Richard Somerville received his B.S. in meteorology in 1961 from Penn State University and his Ph.D. in meteorology in 1966 from New York University (NYU). In the 1970s, he taught at Columbia and NYU and did research at the NYU Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. His early work was in geophysical fluid dynamics and in mathematical methods for simulating fluid flows. His research demonstrating the advantages of a global computational domain was instrumental in improving the skill of operational numerical weather predictions.
Since 1979, Richard Somerville has been a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego. There his research has emphasized improving our understanding of the climate system, especially of the role of clouds and cloud-radiation interactions. He has made important contributions to both the physics and the mathematics of climate models. With Samuel S. P. Shen, he co-authored Climate Mathematics: Theory and Applications (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
Somerville is an internationally recognized climate scientist and an authority on the prospects for climate change in coming decades. His interests include all aspects of climate, including climate science outreach and the interface between science and public policy. He is an expert on communicating clearly to the public what scientists have learned about climate change. He helped to organize the Aspen Global Change Institute in Aspen, Colorado. As early as 1990, he has given clear warnings of the threat of human-caused climate change. He is a Coordinating Lead Author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Richard Somerville wrote the chapter on Communicating Climate Change Science in the 2019 University of California online publication, Bending the Curve: Climate Change Solutions.
Among many honors, Somerville has been named a Fellow of three scientific societies: the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Geophysical Union (AGU), and the American Meteorological Society (AMS). He also received awards from the AMS for both his research and his 1996 book, The Forgiving Air: Understanding Environmental Change. The AGU awarded him both its Climate Communication Prize (2015) and its Ambassador Award (2017). In 2022, he received the Haagen-Smit Clean Air Award for 2020-2021 from the California Air Resources Board, for a “lifetime of important contributions and achievements” in the field of climate change science.