UCLA Professor Park Williams, who studies the causes and consequences of drought and other hydrological extremes, was announced today as a recipient of a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

An acclaimed hydroclimatologist, Williams is a professor in UCLA’s geography department and holds a joint appointment in atmospheric and oceanic sciences. He is part of a multi-institutional team developing a wildfire and ecosystem model for the Western U.S., a project that will allow researchers to run simulations to predict how climate change is expected to continue impacting fire and vegetation ecosystems. This includes showing that human-caused climate change contributed substantially to the ongoing megadrought in southwestern North America.

“Williams’ investigations into how atmospheric and land-based water cycles react to our changing climate help us prepare for extreme climate events and better manage natural resources,” the MacArthur Foundation said in a statement.

The MacArthur Fellowship is a five-year, $800,000, no-strings-attached award to people the foundation deems “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals.” This year, international human rights expert E. Tendayi Achiume from the UCLA School of Law was also named a fellow.

Fellows are chosen based on three criteria: their exceptional creativity, the promise of important future advances based on their track record of accomplishments, and the potential for the fellowship to facilitate their subsequent creative work.

“There is such a history to this award that I never imagined that I would be in the same conversation as the MacArthur Fellowship, let alone receive it,” Williams said. “To hear that the foundation feels that I’m a worthy recipient, I feel borderline intimidated — and motivated to make them proud.”

Williams joins 15 other faculty across UCLA’s campus who have received MacArthur Fellowships, including fellow 2023 recipient Achiume and astrophysicist Andrea Ghez, historian of religion Gregory Schopen, theater director Peter Sellars and mathematician Terence Tao.

With Williams’ award, eight current faculty in the social sciences are MacArthur Fellows, including internet studies and race scholar Safiya Noble (2021), historian Kelly Lytle-Hernández (2019), anthropologist Jason De León (2017), linguistic anthropologist Elinor Ochs (1998), sociologist Rogers Brubaker (1994), anthropologist Sherry Ortner (1990) and geographer Jared Diamond (1985).

“When it comes to the effects of climate change and the future of life on our planet, the stakes could not be higher; every single person should be paying attention,” said Abel Valenzuela, interim dean of the UCLA College Division of Social Sciences. “Fortunately, we have far-seeing, courageous scientists like Park Williams leading the way to study these issues with rigor and responsibility. We are very proud that the MacArthur Foundation is recognizing Park and his exceptional work, which has the power to impact each and every living thing on Earth.”

Williams’ UCLA colleagues spoke highly of the importance of his research for better connecting the relationship between climate and terrestrial environments.

Gregory Okin, professor and chair of geography and member of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability: “Professor Williams is so representative of what makes these grants so special: His high-impact work tackles societally relevant questions from many different angles. Thanks to his work, we have a deeper understanding of the present moment and humans’ role in the climate crisis — this is vitally important. He is certainly one of the most exciting scholars working in the field, and we’re incredibly proud to have him in geography.” 

Glen MacDonald, distinguished professor of California and the American West: “Through his innovative coupling of environmental observations with sophisticated climate modelling, Park Williams is making groundbreaking contributions to some of the most pressing climate-change challenges facing California and playing out globally. It is no exaggeration to say that Park’s work has been foundational in quantitively linking human emissions of greenhouse gasses to the growing dangers we face today in terms of drought and wildfires.”

Marilyn Raphael, professor of geography and director of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability: “A MacArthur Fellow is exceptionally creative and has a track record of significant accomplishments with potential for important future advances to benefit human society. A brilliant hydroclimatologist, Park Williams embodies these qualities and is eminently deserving of this award. His work is advancing scientific knowledge in a critically important area and is policy-relevant at state, national and global levels.”

Williams said his research wouldn’t be possible without the work of other scholars across UCLA and the broader scientific community, both past and present.

“My work builds off of the advances of many, many others ahead of me who discovered that the Earth is covered in clues about how past climate changes have played out and what the consequences have been,” he said. “My group is small, but we’re part of a very large society of scientists who are trying to develop the tools and knowledge base now to understand how climate change is going to affect life and humanity globally because of changes in water availability.”