opening a new window into Earth, into the processes that are shaping our planet - and that’s what I love to do.


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