David W. J. Thompson

2004 James B. Macelwane Medal Winner

David W. J. Thompson received the Macelwane Medal at the 2004 Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony on 15 December, in San Francisco, California. The medal is given for significant contributions to the geophysical sciences by a young scientist of outstanding ability.


Dave Thompson has exploded onto the climate scene. His first paper was published just six years ago, but he is already one of the most respected climate diagnosticians in the world. His work on the northern and (more recently) southern annular modes of climate variability has transformed our understanding of middle- and high-latitude climate, especially with respect to the interactions between the stratosphere and the troposphere. His findings have strongly influenced both the study of anthropogenic climate change and weather forecasting—two very different subjects that often seem to be at opposite poles of the atmospheric sciences.

Dave is a supremely talented individual who has already made many outstanding contributions. He is, by any standard, a leader, not a follower, and a superior researcher (not one who produces mundane results). Even as a graduate student, his research hit at the heart of key problems for global climate: the nature and trends of the Arctic oscillation, a central feature in the climate of the Northern Hemisphere and a major mode of stratospheric variability. Dave’s 1998 and 2000 papers revealed trends in the Arctic oscillation over the past 50 years. Through careful statistical analysis, he convincingly linked the trends to previously recognized aspects of stratospheric variability. His 2001 Science paper further revealed that the trends in the Arctic oscillation are strongly linked to regional warming at the surface.

More recently, Dave has turned his attention to the opposite pole. In a series of stunning papers, he and his colleagues have established that the Antarctic oscillation has an even more profound influence on climate than does its Arctic counterpart. His papers demonstrate that the anomalous cooling that has occurred over Antarctica is associated with trends in the polar circulation pattern, and further link this unusual behavior with the emergence of the Antarctic ozone hole, providing a remarkable illustration of how human activities that modify the stratosphere can also affect the tropospheric climate. Through this work, a foundation has been laid for quantifying the causes of recent climate change and predicting their future, a prospect of great interest to scientists and policy-makers alike.

Dave is an unusually clear and engaging speaker, and an excellent teacher. I have had the pleasure of watching him begin his teaching career, including his advising of graduate students. His classes are packed with students whose striking enthusiasm for their studies is driven by his lucid, passionate, and even charismatic lectures. His advisees model themselves after him to a degree that is unusual for a younger faculty member. He inspires them, and they are lifted by it. He is going to have an enormous influence on our field through his teaching and advising, in addition to his outstanding research achievements.

The AGU’s James B. Macelwane Medal is a fitting acknowledgment of Dave Thompson’s lofty achievements and even higher potential.

—DAVID A. RANDALL, Colorado State University, Fort Collins


Thank you, Dave, for that generous introduction. You have had an important impact on me over the past few years, and I sincerely appreciate your kind words.

I feel awkward and humbled to receive this saward. I don’t envy the Macelwane award committee, as I know there are a number of other young scientists—many of them good friends of mine—who deserve such recognition. But as one of those good friends recently told me, “Get over it; there are worse feelings to have.” And that’s certainly true. So I’d like to sincerely thank the committee and those that nominated me for their consideration.

I don’t have time to thank all of the people who have enriched my life as a scientist. Before I mention any names, I’d first like to thank the atmospheric sciences community as a whole for providing a supportive environment for young scientists. Since I entered this field, I have received an enormous amount of support and friendship from colleagues at all stages of their careers. That support is a major reason why I have so much fun as a scientist. And after all, it’s all about having fun.

A few names come to mind.

I feel lucky to have had so many great teachers and mentors throughout my life. I’d like to thank my eighth grade teacher, Mr. Brands, for teaching me that discovery is fun. And Alex Hoehn at the University of Colorado, for giving me the opportunity to do research when I was an aimless, cynical undergraduate student. It was only through undergraduate research that I realized science is a lot more fun than taking exams. Of course, I’d like to thank my Ph.D. advisor, Mike Wallace. Mike inspires me not only because of his scientific insight, but also because of his enthusiasm, patience, and integrity.

Mike will always be an important person in my life. In recent years, I’ve been fortunate to learn from David Randall, who has patiently helped me adjust to life as a university professor; Susan Solomon, a wonderful mentor, colleague, and friend; and Mark Baldwin, a great friend and colleague who also introduced me to the joys of Spongebob Squarepants.

I’d also like to acknowledge all of the faculty, staff, and students in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University for creating a comfortable and supportive work environment; the faculty in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington for teaching me much of what I know today; my current graduate students for teaching me more than they realize; and the many friends and collaborators who have made science so enjoyable over the past 6 years, including Rene Garreaud, Dan Vimont, Warwick Norton, Nathan Gillett, Gabi Hegerl, David Lorenz, Alex Hall, Nicki Gruber, and Var Limpasuvan.

Finally, I’d like to thank my parents for giving me such a good start in life; my brother, Andy, for his lifelong friendship; and, of course, my soulmate and best friend, Steph Malsack, for simply being Steph. Steph is a social worker and in my view, has the “real job” between the two of us. I think that in a perfect world, medals such as this would be given to anyone who chooses to devote their life to helping other people.

I said that I feel awkward and humbled to win this award, and that’s true. But I have to admit, it feels pretty good as well. I feel truly honored and lucky. Thank you again.

—DAVID W. J. THOMPSON, Colorado State University, Fort Collins