If not for the astrophysicist and author Carl Sagan, University of Washington atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass might be writing and teaching about Nor’easters, Mount Washington in New Hampshire and Boston’s Back Bay instead of atmospheric rivers, Mount Rainier and the influences of the Puget Sound on weather in the Pacific Northwest.
Mass was an undergrad student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, when Sagan was the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences there. With his sights set on graduate school, Mass accepted a spot at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But Sagan pushed him to check out the University of Washington which, in Sagan’s view, had the best atmospheric sciences department in the nation.
“So I flew out and was intrigued with the local weather,” Mass told me when I called to talk about weather and writing. “I liked it here and I ended up going here. If it wasn’t for Carl I never would have.”
Today, Mass is something of an eminence grise when it comes to weather predictions, forecast modeling and our particular and the oft-time peculiar and extreme weather of the Pacific Northwest. Or, as a Seattle Times story once said, Mass is the “closest thing to a celebrity scientist in Seattle.”
Part of that is, no doubt, due to the general public fascination with weather. In the weather-variable Pacific Northwest (earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, atmospheric rivers of rain), where outdoor recreation is embedded in the culture, that fascination can become a near obsession for some. Maas’s blog taps into that interest with frequent updates, presented in short and conversational bursts. He is not shy about capitalization or exclamation points.
Mass has 22,000 followers each on Facebook and Twitter, and this summer launched a new podcast. His book, “The Weather of the Northwest,” is one of the best-selling books published by the University of Washington Press; an updated version came out last year and he’s working on a new book about the science behind weather prediction.
He also can spark controversy. After the deadly 2021 summer “heat dome” sat over the Pacific Northwest, Mass drew fire from other scientists when he questioned the conclusion that it was primarily the result of climate change. He has been a frequent critic of scientific groups and the media for what he says is an overstatement of climate change. As he told The Seattle Times:
“I don’t believe we are facing any kind of existential threat,” Mass said. “But it is not a good idea to muck around with the climate of the planet.”
Over the years, Mass’s blog has veered beyond weather events to commentary as far-ranging as the seriousness of COVID and racial justice demonstrations. Despite all that — or maybe because of it — he is followed and read.
I caught up with Mass him a few weeks ago by telephone.
Do you have a background in writing? Or did this all just come from your atmospheric studies?
I have a straight scientific background. A bachelor’s degree in physics and a PhD in atmospheric sciences. But I was always interested in communication. And I really got interested in science communication. I was very close to Carl Sagan and spent a lot of time with him. He was a tremendous communicator. He told me, “You can’t trust the media; you have to go direct.” And he foresaw the fact that the Internet would allow that in a very, very nice way. So he impressed upon me the necessity, if I could, of going directly to the public.
That often means reducing intricate scientific and neurological data data into readable prose. How do you cut through the jargon to make it understandable for most people?
It’s a matter of doing it a lot. And when I do this on the web, I get feedback in a number of ways. So I can tell what works and what doesn’t. I can see how what my hit rate does; I can see the comments. So I really can tell when I’m achieving clarity. I’m also very interested in communication orally. I’m teaching all the time. So I’m learning: How do you get people’s attention? How do you keep their attention?
Your posts have a way of grabbing readers; there’s often a tease at the beginning — stick around, because we’re going to get back to that — and then you gently lead them to the analysis, then put in the analysis and the historical perspective, which is often really important.
Writing is the same as oral presentation in some ways. If you want to communicate science to a group of people, the first thing to do is get their attention. You have to convince them that you’re talking about something that’s of importance and of interest. That’s the thing you have to do right up front; you can’t lose them. And you also have to convince them that you’re the one to do that. What I do a lot is try to get people to the bottom line at the top of a post. So even if they don’t read the rest of it, they get the big picture.
It’s been an extraordinary year for weather in this region, from the heat dome, to the flooding up in Northwestern Washington and British Columbia, to a snowy winter and our very wet spring. What strikes you most about this time?
The heatwave in June 2021 was extraordinary. That was the most extreme weather event we’ve had in 50 years, and it was really startling. And then we had the floods. But they weren’t in the same class as the heat wave, not even close.
You took a lot of heat, no pun intended, for declaring that the heat dome would have happened with or without climate change. Can you talk a little bit about that?
That was an extraordinarily good case of where the media was wrong. I never said global warming didn’t contribute to it. What I said is a global warming enhanced it a bit, but that we would have had an extraordinary extreme event even without it. Temperatures were 30 degrees above normal, but there’s no reason to think that the heatwave itself would not have happened without global warming. I’ve done a whole series of papers on heatwaves, and I really thought media coverage was extraordinarily deceptive. A lot of the headlines suggesting that this heatwave wouldn’t would not have happened without global warming. I think that’s absolutely false.
What about rainfall and flooding? I don’t think I’ve ever seen references to atmospheric rivers in your blog or in the news more than I have in the last year or so. Talk a little bit about our geography that makes us different than the rest of the country?
Although we’ve had plenty of atmospheric rivers before, the media discovered the term and they’re running with it. But in fact, we’ve had more impactful atmospheric rivers. We’ve had huge floods around here that have gone back forever. The media has kind of discovered it during the last five years, so they play it up. But the meteorology hasn’t changed.
With more severe weather and climate change moving to the forefront, have you found a greater appreciation for what you do?
People are seeing all that extreme weather not only locally, but for the whole country and the world in a way they didn’t 30 years ago. The other thing is the intersection of religion and meteorology and climate. And it is basically two religions here that they’re derived from it. First, whether it’s like a naturalistic religion, it always been that way; people are completely enraptured with powers that are greater than their own. It’s obvious during a big storm. It’s a religious experience, really. So there’s, there’s always been a naturalistic religion going on or about weather. And now there’s a new religion, and that’s the climate change stuff. It’s so religious in nature. I’m an apostate priest, and there’s nobody worse than that.
That said, do you have a personal passion for weather?
As a kid, I used to love it. I loved extreme weather. But I also was intrigued by the fact that you can simulate it. That’s why most of my stuff is modeling —the fact you can use these equations to realistically see weather. I mean, it’s amazing, right, that you can do this. And we’ve gotten very good at it.
Do you ever just head out for storm watching or to get an up-close look at the weather?
If I want to see the snow, I’ll go up in the mountains to ski or play around. The wind storms come to me occasionally. Sometimes I go to the (Pacific) coast to experience a real big blow.