When deciding whether to pop open the umbrella or shed an extra layer, Northwesterners trust Cliff Mass to provide answers. After all, the atmospheric scientist literally wrote the book on Northwest weather. His 2008 paperback, The Weather of the Pacific Northwest, covers the region’s broad meteorological landscape, from the Puget Sound convergence zone to the “banana belt” of Southern Oregon.
Mass’s intense interest in Northwest weather developed while he earned his PhD in atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington in 1978. After graduation, Mass briefly left the Northwest for a professorship in Maryland but was drawn back to Seattle, where he gained local celebrity status as a professor at the UW, a weekly guest on public radio, and as the host of the popular Cliff Mass Weather and Climate Blog.
Although beloved for his earnestly passionate weather reports, Mass has stirred up some controversy when it comes to climate change. Despite his concerns about its ultimate impact, Mass thinks the media often draws false connections between certain environmental events and global warming. “I’m worried that we’re working on the wrong problems. We have forest fires and people say ‘Oh, well, that’s global warming.’ But that’s not the real issue,” Mass says. “The real problem is that we’ve mismanaged the forests for the last hundred years, and we’ve suppressed natural wildfires and created this situation where the forests burn much more catastrophically than they would naturally.”
Many of his detractors assert that his insistence on making scientific arguments against climate change (in any context) provides confirmation for people who outright deny humanity’s impact on the environment. Critics fear he is diminishing the work of environmental groups who seek to promote a public sense of urgency to address the issue. Mass disagrees.
“I’ve been very concerned about the exaggeration of climate change by some folks,” Mass says. “There are some people who think it’s OK to lie in order to get people to do the right thing. But I’m saying it’s not. If you lie, eventually they’ll find out, and it will undercut your ability to accomplish things.”
Before Mass gained notoriety and infamy as a Seattle weather personality, he was just a precocious kid observing storms in East Meadow, Long Island. “I really enjoyed severe weather,” he says. “Heavy rain, thunder storms, snow storms. I loved it. The more intense the better.” Encouraging this interest, his parents bought him a Lionel weather station when he was 7. He set up instruments on the roof, where he took observations, plotted temperatures, and listened to ominous forecasts of incoming storms on his AM radio.
Mass went on to major in physics at Cornell University and developed an interest in simulating the weather through computer programs while modeling the Martian atmosphere under legendary astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan. Mass, who met his wife at Hillel UW while he was a doctoral student and has been a member of Temple Beth Am since the 1980s, says his connection to Judaism informs his life’s work. “I’m kind of tikkun olam crazy. I’m super into repairing the world. I’ve always been attracted to projects to change things and improve things both within my discipline and outside.” Mass considers his firebrand opinions an outgrowth of his Jewish identity. “I have an outsider’s view of things. I think that offering a different perspective can be useful, but it’s gotten me into trouble with some people,” he says.
His commitment to social responsibility includes pushing for better weather radar coverage on the coast in 2009, fighting for a higher-quality math curriculum in K–12 Seattle schools, and efforts to improve weather prediction in the United States.
Shifting between his roles as professor at a university and as a guest speaker at events with conservative audiences, Mass has concluded that a moderate approach is the best way to effect change.
“I think everything has to be bipartisan. There’s people on the left who claim that all these terrible things are happening that aren’t, and then there are people on the right who say nothing will ever happen,” Mass says. “So the key thing now is to build the middle and do reasonable, pragmatic things.”