William C. Patzert

2010 Athelstan Spilhaus Award Winner

William C. Patzert received the Athelstan Spilhaus Award at the 2010 AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 15 December 2010 in San Francisco, Calif. The award honors “individuals who have devoted portions of their lives to expressing the excitement, significance, and beauty of the Earth and space sciences to the general public.”


It is a great pleasure and an honor to give the citation for the 2010 AGU Athelstan Spilhaus awardee, William (Bill) Patzert. For more than 3 decades it has been Bill’s tireless personal mission to educate the public, and especially the youth, on the important societal impacts of climate variability.

El Niño was a poorly understood phenomenon in the 1970s, but even then it was well known that the occurrence of these events had enormous impacts on the fisheries and weather patterns of Ecuador and northern Peru. The now famous 1976 article by Klaus Wyrtki, William Patzert, and others published in Science entitled “Predicting and observing El Niño” (191(4225), 343) documented the earliest attempts at seasonal climate forecasting and launched Bill into the limelight as he worked to educate San Diego media figures on the severe impact that El Niño could have on their communities.

In the 1980s, NASA began work on the TOPEX/­POSEIDON (T/P) ocean altimetry mission, a key spaceborne instrument for studying the ocean’s role in climate. Bill spent several years in Washington managing T/P, and, due largely to Bill’s public relations work, it is probably the most widely celebrated oceanographic satellite mission ever launched. Five years after the launch of T/P, the world was witness to the great El Niño of 1997–1998, a profound environmental event that affected the lives of every person on the planet. When Bill realized that T/P was capturing the development and evolution of the event in real time, it drew him full force into a groundswell of education and public outreach activities. Bill has made more than 500 television appearances and has appeared on every major news network as a spokesperson for climate issues. While perhaps slightly amusing to the scientific community, his turns of phrase on fast foods, such as “this is an El Niño grande” or “it’s a whopper of an El Niño,” and his colorful storytelling created such ease with the broadcast community that El Niño is now common knowledge in every newsroom.

As a resident of southern California, Bill also gives attention to local issues. Largely as a result of his highly visible education and outreach activities, southern California planners approached Bill to discuss critical water issues and their long-range planning activities. At Bill’s urging, the planners began considering climate patterns in their long-range planning, and, beginning with the climate change panel that they organized, he helped open their minds to strategies that were outside the box of contemporary municipal water planning methods. As a consequence, climate uncertainties are today factored into their long-range planning documents. Uncertainties in supply, linked to both natural variations in precipitation and water demands from competing metropolitan regions, have prompted the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to increase its storage buffer through a mix of imported water and local supplies.

Bill spends much of his personal time supporting and speaking to community, educational, and environmental groups. He is always in demand and is a tireless communicator. Bill’s receipt of the Athelstan Spilhaus Award is well deserved.

—MICHAEL VAN WOERT, U.S. National Science Foundation, Arlington, Va.


AGU members and esteemed guests, I am very honored to receive this award. Thank you, Mike, for the much embellished citation. Although I am being honored this evening, I am fully aware that many scientists and others around the world are equally deserving of this recognition. Every day these fine folks are communicating the importance, excitement, and beauty of science. I salute all of you and share this award with you.

To me, the Spilhaus Award is about the passionate telling of science stories. Communicating science to the public isn’t always easy, but it is always essential. The public is really interested in what we do, and more so if we can demystify it, put a human face on it, and show how it makes a difference in their daily lives. I’m sure each of you has at some point been asked by family, friends, a reporter, or the public to explain what you do for a living. For the past few decades I’ve worked hard to find words and metaphors that answer this question and share my excitement of our sciences with them.

Today, perhaps more than at any time in the past, it is vital that scientists tell compelling stories using words, metaphors, pictures, videos, and the latest social media tools, because we live in a time when climate science and scientists are under fire. Too often we find our science misinterpreted by the strident and often biased versions of the pundits and special interests. To counter this misinformation, our stories must be correct, compelling, and understandable. If told well, our science stories will be remembered and passed from generation to generation. So the next time someone asks what you do, take the time and make the effort to tell her or him your compelling story.

In the past few decades I’ve gained tremendous respect for the harried and intelligent authors, reporters, and filmmakers I’ve chatted with. I’ve e-mailed with, talked with, laughed with, and learned from all of them. Without them our science stories would never reach the general public. Too often, we scientists avoid them, but we shouldn’t. Take the time to speak to them and learn to trust them; they bring our stories to the world.

I’ve spent most of my career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory working with brilliant scientists, engineers, and visionaries who have made my life and career rich beyond what I could ever have imagined. I thank all of these fantastic men and women. I deeply appreciate those who supported my nomination: D. James Baker (William J. Clinton Foundation), Charles Elachi (director, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory), Jerry Schubel (chief executive officer, Aquarium of the Pacific), Hector Becerra (Los Angeles Times), Ned Potter (ABC News), and Robert Krier (San Diego Union—Tribune); they are all great storytellers. Finally, I sincerely thank Stan Wilson (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and Mike Van Woert (U.S. National Science Foundation), good men and great friends, for nominating me.

AGU members, thank you very much!

—BILL PATZERT, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.