Internet famous climate scientist with North Bay roots sounds the alarm over climate crisis
Daniel Swain was 6 years old when the storm hit. Now 33, he still has vivid memories of the downed trees and power lines, the cyclone-force winds that shattered the front window of his family’s ridgetop house in San Rafael.
That December 1995 megastorm “was kind of frightening, but also kind of exciting and certainly fascinating,” recalled Swain, an ex-meteorological prodigy who as a teenager installed a weather station on the roof of that house. He was still a student at San Rafael High School when he created Weather West, a blog on weather and climate that is, 16 years later, one of the most influential of its kind.
Swain’s lifelong enthrallment with weather led to a career that gives him a front-row seat on the perils now facing the planet — and a megaphone to provide the world with a play-by-play.
As a climate scientist at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, he’s written and co-authored dozens of articles for scholarly journals. That expertise, along with a different set of skills, has propelled Swain to a profile unusually high for a self-described “weather geek.”
If his name seems familiar, that’s probably because you’ve seen him quoted in print, or caught some of his hits on national television — such as the segment in which he had no choice but to school Tucker Carlson of Fox News.
Swain’s considerable talent as a researcher — he’s also a climate fellow at the Nature Conservancy of California, and a research fellow at the National Center for Atmospheric Research — is matched by his knack for making science widely accessible, translating arcane concepts into language easily understood by the layperson.
Prolific on Twitter, he’s masterful at forecasting, then live-tweeting storms, wildfires, heat waves and other atmospheric goings on, such as the massive lightning storm that lit up California on June 22 and 23.
In 2013, to better describe a vast high-pressure system that had stalled over the West Coast, diverting storms away from California, he coined the phrase “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge,” which now has its own Wikipedia entry.
Think of Swain as a millennial Bill Nye the Science Guy — minus the bow tie, but packing much beefier bona fides as a researcher.
The thing about shouting ‘“Fire!” in a crowded theater, he once tweeted, “is that it makes total sense if the theater is actually on fire. When it comes to climate change, that’s essentially where we are right now.”
That tweet was 3½ years ago.
Road less traveled
Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric expert who is chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, describes psychological distance — “the idea that climate impacts are far away from us in time, or space, or relevance” — as “one of the greatest barriers to understanding the risks posed by climate change.”
Swain’s work, she said, “tears down this barrier,” underscoring the urgency of the situation, “showing everyone how climate change is here and now, affecting all of us today.”
While that work is important and righteous, it holds some risk. Swain is a “first-rate, world class climate scientist and modeler” with a tall stack of “extremely influential” publications to his credit, said Peter Kareiva, former director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Most scientists of Swain’s stature “would be pretty close to getting tenure,” he said.
Instead, Swain is blazing a different trail — one with far less job security.
Before Swain arrived at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, his role as a science communicator did not exist. “We created the position specifically because of his talents,” said Kareiva, who is now CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.