Internet famous climate scientist with North Bay roots sounds the alarm over climate crisis

Shouting fire in a crowded theater “makes total sense,” says Daniel Swain, “if the theater is actually on fire.”|

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.”

Gifted communicator

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.

Swain’s strength as a “science communicator” makes him a valuable messenger, at a time when the need for such messengers has never been more urgent.

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.

“My role is very unusual, I’m lucky to have it,” Swain said, adding that his role is only possible thanks to ongoing support from The Nature Conservancy of California.

The importance of effective, impartial messengers became increasingly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, characterized by oceans of “misinformation and active disinformation,” said Swain, “where the reality you inhabit is now very much predictable by your political party.”

“That’s a huge problem, societally — well beyond climate change — and one I address in my capacity as a public-facing climate scientist.”

Elephant in the room

He had different ambitions, coming out of San Rafael High School.

At UC Davis, Swain worked toward his degree in Atmospheric Science, which put him on a career track to be a meteorologist, or weather forecaster.

At some point in that process, his goals shifted. Climate change, it became clear to him, would be the most important, overarching issue of his lifetime.

“I said, ‘OK, I’m still a weather geek, I still think the weather is cool. But climate change is the big elephant in the room.’”

He also noticed that many of the scientists writing and talking about climate change were not actually that well versed in weather, having approached the field from different areas of expertise.

“Maybe they were carbon cycle scientists, or high energy physicists, or ecologists or something,” he said.

Approaching the subject of climate change with his meteorology background seemed to Swain “an interesting angle that actually has a lot of societal relevance.” After all, he explained, “how we as a society experience climate change is through the shifting envelope of weather.”

In 2011 he enrolled at Stanford, where he earned a Ph.D. in Earth System Science. Swain’s time in Palo Alto coincided with a historic drought in the American West, followed quickly by an equally historic firestorm in Northern California. The infernos of October 2017 — including the Tubbs Fire, which burned some 3,000 homes in Santa Rosa alone — seemed to usher in a period of larger, more destructive wildfires. More than 6,200 homes were lost across the greater North Bay in that firestorm.

Scary superlatives

Swain’s decision to study the causes and impacts of extreme weather and climate events was made, it seemed, at a time such events were occurring more and more frequently.

“Let’s just say that was not a coincidence,” he said.

He wasn’t alone. Increasing scientific interest in extreme weather events, Swain points out, is the result of a surge in those events — not all of which, he qualified, can be chalked up to climate change.

“Extreme weather is not a monolith,” he said. Climate change is driving some weather extremes, but not all of them. It may not be responsible for extreme cold, for instance, or extreme wind.

“But the list of things that climate change isn't making worse is shorter than the list of things that it is, especially in a place like California, where we are seeing much worse wildfires, we’re seeing worse droughts, we're seeing more intense downpours” — on those vanishingly rare days when it does actually rain.

“This past year has really exemplified that,” he continued, “with one of the wettest days in state history” — Oct. 21, 2021 — “followed by the driest winter on record, in the middle of an extreme drought.”

“That’s a lot of superlatives,” said Swain, who was, pardon the pun, just getting warmed up.

The fires ravaging the Golden State over the past decade, Swain continued, inflicted a level of destruction unseen “not just in Northern California, but really anywhere in the world, since the advent of modern firefighting.

“It’s been a century, really, since we had fires that burned thousands of structures — except in wartime settings,” when that destruction was intentional.

“But now, we’re seeing fires that have burned thousands of homes, almost every year.”

Flood danger, winter wildfires

Lest people fixate too much on fire and drought, Swain reminds us that this region is experiencing extremes “at the other end of the spectrum.”

He’s collaborating with The Nature Conservancy on a project called ARkStorm 2.0, focusing — as its Old Testament-inspired handle suggests — on the rising risk of a mega-flood in California, a result of intensified atmospheric rivers ushered in by climate change.

That project also explores the possible use of “strategic flood plain management” including “levee setbacks, floodways and bypasses, and flood-managed aquifer recharge” to lessen those risks.

Swain is also collaborating with The Nature Conservancy on a project exploring how to better address California's accelerating wildfire crisis through the increased use of prescribed burns — fires set to thin forests of built-up fuel and prevent much bigger blazes.

The windows for safely conducting such intentional burns are narrowing, as fire season stretches at both ends. Indeed, the massive wildfires charring hundreds of thousands of acres in northern New Mexico in recent months began as prescribed burns that got out of control.

Experts are studying the feasibility of conducting prescribed burns during winter months, which are “getting warmer and drier in a lot of places,” said Swain.

He experienced that phenomenon firsthand on December 30, 2021, when the Marshall Fire, fanned by 100-mph winds, tore through an area southeast of Boulder, Colorado, not far from his home. That blaze, the most destructive in Colorado history, destroyed over 1,000 homes. Swain’s was spared.

A second wildfire, this one in late March, forced the evacuation of 19,000 people, including Swain. This time no homes were lost.

“These are strange things to be saying,” he noted, “given the calendar.”

Sometimes, for kicks, Swain will drive east out of Boulder, onto the Great Plains in search of supercell thunderstorms, one of which recently decanted a volley of hail onto his car.

Those dings were soon obscured by ash from wildfires in Arizona “that has landed on my car’s roof in the last few days,” he reported.

“I’m not sure if that’s a metaphor for something.”

What is sure is that Swain will keep explaining what is happening, and why, as this crowded theater continues to burn.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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