“My role is very unusual, I’m lucky to have it,” Swain said, adding that his role is only possible thanks to the continued support of The Nature Conservancy of California.
The importance of effective, impartial messengers became increasingly apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been marked by oceans of “misinformation and active disinformation,” Swain said, “where the reality you live in is now highly predictable by your political party. .”
“That’s a huge societal problem — way beyond climate change — and one that I’m tackling in my capacity as a public-facing climate scientist.”
Elephant in the room
He had other ambitions and graduated from San Rafael High School.
At UC Davis, Swain was working on his degree in Atmospheric Science, which set him on a career path to become a meteorologist or weather forecaster.
At some point in that process, his goals shifted. It became clear to him that climate change would be the most important, overarching issue of his life.
“I said, ‘Okay, 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 noted that many of the scientists who wrote and spoke about climate change were not very familiar with the weather, having approached the field from different areas of expertise.
“Maybe it was carbon cycle scientists, or high-energy physicists, or ecologists or something,” he said.
Approaching the topic of climate change with his meteorological 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 because of the changing envelope of the weather.”
In 2011, he enrolled at Stanford, where he received a Ph.D. in Earth System Science. Swain’s time in Palo Alto coincided with a historic drought in the American West, quickly followed by an equally historic firestorm in Northern California. The October 2017 infernos — 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 in the greater North Bay in that firestorm.
Swain’s decision to study the causes and consequences of extreme weather and climate events was made, it seemed, at a time when such events were becoming more common.
“Let’s just say that wasn’t a coincidence,” he said.
He wasn’t alone. The increasing scientific interest in extreme weather events, Swain points out, is the result of an increase in those events — not everything, he qualified, can be attributed to climate change.
“Extreme weather is not a monolith,” he said. Climate change causes some weather extremes, but not all. It may not be responsible for things like extreme cold or extreme wind.
“But the list of things that climate change won’t worsen is shorter than the list of things that it is, especially in a place like California, where we’re seeing much worse wildfires, we’re seeing worse droughts, we’re seeing more intense downpours.” – on those disappearing rare days when it really rains.
“Last year has really been an example of that,” he continued, “with one of the… wettest days in the history of the state” — October 21, 2021 — “followed by the driest winter on the plate, in the middle of a extreme drought†
“That’s a lot of superlatives,” said Swain, who, excuse the pun, was just warming up.
The fires that have ravaged the Golden State for the past decade, Swain continued, inflicted a level of destruction unseen “not just in Northern California, but truly all over the world, since the advent of modern firefighting.
“It’s actually been a century since we had fires that set thousands of buildings on fire – except in wartime,” when that destruction was intentional.
“But now we see fires that have burned thousands of houses, almost every year†
Flood risk, forest fires in winter
To keep people from fixating too much on fire and drought, Swain reminds us that this region experiences extremes “at the other end of the spectrum.”
He is collaborating with The Nature Conservancy on a project called ARkStorm 2.0, which, as the Old Testament-inspired handle suggests, focuses on the increasing risk of a megaflood in California from intensified atmospheric rivers ushered in by climate change.
That project also explores the potential use of “strategic floodplain management,” including “receding levees, flood roads and diversions, and flood-managed aquifers” to mitigate those risks.
Swain is also collaborating with The Nature Conservancy on a project to explore how to better address California’s mounting wildfire crisis through the increased use of prescription burns — fires lit to thin forests of cultivated fuel and prevent much larger fires.
The windows for safely performing such deliberate burns are getting smaller, as the fire season extends at both ends. The massive wildfires that have charred hundreds of thousands of acres in northern New Mexico in recent months started burns as prescribed that got out of hand.
Experts are studying the feasibility of performing prescription burns during the winter months, which “get hotter and drier in many places,” Swain said.
He experienced that phenomenon firsthand on December 30, 2021, when he was forced to evacuate his home in Boulder, Colorado by the Marshall Fire† Fueled by gusts of 160 km/h, the blaze swept through the suburbs east of Boulder, destroying more than 1,000 homes. Swain’s was spared.
He was evacuated again for a bushfire in February that ultimately set no houses on fire.
“These are strange things to say,” he noted, “given the calendar.”
Sometimes, for fun, Swain drives east out of Boulder, up the Great Plains, in search of supercell thunderstorms, one of which recently sent a hailstorm pouring into his car.
Those dents were soon covered up by ash from Arizona wildfires “which has ended up on the roof of my car over the past few days.
“I’m not sure if that’s a metaphor for something.”
What is certain is that Swain will continue to explain what is happening and why as this busy theater continues to burn.
You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at [email protected] or on Twitter @ausmurph88.