Climate change continues to accelerate the frequency of extreme weather events. With it, the words we use to describe them are getting wackier. “Snowmaggedon,” “bomb cyclone,” “thundersnow” — all are now staples of the Weather Channel chyron. But what about “haboob”? “Megacryometeor”? The dreaded “zud,” anyone?
As a Ph.D. student at Stanford University in 2012, Daniel Swain made his own contribution to this modern lexicon amid an epic drought in California. The term he coined, “ridiculously resilient ridge,” had a surprisingly colloquial ring to it.
“Science really should be accessible to everybody,” says Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability (IoES). He’s at his house in Boulder, Colorado, which features a topographic map of the southern Rocky Mountains that peeks over his shoulder during his many Zooms. “There is this contemporary perception that science is quite elitist, which has a deep cultural undertone right now [that’s] causing some major issues in society. And while I don’t think that that is inherently true, I think there’s a kernel of truth in it.”
That ridiculously resilient ridge — essentially, an atmospheric wall that emerged to block the West Coast from normal weather fronts — produced a severe drought, the worst California has seen in a hundred years, if not in a millennium. Swain quickly became a go-to source in the media for sizing up devastating weather. “There were a ton of stories and people wanting to understand it,” Swain recalls. “I took the opportunity without knowing where it would lead.”
In the years since, Swain has evolved into one of the most prolific and highly sought-after climate experts in the country. He conducts nearly 200 interviews each year for newspaper, radio, television, podcasts and other nontraditional media, while also maintaining a popular blog and Twitter presence (83K followers) under the moniker Weather West. “The funny thing is, I never really read many blogs,” Swain says. “The irony about my career is that I’m actually, for the most part, a late tech adopter.”
Meanwhile, he’s a research fellow with the Nature Conservancy, National Center for Atmospheric Research and IoES — across them, publishing dozens of peer-reviewed papers on topics ranging from megafloods to megafires. It all adds up to a unique presence in the scientific, academic and public spheres, which has forced Swain to coin another term — “scientist-communicator” — as his chosen profession in life.
It’s critical work. What Carl Sagan did for space, Daniel Swain is doing for climate change. On television, on social media and in prose, he translates complex scientific findings for the masses in ways that spark wonder, curiosity and urgency. “Daniel studies a lot of alarming subjects but isn’t an alarmist,” says Raymond Zhong, a Pulitzer Prize-winning climate reporter for The New York Times. “He has the confidence and fluency that come from deep mastery of the material. He knows the data and the theory and the literature as well as anyone, but he also knows how to talk to nonscientists about it.”
Effecting change on a planetary scale has always been a priority of IoES, established in 1997 at the behest of Professor Emeritus Richard Turco. But that edict has proven harder to carry out in recent years, with far-right political attacks against climate science appearing more often in the mainstream. By some polls, between one-fourth and one-half of Americans deny the existence of man-made global warming, which makes amplifying the work of IoES that much more imperative.
“There is a growing recognition that part of the responsibility of conducting scientific research lies in communication,” says Marilyn Raphael, the director of IoES and a renowned climate scientist herself. “And informing people is not simply getting up there with your maps and charts. When Daniel communicates the results to the larger community, they can see its contribution to the larger community, and then they in turn will be less hesitant to support it.”
The ability to communicate the science of climate change in plain-talking terms is Swain’s calling card. But doing that via social media, which he views as his most powerful tool in that pursuit, has suddenly been threatened by Elon Musk’s tumultuous takeover of Twitter. “I think that there’s this view that scientists, or academics in general, live in some ivory tower,” Swain says. “And I think Twitter has been so great in that context. You had experts who were not just making themselves accessible, and not just engaging in stuffy scientific forums, but, you know, occasionally posting memes.”
Swain’s decision to stay on Twitter, like all of his work, derives from a simple mantra: Science is political, but not partisan. “I don’t see sticking around [on Twitter] as being supportive of the person operating the platform,” he says, “as much as supporting a platform that provides this important thing in contemporary society.”
A Weatherman at 16
Just like the weather he studies today, Swain was something of an anomaly as a kid, especially when it came to his television and media consumption. “We didn’t have cable growing up, so when we would stay in a hotel visiting my grandparents or something, I would watch the Weather Channel,” he says. “Now, I get to be on the Weather Channel.”
His fascination with extreme weather began at a young age, part of living in the Bay Area’s unique climate. As a 6-year-old in 1995, Swain experienced a record-setting megastorm that brought 100-mile-per-hour winds and 5 to 10 inches of rain over the course of a day and a half, an experience he describes as equal parts frightening and exhilarating. As a teenager, he installed a makeshift meteorology station on top of his family’s house; he launched Weather West as a 16-year-old still navigating the halls of high school.
While a lot of ’90s kids were enthralled by Nickelodeon or ESPN, Swain was watching NOVA on PBS and reading classic literature; his Ph.D. dissertation for Stanford opened with a quote from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. “In the dry years, we forget about the wet ones; and in the wet years, we forget about the dry ones,” Swain says, paraphrasing.
In the early days of Weather West, which was launched long before the heydays of Twitter or Facebook, the blog was more of a vanity project than the platform for distributing high-level climate analysis that it is today. The blog helped Swain hone his writing voice while solidifying his career path. He enrolled at UC Davis after high school and pursued an undergraduate degree in atmospheric science.
It was during his undergrad years that Swain confronted frustrating stereotypes about the field of meteorology being a pseudoscience, rather than the rigorous field of study that it is.
Ginger Zee, chief meteorologist for ABC News, has interviewed Swain on multiple occasions. She relates to the reality of widely held stereotypes about meteorologists. “If I walk out on the street, 60 or 70 percent of people will say, ‘Hey, you’re the weather girl from ABC!’ and I’m like, ‘Meteorologist, but how are you?’” Zee says.
“And that is where Daniel is making a difference. Viewers don’t need to look him up, because he’s like a rock star up there,” she continues. “It’s the way he uses his speech to make you really care about the weather and the climate.”
The Science of Tweeting
After receiving his undergraduate degree, Swain spent five years at Stanford earning a Ph.D. in earth system science, a sort of interdisciplinary hybrid of climatology, meteorology and multiple other fields, such as oceanography and biogeochemistry. “I like to joke sometimes that I’m a bit of a reformed meteorologist, not that meteorologists need reforming,” Swain says. “Meteorology, which is essentially weather forecasting, has been historically siloed from climate science, despite both being fundamentally about studying the physics of the atmosphere on different time scales. Weather forecasting is on short time scales, like days to weeks; climate change is on decades to centuries or longer.”
In 2016, a postdoc research opportunity brought Swain to UCLA. It’s been at IoES that Swain has officially become a “scientist-communicator,” as he says — a role unique to both the institute and, more broadly, the field of environmental science. Instead of devoting his time to the traditional blend of teaching and research, Swain’s academic appointment with IoES involves a roughly 50/50 split between scientific investigations into the context and character of extreme events (like floods, droughts, wildfires and storms) in a warming climate and the sustained, public-facing science communication that he’s become known for.
“Most of our academic institutions and universities are not set up to value public-facing engagement in the way that they probably should be,” he says. “I’ve probably written tweets that more people will read and meaningfully interact with than will ever read the sum total of all the scientific papers I will ever write for the rest of my life.”
Still, although Swain boasts a “Swiss-cheese schedule,” as he puts it — with large portions of his week reserved for engaging with the public on social media, taking journalists’ calls and consulting on Hollywood projects — the freedom he enjoys in his work is not something he takes for granted. “Year to year, we never know if [my role] is going to continue to be viable, because national funding sources like the National Science Foundation, NASA, or the National Institutes of Health don’t support this kind of work,” he says. “They will support the research side of what I do, but not the other half.”
They should. In supporting Swain’s global platform, IoES is not only amplifying the direct findings of its research team (which Swain does in leaps and bounds), it’s also fostering two-way conversations that, in turn, broadly help to restore trust in science.
That, in part, explains why Swain is so effusive in his praise for the leadership of the institutions that jointly fund his work and clearly place value on the public-facing communication to which he devotes his time. “We scientists want something to be done about climate change. We can’t really do it ourselves,” says Raphael. “The institute’s motto is ‘Moving Science to Action,’ and what Daniel is doing is taking our science and communicating it. And it results in action on the government and community levels.”
In a sea of talking heads discussing the climate, Swain stands out for the courage of his communication style. Tall and lanky, he speaks in robust, direct sentences like a Hemingway narrator, while mixing in some occasional internet humor. He’s willing to engage with almost anyone, anytime and anywhere, whether that’s in a combative appearance on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight or via a background call with a journalist who’s trying to find a trusted source to cut through what has become the politics of climate change. Interestingly, Swain also knows when not to talk. “The other part of Daniel that makes him special is that he knows when to say, “This isn’t ideal for me, you should go to this person; they’re really good at this,’” says Zee.
Watch Swain explain hydro-climate whiplash on BBC News
Most of the time, however, he’s willing to go into whatever arena beckons if it means reaching — and educating — more people about the science of weather. “Most scientists are inclined to communicate with the public only about their own work, and are really reluctant to go beyond things they’ve personally published,” says Swain. “There’s this scientific conservatism — lowercase ‘c’ — that says, ‘I can’t possibly speak authoritatively on anything other than something that I’ve published in a peer-reviewed paper.’ And I don’t think a lot of scientists step back to think how, in the context of serving society, that’s incredibly limiting.”
With uncertainty growing over the future of Twitter, Swain has been branching into new areas to spread his knowledge, including a fledgling YouTube channel. As for the possibility of a Bill Nye-like show in the future, he won’t rule it out. “Who knows?” he says with a chuckle. “I haven’t been very good at predicting my own career.”
All he knows for sure is that wherever he lands, it won’t be in a proverbial ivory tower. “The average person in the United States can’t name a living scientist,” Swain says. “I don’t think that’s the fault of people so much as it is just a failing of scientific institutions to integrate themselves with society at the level that we really should be.”
Thanks to one ridiculously resilient researcher, that climate is changing.
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Spring 2023 issue.