tech-science

The Climate Scientist Who Is Demystifying Extreme Weather

Dr. Daniel Swain studies climate change at UCLA, and is dedicated to helping us understand our warming planet.
December 11, 2020, 2:00pm
​Image: Michelle Urra
Image: Michelle Urra
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This year, more than any other, epitomized the dawn of human-driven climate disasters. While every recent year is a record-breaker, 2020 was exceptional: it had the most named Atlantic storms and hurricanes of any year and the worst wildfire season the Western US has ever seen

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Whether hiding from the smoke or sheltering in place thousands of miles away from it, Americans doomscrolled their way through the latest evidence that climate change is real, here, and happening now. For Dr. Daniel Swain, climate scientist at UCLA, weather is an obvious inroad into engaging people on climate change, as people are way more likely to respond to a fire or flood at their doorstep than a chart of rising emissions.

“People talk about the weather day to day, but they don't talk about climate change day to day,” Swain said. 

Swain studies climate science now, but he self-identifies as a “weather geek.” Through childhood and into college, he thought his obsession with the atmosphere would lead him to become a weather forecaster. Along the way, he found his sweet spot: the intersection of climate and weather. 

Climate is, of course, not weather, which is why it can snow in New York while the world is, on average, heating up. But climate change does influence the weather, in part by making extreme weather events more common

Swain studies why extreme events are changing, how we’re experiencing them, and what we can do to adapt to a new, disaster-prone world. This year, he released papers tying flood exposure and autumn wildfires in California to climate change, which is difficult and crucial research for constraining the complex effects of climate on weather. Looking forward, he’s interested in identifying ways to live with a changing climate and preparing communities to mitigate risk. 

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“We don’t have to completely fix the problem overnight,” Swain said. “There’s a lot we can do in the meantime to make people’s lives better.”

When he’s not tinkering with models, he’s tweeting his insights, blogging about Western US weather, or speaking to journalists and politicians. He started his blog, Weather West, long before his career as a scientist: he was a high-schooler looking to learn and build community around weather. He had no idea it would get so popular, or become a valuable tool for engaging with the public. 

In an age where climate science is particularly politicized, Swain believes in the importance of consistent science communication. With disinformation spreading as quickly as the Western wildfires, Swain thinks scientists must become more proactive about defending science. 

Earlier this year, for example, President Donald Trump blamed California’s unprecedented blazes on the state’s forest mismanagement, claiming that “it’ll start getting cooler” and that he didn’t think the “science knows” for sure about climate change. While forest management can help mitigate disaster, there is no question that climate change is contributing to the fires, Swain said. The state is exposed to hotter and drier conditions for longer periods of time, as the rains come later each year. 

Science has become partisan, but Swain holds hope that it can transcend politics. His audience comes from across the political spectrum, he said, and the conversation has stayed constructive and inviting.

Swain’s ability to give context to our experience of a changing world is due to his unique job description: he’s a climate science researcher at UCLA, a research fellow at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the California Climate Fellow at the Nature Conservancy. It’s hard to get that sort of institutional support to invest in communication, and the societal barriers are even higher for women and other underrepresented groups in science. Swain hopes that more researchers will have the opportunity to build public platforms. It’ll make humans better at understanding science, he said, but it will also makes the science more human. 

“These days, I try to ask physical science questions in addition to the more basic ones about how humans can adapt,” Swain said. “A lot of the work I do today is informed by conversations with strangers on the bus.”