Blog | February 20, 2015, 09:34 PST

A beautiful component of the climate equation

By Laura Faye Tenenbaum

A painting from Graeme Stephens' 'Noble Clouds Under Variable Light' series (oil on canvas, 2003).

A painting from Graeme Stephens' 'Noble Clouds Under Variable Light' series (oil on canvas, 2003).

Last week, Graeme L. Stephens, the director for JPL’s Center for Climate Sciences, was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. “It’s a great honor,” he told me, “I’m surprised I was selected.” The National Academy of Engineering honors people who have made outstanding contributions and is the highest professional distinction for engineers.

Graeme Stephens

Stephens received this honor for his study of clouds, specifically the way water in the atmosphere forms rain. Clouds control the climate because they reflect sunlight, but they also act as a greenhouse that traps heat. “Clouds are the most complex element of the climate equation and the most important aspect to understanding climate change,” Stephens said. And just in case you hadn’t noticed, they’re stunningly beautiful, too.

You might be wondering how a NASA scientist could receive an engineering honor. Well, like many scientists and engineers at NASA, Stephens worked to build a cohesive connection between the two disciplines, and his work represents “legs on both sides of a river.” The National Academy of Engineering has twelve multidisciplinary sections that bridge engineering and science. “Scientists think about problems that may not be able to be solved,” he said, “whereas engineers only do things that need to be solved.”

As a member of the academy, his duties will include helping to develop the Academy’s position on climate change. And as a member of the human race, he will continue to celebrate the wonder and the beauty of clouds. In addition to studying clouds, Stephens paints them. Check out more of Stephens paintings at the Cloudsat Art Gallery.

Painting 2
"The Noble Cumulus," oil and acrylic on canvas, from Stephens' Noble Clouds Under Variable Light Series, 2003.

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