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Dr. Warren M. Washington – One of the World's Most Influential Climate Scientists

This profile on Dr. Warren M. Washington is the third post in a month-long series of profiles on Black STEM innovators in honor of Black History Month. Today’s post also celebrates National Weatherperson's Day by focusing on Washington, who is regarded as one of the world's most influential climate scientists for his work on climate modeling. Check back each weekday to read a new profile, the next of which focuses on Katherine Johnson, a NASA Mathematician.

Humans have attempted to predict the changes in their environment since the start of civilization. In 650 B.C. the Babylonians studied the appearance of clouds and other skyward events to predict weather followed by Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle, in 350 B.C. who theorized visual weather clues like wind were linked to different weather, followed by Chinese astronomers who documented weather changes using a calendar of 24 weather-associated festivals in 300 B.C.1 While many civilizations accurately observed physical features associated with weather patterns, many were incorrect as shown by Aristotle who claimed the sun revolved around the earth.

As technological capabilities increased, so too did the tools used to measure weather phenomenon such as thermometers, but the invention that allowed modern weather prediction came in the 1960s when Dr. Warren M. Washington developed atmospheric computer models with co-worker Akira Kasahara at the National Center for Atmospheric Research Climate and Global Dynamics (NCAR).

As a child, Dr. Washington was interested in science, an interest which held his attention through college where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master's degree in meteorology from Oregon State University. He then enrolled at Pennsylvania State University and became the second African American ever to earn a doctorate in meteorology2,3.

In 1963, the year before he graduated with his doctoral degree, Dr. Washington began working with NCAR where he helped to develop one of the first computer models of Earth’s climate, replacing observation as the primary technique to predict weather3. This model also allowed for weather patterns to be studied by collecting and graphing data used to project future weather.

"Keep in mind that we're the first generation that actually sees climate change in human history," Dr. Washington told Business Insider in a 2019 interview. "Most climate change has been us going in and out of ice ages over thousands of years. Now we're seeing things happen over tens of years. 3"

Through the use of climate models, Dr. Washington and his team were able to replicate the effects of physics on aspects of weather including “how heat energy, water vapor, and chemicals move between Earth's oceans and the atmosphere. 3” Computers then used the data from the climate models to predict atmospheric changes. These models were used in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which concluded that human’s actions had a direct impact on the environment and earned Dr. Washington and his team the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize3. For this work, Dr. Washington was also awarded the National Medal of Science by President Obama "for his development and use of global climate models to understand climate and explain the role of human activities and natural processes in the Earth's climate system and for his work to support a diverse science and engineering workforce.2, 4".

Throughout his career Dr. Washington served on commissions for climate change, as an advisor for the Federal Government, as the President’s National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere, and became the President of the American Meteorological Society.

Just last year, Dr. Washington was awarded the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, which some refer to as the "Nobel Prize for the environment," along with fellow climate scientist, Michael Mann3.

To-date, Dr. Washington published over 150 research works as well as an autobiography and continues to add to the scientific advancement of climate science through research and as a mentoring for the next generation of climate scientists.

References:

  1. NASA Earth Observatory. (2002, February 25). Weather Forecasting Through the Ages. Retrieved from https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/WxForecasting/wx2.php.
  2. National Center for Atmospheric Research Climate and Global Dynamics. (2017). WARREN WASHINGTON, SENIOR SCIENTIST. Retrieved from http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/wmw/.
  3. Business Insider. (2019, February 12). When Warren Washington created the first climate model, he had no idea how necessary it was. He just won the 'Nobel Prize for the environment.'. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/warren-washington-first-climate-model-environment-prize-2019-2.
  4. National Science and Technology Medals Foundation. (2020). Warren Washington: National Medal of Science Physical Sciences. Retrieved from https://www.nationalmedals.org/laureates/warren-washington.