ASU's Erinanne Saffell appointed Arizona’s state climatologist

Erinanne Saffell, a senior lecturer in Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, remembers experiencing severe floods growing up in Arizona in the 1970s.

“When I was about 3 years old we had a tropical cyclone that flooded out the area, and my family was sandbagging our house in Scottsdale. I remember Hurricane Joanne in 1972, and my mom was driving the station wagon. I couldn't see because the rain was so intense. Most of my early childhood memories are of too much water flooding in Arizona,” Saffell said.

These early experiences sparked Saffell’s lifelong fascination with water and led her to pursue a career researching extreme weather and climate events, including flood and drought, as well as impacts of urban heat islands. Since 2009, she has worked as a senior lecturer in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, where she develops courses and upper-division seminars in physical geography, meteorology and climatology, and directs K–12 outreach and training programs on these topics.

Now, Saffell has been appointed Arizona’s state climatologist by Gov. Doug Ducey — a role in which she will educate and advise both local and state communities on issues of climate and weather.

“Dr. Erinanne Saffell’s decades of experience teaching and researching the pressing issues of climate we are facing, both locally and globally, have prepared her well to serve as Arizona’s top climate expert. Her knowledge on topics like drought and extreme weather will help to advance a more sustainable and informed Arizona,” said ASU President Michael Crow.

Her appointment follows the retirement of Nancy Selover, who served in the role for 14 years and worked for several decades as a research professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

“There’s some big shoes to fill with Nancy; she's done amazing work, and she's always been that servant to the state,” Saffell said. “Hopefully I can follow in her footsteps with the service that she's provided. I've known Nancy for all of that time, and I've known all of the previous state climatologists prior to her except for the first one. I feel grateful to have their experience helping guide what we can do in the future.”

Like Selover, Saffell will simultaneously teach various geography courses at ASU and serve as state climatologist.

“Erin’s appointment to state climatologist is an incredible testament and continuation of our faculty’s dedication to not only climate science, but also service to our community,” said Sharmistha Bagchi-Sen, director and professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “I am excited for the expertise and enthusiasm she will bring to this role.”

Saffell started her journey into studying climate at ASU, where she received her bachelor’s degree in geography in 1999, her master’s degree in geography with an emphasis on climatology in 2001 and her PhD in geography with an emphasis on climatology in 2004.

“I didn't really understand what geography was as a discipline, but I knew I wanted to study weather. In order to do that, I needed to take geography. GPH 111, which is an introduction to physical geography, changed my life,” Saffell said. “It explained things that I had seen, but didn't quite understand why they were happening. Geography is fascinating because it's not about memorizing capitals. It's about finding patterns across space.”

One of her first priorities in her new role is addressing the ongoing drought in Arizona, Saffell said.

“Even with all of the precipitation that we experienced in June and July, we're still going to be in some measure of drought. We are seeing some improvements, but drought is a long-term event and it's going to take a little bit more than one storm event or one summer to move out of that drought,” she said.

Saffell previously partnered with the Arizona State Climate Office, the National Weather Service and the Salt River Project to establish Arizona’s only middle school weather camp. She is currently co-chair of the Arizona Drought Monitoring Technical Committee and serves on the American Meteorological Society's Board of Outreach and Informal Education.

“This appointment is a great choice for the state of Arizona,” said Elizabeth Wentz, vice provost and dean of the Graduate College and a professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “Erin is an exceptionally talented scholar and teacher. She is devoted to the community and will provide great service to all.”

Saffell said she is most looking forward to being of service to her home state while continuing to educate the next generation. 

“I'm eager to go talk to different communities across the state, especially the smaller communities, and answer their questions about weather and climate and learn from the experiences that they've had,” she said. “It's very humbling. I always look at my role as an educator as someone who’s serving the next generation. I can talk about the science — but my students are really excited to learn and make a difference. I'm excited to see what they can come up with and what kind of innovations can happen as a result.”