A sense of play and a willingness to take big chances have always been important to Park Williams.
Although he is one of the most honored young scientists to attend UC Santa Barbara in recent years, winning a Graduate School Researcher of the Year award at UCSB and an Ecological Society of America award for young scientists in 2013, as well as becoming a fixture at the prestigious Tree Ring Lab of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Williams didn’t plan to become an ecological scientist, and he didn’t have his heart set on attending UCSB.
Born in l981 and raised near Sacramento, he went to UC Irvine for his B.S. degree but had a difficult time choosing a field after graduating. He applied to Berkeley, to Davis, and to Santa Barbara, each in different fields, from atmospheric chemistry to geology to forest ecology (at UCSB).
“I applied to UCSB, but I thought I was going to Berkeley because it had a bigger name. But then I visited Santa Barbara and talked to Chris Still, who later became my graduate advisor,” he said. “After talking to him, I accepted their offer the next day.”
Still, who now leads an ecosystem research lab at Oregon State University in Corvallis, remembers working with Williams well. They bonded over a fascination with cloud forests — moist tropical or subtropical forests filled with low-level clouds.
“Park is a terrific scientist, but he’s also a person who loves life and has a great time, which is a balance not all scientists have worked out,” Still said, mentioning a wild and crazy charitable project Williams launched after Hurricane Katrina.
After New Orleans was devastated late in the summer of 2005, Williams set out to raise money for the Red Cross. He launched a site called Daring is Caring and took on dares for contributions to the cause. “It was really a hilarious thing he did,” said Still. “Basically he enlisted a bunch of his friends to help him out and solicited dares for pledges to the Red Cross.”
Williams began by singing karaoke rap songs down on State Street but soon graduated to wilder gigs, wearing tutus, delivering pizza around campus in a Speedo, and taking “a double dog dare” from a local radio show, which included going to a high-end pet store — now defunct — on State Street dressed only in a bathing suit and covered with dog treats and allowing the dogs to lick him clean.
In an interview at the enormous fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco in December, Williams admits that at first he had a little too much fun at UCSB.
“I think it is a party school, at least compared to some of the other UCs,” he said. “And I think undergraduates especially need to be careful to be sure they can succeed in an environment where there’s a party going on almost all the time. It took me a couple of years.”
Williams initially wanted to do research into the cloud forests of Costa Rica, but he couldn’t find funding and ended up working in cloud forests much closer to home — on Santa Cruz Island.
“I don’t think I appreciated at the time how beautiful it was and what an opportunity it was to be living in Southern California but isolated from the gigantic human population,” he said.
Although he spent most nights in the field station on the western side of the island, the work often called for camping and rising at dawn to check the harp-like machine constructed to harvest fog water. By comparing the chemical composition of fog water to that inside the trees, the research group discovered how dependent the tree was on fog — about 10-15 percent it turns out.
Williams went on to compare tree ring growth with records of fog occurrence kept by local airports and showed that the trees do grow significantly more in years with foggy summers. The rare pine species also depend on winter rain, and droughts — such as the drought of 1987 to l991— led to mass tree mortality.
Williams went on to pore over decades of cloud records collected at airports since the 1940s to see if fog behavior has been changing, possibly as part of global warming.
“I was really surprised what a clear story came out of the data,” he said. “Out of that jumps this correlation between the urbanization of Southern California and the warming which comes with that.”
In a widely publicized study last year, Williams showed that in large urbanized areas the warming associated with the “heat island effect” means that marine moisture condenses into clouds at higher altitudes than it does in wild environments, reducing shading and fog and raising temperatures on land in cities.
“These low clouds are really important regulators of drought at the Earth’s surface,” he said. “For people, it’s not such a big deal [because they have alternate water sources], but for ecosystems the fog water is all they’ve got during summer.”
Williams has gone on to become something of a wizard at crunching vast datasets. He has worked with noted researchers in the Southwest, including Nate McDowell and Craig Allen, showing how imperiled forests in the region are by climate change. With a team led by Richard Seager, he studied global warming and drought in California, showing that about 15-20 percent of the drought’s impact can be attributed to human-caused warming.
“Global warming has significantly enhanced an existing trend towards fire weather in the Southwest,” he said. “It’s tough watching this happening, and it makes for a lot of sad stories, but maybe this work will be of benefit to western land managers and allow them to peer into the future.”
As for advice Williams would give to younger researchers, he turns contemplative. “Don’t sweat too much about the decision of what to study,” he said. “Just go and work very hard. Do something you’re interested in, and don’t worry too much about the forks in the road.” And then he grinned.