Writing About Weather In The West: Interview with Daniel Swain, Climate Scientist & Blogger
May 17, 2017
By Sarah Sunu
Categories: Interviews, Science, Communication
Tags: Network, know your audience, decisionmakers, social media, academia, outreach, informing, writing, fellowship
Daniel Swain is a climate scientist and NatureNet Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles; he’s also the author of Weather West, a blog where he shares information and insights into weather and climate patterns in the western U.S., with a particular focus on California. Daniel started Weather West in 2006, and now it reaches over a million readers a year.
I spoke with Daniel about how he got started, the benefits (and potential pitfalls) of blogging, and how his work on Weather West impacts his science.
What inspired you to start this blog?
Initially, it was my personal interest in weather and climate, and the fact that in California, for whatever reason, there was a bit of a void. No one was really discussing it, so I decided to do it myself. To a certain extent that’s still the case, but now there’s additional motivation for me—I see the blog as a tool to introduce a pretty large, diverse audience to broader climate and environmental issues.
What has changed since you started Weather West in 2006?
It would probably be easier to list what hasn’t changed—I started the blog when I was in high school, and had no formal scientific credentials. I was interested in the climate and the weather and the world around me. Weather West didn’t originally have much on climate, since my own personal interest related mainly to the weather (in fact, I originally pursued my atmospheric science degree because I was interesting in becoming a weather forecaster!). But about halfway through my undergraduate studies, I realized that some of the most interesting questions were actually about climate change, and most societal impacts were coming from weather and climate extremes. My evolution as a scientist from weather to climate came about largely because I think it is important to ask questions that are meaningful in a societal context. And I’d also add that my transition from weather to climate has strongly shaped my scientific outlook—instead of thinking about weather and climate as distinct entities, I try to approach climate science from the perspective of a meteorologist, thinking about climate as “weather in aggregate.” I think this philosophy carries over into the discussions I have on Weather West.
Since I started the blog, I’ve gone from being an interested citizen-scientist to a climate scientist with a PhD. I realize that’s kind of an unusually wide span for a single science blog, but for me that’s the reality! And the blog has evolved as one might expect, as I’ve evolved from being a casually interested observer of the world to someone who’s involved in active research and communicating that research to a broad audience.
What’s your audience like? Who is reading Weather West?
The audience, like the content, has changed a lot over the years! Over the first 5 years, maybe a couple of hundred people were looking at it each month, but now I get over a million views each year. I tend to see a lot of interest centered around specific weather events—like the recent California drought, or the extremely wet conditions this past winter. The unique context of Weather West is that it’s a blog about things that are science-related, but it’s not explicitly about science, per se. I think that attracts a broader audience, and makes the whole endeavor more inclusive. Some readers are Central Valley farmers, growing almonds or wine grapes; some are interested in the Sierra Nevada snowpack because they live right near the snowline, or are ski bums. Others are seasonal wildland firefighters—every year we have large wildfires in California, and those folks are often attuned not just to the conditions during fire season but also the amount of precipitation and temperatures during the off-season. Surfers, people interested in nature more generally, people worried about forest mortality, or the quality of salmon runs; some are genuinely worried about their well water drying up. All these folks have their own personal reasons for being interested in California weather and climate—some practical, some out of pure curiosity, but what’s interesting is that, for the most part, they’re having constructive conversations. The comments section on Weather West typically remains surprisingly on-topic and is generally self-policing. That’s a rare thing on the internet these days!
I still frequently talk about the weather, but I try to link it to how the climate is changing in the longer-term—including some of the underlying reasons why we know what we know about what’s changing. It’s not fundamentally a climate change blog, and that’s not how I frame these discussions or even what the majority of the content is about. But it’s now an important part—because, realistically, we are now living in an era in which there is a detectable, observable human fingerprint on the atmosphere around us. I’ve been able to maintain this broad audience and not turn people off to the climate part of the conversation—and I take pride in that. As I mentioned, there’s a really cohesive community in the comments; several hundred people are regulars, and each post usually receives thousands of comments overall. And a lot of these folks post frequently, and post genuinely interesting information and pose thought-provoking questions. And if I can’t find an answer for them, it can turn into a research question of my own in the academic world—how can I give a real answer to this in a way that’s scientifically sound? Sometimes, if there’s not an answer in the scientific literature, it becomes the fodder for my own research.
What advice do you have for scientists considering starting a blog?
Well, one thing that I would emphasize is that it’s not for everyone, and that’s totally fine! I think in general, as a community, scientists need to do outreach more often, and be more willing to have conversations not only about their own research but also that of other scientists. I don’t think it necessarily makes sense to mandate that you, as a scientist, devote X hours of your time to it. Some scientists may not be that interested in doing this, and some may feel they’re not that good at it, or they’re simply not comfortable with it. But it would be great if there were more opportunities to do so for those both willing and interested.
As a PhD student, I had a very supportive advisor, and now I have supportive supervisors here at UCLA. In that sense I have been very lucky, since devoting the amount of time that I do to outreach and communication is often frowned upon in formal academic circles. I suppose one of the simplest places to start is to write a blog—you’re very much in control of what it’s about and how much time you devote to it. If you want to get your thoughts and expertise out into the world, this is good way to do it. These days, I’m writing a post every 2 weeks or so, and I spend 3-4 hours on it. But I’m also maintaining the website, moderating the discussions, and engaging on social media, which takes considerably more time that just writing the articles themselves. Just a few years ago, if you’d said I would have a substantial Twitter presence, I’d have rolled my eyes. But it really has become an increasingly useful tool for curating content, and for getting your ideas out into the world.
One thing that I’ve been thinking and talking about recently (to anyone who will listen!) is my observation that the reason why a lot of scientists don’t do communication and outreach is not so much the lack of formal incentives to do so, but instead that there are active disincentives—the notion that these kinds of activities are a distraction, and present insurmountable opportunity costs. Why spend time on Twitter when you could be running code? I’ve been lucky that the institutions, organizations, and people I’ve worked for have been very open to me doing this, but often that’s not the case for others.
We need to figure out how to facilitate scientists having the freedom, time-wise, to deeply engage in this sort of work. Even with permissive supervisors and a flexible schedule, I’m often doing this nights and weekends. I think a lot more scientists would be able to participate in this way it if it were explicitly integrated into the job, and if it were universally acceptable, for example, to spend a several hours in the office writing a blog post.
What are the benefits of having a blog?
It’s satisfying to have your work go further than peer-reviewed articles, since in all honestly most are not read by that many people. Maybe specialists in your field if you’re lucky, but that’s usually as far as it goes. Having a presence on a blog or on social media is a point of entry for broader conversations, not just with a general audience of casual observers, but also specifically with policy makers and decision makers. That’s another important audience I neglected to mention earlier when talking about the blog audience. These two-way interactions and conversations help me to have a broader sense of what’s important “on the ground,” and to ask new questions that might not have occurred to me.
A nice example of this: I just got back from a public policy meeting on water in California, focused around lessons we can learn from the recent drought about adaptation and California’s future under global warming. Almost everyone there said they’d read my blog—policy people, folks from the metro water districts, state government and various agencies. I’m actually not sure anyone would have thought to invite me if I didn’t have this blog! In this setting, I almost felt like my science communication credentials as a weather/climate blogger were more important than the fact that I’m a climate scientist. Occasionally I get private feedback from people higher up in decision-making or policy chains, and they tell me they’ve read my peer-reviewed papers because I discuss them on the blog. I’ve repeatedly heard that they wouldn’t be able find them, or have been inclined to seek them out, otherwise.
Another perspective on this: I also often engage with the media because of the blog and the work that I do—I frequently have phone calls with Washington Post, the New York Times, BuzzFeed, Climate Central, and others…so both traditional and non-traditional media outlets. Having this online visibility and presence makes you accessible: you get called when reporters and journalists have questions that they think are in your domain. If scientists don’t engage in this highly visible, public way, others certainly will—and there’s no guarantee that the person whose quote makes it on to the front page will necessarily be qualified to discuss the topic at hand. There’s a vacuum to be filled, and if you, as a scientist, can answer the call honestly and objectively, that’s far better than the alternative—even if your response isn’t perfect. I think scientists often sell themselves short on the breadth of their own knowledge in their own domain—in the end, there’s no one who can better tell the story of your science than you can, and I genuinely hope the trend toward scientists becoming active and engaged communicators continues.