When he was 10 years old, Richard Somerville already knew that he wanted to study meteorology, after reading a book that turned him into what he calls a “weather buff.”
Today, Somerville is one of the world’s leading atmospheric scientists, and his climate research has been at the forefront of the field for decades. Somerville is especially interested in improving our understanding of how clouds and climate interact.
Somerville’s storied career was honored at the highest level in 2007 when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Vice President Al Gore. Somerville had spent three years helping to write the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, specializing in climate change science.
“Working with the IPCC was tremendously rewarding,” says Somerville. “Of course, IPCC receiving the Nobel Peace Prize was memorable, but the entire experience was uplifting, educational, and thrilling.”
Somerville has also authored an award-winning book, The Forgiving Air: Understanding Environmental Change. He is also active informing and advising policymakers about climate change and most recently testified before Congress in March 2011.
“Climate change science has become central to public policy, and now the whole world is aware of it,” Somerville says. “The research shouldn’t be confined to technical papers, but should be clear and relevant and digestible for everyone—the public, Congress, and the media.” He has recently held workshops to teach scientists how to communicate better with the media and other non-scientists. “It’s not dumbing down science. It’s trying to understand the mind set of your listeners,” Somerville says, “learning how to speak in terms that are meaningful and relevant to them.”
Somerville has spent most of his career at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography of the University of California, San Diego, which he joined in 1979 as a professor of meteorology. He remains there today. He is distinguished as the first atmospheric scientist on the faculty at Scripps, where he has been able to collaborate with scientists from other disciplines who also study climate. “Scripps is absolutely a first-class research center, and Scripps scientists and students are extraordinary,” Somerville says.
After receiving his B. S. in meteorology from Penn State (1961) and his Ph. D. in meteorology from New York University (1966), Somerville held postdoctoral appointments at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., and the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Washington, D.C. and Princeton, N.J. Before Scripps, he also held research positions at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences of New York University, the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and again at NCAR.
Although Somerville formally retired in 2007 and is now a distinguished professor emeritus and research professor at Scripps, he remains active in research, education and outreach. He spends several months of every year in a remote village in the south of France, from which he communicates with his research collaborators and his Scripps graduate student advisees via email and Skype.
Somerville has won numerous awards as an author, an educator, and a researcher. He is a fellow of both the American Meteorological Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
When not in France, Somerville and his wife, who have two adult sons, live in Carlsbad, California.