July 20, 2010

Stephen H. Schneider: A Major Passing

Stephen Schneider and Me in 1974 at NCAR, Boulder ,CO

This is going to be a more personal blog than normal and a sad one for me. Yesterday, Stephen H. Schneider, a very prominent climatologist and someone who had a major impact on my career passed away. Steve was one of the key individuals in bringing the issue of global warming to the world's attention. There are few scientists who are technically at the top of their field, accomplished communicators of science to the public, and conversant with public policy: Steve was one of the them. He was a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, a winner of the MacArthur "Genius" award, a leading participant of the IPCC deliberations on the science and implications of global warming, and a co-winner of a Nobel Prize. Author of a half-dozen major books and hundreds of research papers.

But as important as his accomplishments were that is not what I want to stress here. Rather, I will discuss my personal account of interactions with him and the major impact he had on my career.

After my senior year as an undergraduate at Cornell I was accepted in a summer internship in scientific computing at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). A major part of the summer was working with an NCAR scientist and I was assigned at random to Steve--an amazingly lucky break for me-- not that I knew it at the time. He was fairly new at NCAR, having recently graduated from Columbia in plasma physics, and had moved into atmospheric sciences and particularly climate.

Steve gave me a desk in his office and took me under his wing (see picture above). My project was to reprogram a global climate model he had developed and I dedicated myself to that task, staying up many nights until 2 or 3 AM in the morning. And I loved it. Steve made me feel like an equal and we spent hours talking that summer, both in the office and at social stops at his home. One major topic--the essential role of the public scientist and of communicating science to the public. Even then he was becoming the "go-to-guy" for the national press on climate matters, and the media was constantly calling. Listening to him deal with them taught me so much on being an effective communicator.

The results of that summer work led to a paper on the influence of sunspots, volcanic eruptions and CO2 on climate (published in Science Magazine)--still my number one cited publication. We kept in touch after that program and he invited me to come out to work with for a second productive summer, with the work leading to our second paper, mainly on volcanic eruptions and climate.

His influence on a young impressionable future scientist was powerful--I become intrigued by subject of climate and importantly became convinced that scientists must put considerable energy into communicating their subject to the public for a whole collection of reasons.

After I received my Ph.D. from the UW, I did a few climate papers (particularly on the weather and climatic impacts of Mt. St. Helens) but moved into other directions (weather prediction, NW weather, weather systems) and occasionally saw Steve at meetings. But I still had the climate bug he implanted and during the past few years have return to climate in the areas of regional climate modeling and snowpack trends.
And his influence played a major role in my intense dealings with the media (e.g., KUOW), my NW weather book, and my blog.

A few months ago I gave a talk at Stanford (where Steve was a faculty member) on regional climate modeling and had a chance to catch up with him. His fight against cancer had clearly weakened him, but he was as feisty as ever, complaining loudly about the shenanigans of Oklahoma's Senator Inhoufe, who had placed Steve and a few other climate activists on a watch list of some kind.

Steve had a huge impact on both science and society, and was not a little controversial at times. But his intelligence, energy, and passion were unstoppable and productive, and the kindness and inspiration he provided to a young scientist will not be forgotten.


  1. Hello Cliff
    Thanks for sharing your story on Stephen Schneider
    as well as all of the other important info that you do such a great job at.
    Gary Jackson
    AKA Dabobman

  2. The two of you look like brothers.

    It is good to know that Schneider was one of your primary inspirations. It explains something of your interest in communicating--something you do quite well.

    Paul Middents

  3. What a nice tribute to a great scientist and a good man. You've done him proud.

  4. Thanks for this affectionate view into the career of a man who had a great influence on how many climate issues are perceived. I'd read an obituary which was full of facts but I much prefer yours, which contains warmth and respect as well. RIP and thanks for carrying on his work. Your communication with all of us is much appreciated (and highly effective/educational as well).

    On a personal note, I'm sorry for your sadness. It's hard to lose a friend.

  5. Sounds like he was an incredible person and scientist. May we benefit from his knowledge for a long time to come and may his memory continue to inspire.

  6. Thanks for the write up on Stephen Scheider. Funny, I read Timothy Eagan's column in the NY Times today about climate and thought of Mr. Schneider's early work without knowing he had left us too soon.
    It was nice to know he made a difference in your life that is being passed on by you.

  7. Thanks for sharing your story on Stephen Schneider. I am sorry for your loss of a good friend.

  8. Hi Cliff, The spiders seem to be making their webs a little sooner this year. It's usually later in August and early September. The weather pattern we are experiencing seems to me to be a bit like fall.
    Shall we call it Augtember?

    Al Hirsch


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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