Kevin E. Trenberth

National Center for Atmospheric Research

2017 Roger Revelle Medal Winner

Kevin E. Trenberth was awarded the 2017 Roger Revelle Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 13 December 2017 in New Orleans, La. The medal is for “outstanding contributions in atmospheric sciences, ­atmosphere–​­ocean coupling, ­atmosphere–​­land coupling, biogeochemical cycles, climate or related aspects of the Earth system.”


Kevin Trenberth is being recognized for his outstanding contributions to understanding how the climate system operates, for gaining critical insights into the nature and future of climate change, and for  his unusually dedicated leadership in the climate sciences. He is also being recognized for an almost unparalleled passion for climate science debate and communication. To interact with Kevin is not only to keep on your toes, it also is to get fired up and learn.

Kevin Trenberth’s scientific productivity is astonishing: He has published over 500 scientific articles and papers. He is listed among the top handful of authors in highest citations in all of geophysics, and he has a staggering ­h-index.

An abbreviated summary of his primary areas of contribution includes attribution of climatic events, heat budgets, data set development and climate information systems, research on the El ­Niño–​­Southern Oscillation, the water cycle, the mass of the atmosphere, and Southern Hemisphere meteorology.

Kevin has been perhaps the most significant contributor on the planet to our understanding of the Earth’s energy budget—an area of inquiry that is vital to understanding climate change and climate variability. His success derives from sheer productivity combined with multiple lenses through which he learns, including foci on ocean heat content, sea level change, models, and satellite measurements. He recognizes challenges before others and invests enormous effort in solving them.

Kevin has led international teams to close the Earth’s energy budget and provide robust updates to our planet’s growing energy imbalance. His work on energy has also linked and quantified sensible heat, latent heat, and kinetic energy flows in the atmosphere and the processes responsible for the transports, in particular, the roles of midlatitude storms, the Hadley circulation, monsoonal circulations, and ­planetary-​­scale ­quasi-​­stationary waves. Kevin’s insights go deep but also far and wide in the field of climate science.

Kevin has flown many miles in service of the climate community, and this is appreciated by more colleagues than he will ever know. Kevin is driven by passion to learn and to help society come to grips with what is happening to our climate system and why. This passion inspires as well, and Kevin has often taken the time to mentor his more junior colleagues on the ways of the climate system, ways of knowing about the climate system, and ways of communicating climate system knowledge with society.

Kevin’s recent leadership in the area of climate attribution deserves special attention. His push to provide more useful insights to policy makers builds on his heat budget expertise but also on common sense. This highlights what is driving Kevin Trenberth—to learn what must be learned and to make sure society understands the implications before it is too late. Like Roger Revelle, Kevin Trenberth has served both the scientific community and society in many ways that will long be remembered.

—John P. Abraham, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn.; and J. T. Overpeck, University of Arizona, Tucson


I am thrilled and honored to receive AGU’s Roger Revelle Medal. Roger was the scientist who wrote in 1957, “Human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future.” I was fortunate to meet him at a National Research Council workshop in November 1990, not long before he died, in July 1991. I was an invited speaker talking about climate change, El Niño, and water, and Roger asked a question about El Niño and carbon dioxide: the issue being that during El Niño, upwelling of carbon and ­nutrient-​­rich waters along the equator ceases, lowering carbon dioxide (CO 2 ), but is offset by more drought and wildfires over land and less uptake by warmer oceans, leading to an increase in atmospheric CO 2.

In my career, which began in New Zealand, I have always had a global perspective. I began as an atmospheric scientist but became involved at an early stage in El Niño research, which meant interacting with oceanographers, and I became what was really a ­first-​­generation climate scientist. I was privileged to become conversant in both fields and in hydrology and to see how these sciences have changed to become more global, with fewer proprietary data; instead, there is widespread data sharing and global reanalyses of atmosphere and ocean data, which I was fortunate to help develop and exploit.

I wish to especially thank the nominators; in particular, John Abraham led the effort with Jon Overpeck, plus support from Tom Karl, Mike Mann, Mike Wallace, John Kutzbach, and Warren Washington. Thanks also to Jim Hurrell, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) director, and other NCAR colleagues and my family for their support.

Being heavily involved in the World Climate Research Programme and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and caught up in the ­so-​­called “climategate” debacle, along with Mike Mann, I was pushed toward becoming much more involved in communicating climate science to the public than is my introverted nature. Even today, many scientists, let alone the public, are not fully conversant with climate science and attribution, especially for extreme events (although I have a fan in Al Gore). With deniers in the White House and Washington, good communication about climate science has become even more important. Please join me in recognizing that science is not about beliefs, but rather is evidence driven. You might say that science trumps ideology! I am sure Roger Revelle would think so.

—Kevin E. Trenberth, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colo.