Richard C.J. Somerville

Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego

2017 Ambassador Award Winner

Jean M. Bahr, Robert A. Duce, and Richard C. J. Somerville were awarded the 2017 Ambassador Award at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 13 December 2017 in New Orleans, La. The award is in recognition for “outstanding contributions to one or more of the following areas: societal impact, service to the Earth and space community, scientific leadership, and promotion of talent/career pool.”


Richard C. J. Somerville has always been a clear and effective communicator of climate science, as recently acknowledged by the AGU community in naming Richard winner of the 2015 AGU Climate Communication Prize. Richard’s audience has been the general public at large, world leaders and policy makers, students, and fellow scientists. Successfully addressing and accurately informing an audience this diverse on topics as complex as global warming and global climate change truly require the communication skills of a seasoned and knowledgeable ambassador.

Richard has been an inspirational educator. Beginning in 1973 at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York and later at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, he mentored dozens of currently active climate scientists. For his accomplishments in promoting excellence in education, Richard was honored by the San Diego Science Educators Association as an outstanding university science teacher.

He served as a coordinating lead author of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report for which IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. His elegant book The Forgiving Air was an easily understandable account of the science behind global warming, winning in the process the Louis J. Battan Author’s Award of the American Meteorological Society. In his 2011 Physics Today paper “Communicating the Science of Climate Change,” Richard explained the climate change problem in exceptionally clear and concise terms to both physicists and the general public.

With a solid foundation in climate science and a research specialty in atmospheric dynamics, Richard’s first permanent position was at GISS, where he led the effort to construct the first global general circulation model of the atmosphere specifically aimed at providing -long-​-range seasonal weather forecasts. His effective leadership was the key ingredient to successfully retrofitting an early University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), weather model into the general circulation model (GCM) that became the predecessor of the GISS Model II climate GCM.

At Scripps, Richard began to direct his attention more fully toward public service by promoting the core objectives of our leading science organizations, government agencies, nongovernmental institutes, and worldwide -policy-​-making bodies. He served selflessly on advisory committees for nongovernmental organizations and for government agencies such as NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Research Council. He was instrumental in helping to establish the Aspen Global Change Institute (AGCI) and has been serving on the AGCI Advisory Board since 1990. He was also chair of the Board of Trustees of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR).

—Andrew Lacis and Michael Mishchenko, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York


My field is climate science, and we scientists all know that the world faces serious challenges in this area. Meeting these challenges requires taking science into account. We must not only continue to do research that enables us to understand and predict climate change, but we must act energetically to help the world make use of the science that we create. Albert Einstein said it best in an address to students at the California Institute of Technology in 1931: “Concern for man and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors…in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.”

The AGU Ambassador Award recognizes contributions in four areas: societal impact, service to the Earth and space community, scientific leadership, and promotion of talent/career pool. All four are critical in making our science “a blessing and not a curse to mankind.” My work in these areas has always involved collaborations. Consider the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Writing the IPCC assessment reports is a team effort, and a selfless one, in which we scientists take time away from our own research to provide governments and the public with scientific information that is relevant to policy making but not prescriptive of policy. Persuading governments, especially the U.S. federal government, to accept the science is an unfinished task.

On a personal note, my Ph.D. dates from 1966. During my student years, I encountered almost no women students in meteorology or climatology, and there were very few prominent women scientists in the field. That has changed dramatically, and I have been fortunate to work with numerous outstanding women scientists during the last half century. Many of my graduate student advisees and postdoctoral fellows have been women. Among my female collaborators in the work for which the Ambassador Award is given, I must mention especially Catherine Gautier, Susan Joy Hassol, Cherilynn Morrow, Lynn Russell, and the late Sally Ride.

I thank Andy Lacis and Michael Mishchenko for nominating me for the Ambassador Award. I thank all the students, postdocs, and colleagues who have worked with me. I thank AGU for establishing the Ambassador Award and for honoring me with it. Finally, I thank Sylvia Bal, my wife of more than 50 years, for supporting me with constant love and exceptional tolerance.

—Richard C. J. Somerville, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla