Thomas W. Swetnam with tree-ring specimens in the UA's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. (Photo courtesy of Michaela Kane/Arizona Daily Wildcat)
Thomas W. Swetnam with tree-ring specimens in the UA's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. (Photo courtesy of Michaela Kane/Arizona Daily Wildcat)

The Lord of the Tree Rings

Thomas W. Swetnam, director of the UA's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, has been elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Dec. 3, 2014
Swetnam has been the director of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research since 2000.
Swetnam has been the director of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research since 2000.

Thomas W. Swetnam, Regents' Professor of Dendrochronology and director of the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, has been named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society. 

Election as a AAAS Fellow is an honor bestowed on AAAS members by their peers. This year, 401 members have been awarded this honor by AAAS because of their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications. Being chosen as an AAAS fellow signifies that colleagues in the field deem the nominee among the best in the country. 

New Fellows will be presented with an official certificate and rosette pin of gold and blue (representing science and engineering, respectively) at the AAAS Fellows Forum during the 2015 AAAS annual meeting in San Jose, California.

As part of the Section on Geology and Geography, Swetnam was elected as an AAAS Fellow for his investigations of tree rings as a record of past changes in climate, allowing scientists to predict future forest-fire frequencies in the Southwest.

"It is very nice to be recognized in this way by my colleagues and AAAS, which is such a venerable scientific society," Swetnam said. "In addition to publishing Science Magazine, one of the top scientific journals in the world, I especially admire AAAS for their leadership in communicating science to the public and decision makers."

As one of the world's leading scientists in dendrochronology, or tree-ring research, Swetnam studies tree rings from the world's largest trees, the giant sequoias found on the West Coast of the U.S., and the oldest, the bristlecone pines in the highest mountains in the West dating back 9,000 years.

In particular, he specializes in analyzing climate changes through history and prehistory, dangerous insect outbreaks and forest fires. In recent years, enormous blazes, some 10 times greater than those that firefighters have been accustomed to seeing in California and Arizona, have forced scholars to attempt to understand this phenomenon. The conclusions from Swetnam's studies of these so-called megafires and their alarming size, duration and frequency have made the scientific community, governments throughout the world and media to pay close attention. Swetnam has appeared on programs such as PBS' "NewsHour" and CBS' "60 Minutes."

Swetnam graduated with a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of New Mexico in 1977, and he has a master's in watershed management and a doctorate in geosciences, both from the UA. He spent two years as a professional firefighter in New Mexico's Gila National Forest.

"It's entirely appropriate that Tom Swetnam has been named an AAAS Fellow," said Malcolm Hughes, a Regents' Professor of Dendrochronology who was named an AAAS Fellow last year. "Tom has made major contributions to our scientific understanding of the relationship between climate, wildfire and forests. He is a globally recognized pioneer in using tree rings and other observations to 'get under the hood' of forest ecosystems, and he is a gifted and engaged communicator of his science."

The resulting insights already have great relevance to policy at local, state, national and international levels and will surely increase in relevance in coming decades, Hughes added. 

UA College of Science Dean Joaquin Ruiz said: "Tom is an extraordinary scientist, arguably the leading scientist in understanding forest fires and their history. Consequently, he absolutely deserves this honor. The award also thrills me because Tom is such an extraordinary human being. He cares greatly about people and about our environment."

The tradition of AAAS Fellows began in 1874. Currently, members can be considered for the rank of Fellow if nominated by the steering groups of the association’s 24 sections, or by any three Fellows who are current AAAS members (two of the three sponsors cannot be affiliated with the nominee’s institution), or by the AAAS chief executive officer. Fellows must have been continuous members of AAAS for four years by the end of the calendar year in which they are elected.

Each steering group reviews the nominations of individuals within its respective section and a final list is forwarded to the AAAS Council, which votes on the aggregate list.

The council is the policymaking body of the association, chaired by the AAAS president and consisting of the members of the board of directors, the retiring section chairs, delegates from each electorate and each regional division, and two delegates from the National Association of Academies of Science.

AAAS, founded in 1848, includes 254 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals.