A Conversation With Climate Scientist Dr. Daniel Swain

The Stanford-educated and UCLA-affiliated researcher explains the links between climate change and the weather on his popular blog, Weather West.

In the climate science community, Dr. Daniel Swain is known for the research he conducts on how global warming affects extreme climate events. To everyone else, he’s the approachable, friendly voice behind Weather West, a popular blog offering real-time perspectives on California weather and climate.  

Due to the blog, his active social media accounts, and his weekly live “Weather and Climate Office Hours” on his YouTube channel, Dr. Swain has become a go-to weather and climate expert in the region, making frequent appearances in the news.

Dr. Swain, who studied at U.C. Davis and Stanford and is currently affiliated with both the Department of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, spoke with Bluedot Living contributor Tess Kazenoff about his role as a scientist-communicator, his work at Weather West, and climate change’s impact on weather. 

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tess Kazenoff: What made you interested in climate science?

Daniel Swain: I have always been interested in the atmosphere, but that manifested originally as an interest in weather. I wanted to be a weather forecaster for the federal government. At some point in that process, I realized that a lot of the interesting scientific questions, as well as a lot of the ones that were the most societally urgent, were actually at what some folks call the climate-weather interface. There's kind of an institutional divide, and I thought that that was a really interesting space to be in. 

TK: Can you tell me a little bit more about this institutional gap and why having a different perspective is needed within this space?

DS: Historically, weather and climate science endeavors occurred literally in different academic departments at universities or different institutions in government. You used to hear that you should never confuse weather and climate. I think that that historical disconnect is part of the reason why people don't connect climate change to their day-to-day lives as much. 

The changing climate is changing the weather. There's a lot of people today who have lived through more extreme high temperatures or more extreme precipitation than their parents or their grandparents or their great-grandparents before them ever did. 

TK: What motivated you to start the Weather West blog and how has it grown since then?

DS: There weren't really California weather discussion sites on the internet when I created it originally, in the same way that there were for other parts of the country and the world. It's become a tool for public communication during individual events or even disasters. Some of these posts will get 25 or 30,000 comments, and there's zero spam. There are a couple million people who visit that blog every year. 

I do talk about climate change; I do talk about some of the research that we do. But more often, I'm just talking about the weather, and I think that's a more accessible point of entry. I think that essentially my job is to be available to provide the context for all these things in the weather and the climate world, since we're living through an era of dramatic changes. 

TK: What are the challenges with trying to communicate this type of information to the public?

DS: Spending this much time engaging with the wider world is not typical for scientists, but that's partly because there aren't really mechanisms to support it. The public-facing part of what I do is essentially a full-time job unto itself, in addition to the actual science and the research and the papers that we publish. 

TK: Shifting to our current weather patterns and climate, is there anything that you think is widely misunderstood, or anything you wish more people knew about?

DS: In California, there's a notion that it's just gonna get drier and drier in a warming climate. That is not really what the science says. What we expect to see is what we call hydroclimate whiplash, this notion of increasingly wide swings between extremely dry and extremely wet conditions.

If you look at the 30-year, 40-year or 50-year trend, there's this dramatic upward increase in fire losses and fire sizes. There are these apocalyptic, record-shattering years, but in between them are still these pretty mild years where not a whole lot happens. That's entirely to be expected. I think sometimes we respond a little bit too much to what happens in any given year and kind of extrapolate forward. But we really need to be taking the longer view. 

TK: What do you foresee for this winter and beyond in Southern California?

In California, there's a notion that it's just gonna get drier and drier in a warming climate. That is not really what the science says. What we expect to see is what we call hydroclimate whiplash, this notion of increasingly wide swings between extremely dry and extremely wet conditions.

– Dr. Daniel Swain

DS: We actually have a historically strong El Niño event now. El Niño never guarantees anything. At most, it offers us a tilt on the odds, but the odds are about as strong as we're ever going to see, especially for Southern California, of a wetter-than-usual winter. 

TK: What role does climate change play in current and future weather patterns?

DS: Anybody who's lived in California for more than a decade or so is living in a different California. The 2010s were a decade of escalation in California. We saw unprecedented wildfires, unprecedented drought, with some record-breaking precipitation events sprinkled in there also. That's a preview of the future, just a feature of the world we live in now. 

TK: Something I hear a lot is that people feel powerless when it comes to climate change, because so much is dependent on large industries making changes. What’s your response to that, and overall outlook?

DS: The good news is that this is not some exogenous problem. It’s us, it’s human activities. Therefore, we can do something about it. This is not something that's completely out of our control. It's due to choices that we've made historically, and it can be solved by choices that we make moving forward.

That is also the pessimistic view—it's us and we haven't yet fixed it, and we're still not yet on a path toward really taking this as seriously as we need to, to fix it. We're not doing it anywhere near the scale that we need to yet, but we still can. 

TK: Individually, what can we do to potentially change outcomes?

DS: It's a lot to ask people to personally solve climate change. For folks living in California, not everybody can afford an electric car, not everyone lives in a house where you can even plug an electric car in. You can't put solar panels on an apartment building that you don't own. It's difficult to navigate a grocery aisle on the basis of the carbon footprint of a particular food item. We should never be shaming individual people who can't do all of the things. 

One thing I do think everybody can do is make climate change part of your day-to-day conversations. Bring it up with your friends and family. It's a partisan issue, but you can approach it as if it's not one. Use the weather as a point of entry: “What's going on outside your window now?” That's the kind of stuff that I hope that everybody does. 

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Tess Kazenoff
Tess Kazenoff
Tess Kazenoff is a freelance journalist who has covered health, education, arts and culture, and business. Originally from New Jersey, she is currently based in Long Beach, California. In her spare time, she loves traveling, exploring new restaurants, going to the beach, and reading.
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