Interview with Warren Washington, a Pioneer of Climate Modeling

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Special Feature

Interview with Warren Washington, a Pioneer of Climate Modeling


Korena Di Roma Howley, Contributing Editor

 Warren Washington. Photo courtesy of NCAR.In the 1960s, when Warren Washington was among those developing the first atmospheric computer models, he and his colleagues were interested in discovering how they could simulate the observed climate system and verify that they had the right physics for the current climate. More than 50 years later, during a period of increasing global temperatures, the field Washington helped pioneer has taken on new relevance, helping scientists to not only understand our present climate but also to predict what may be in store for the planet.

Washington, now 83, was the second African American to earn a PhD in the atmospheric sciences. He would go on to publish extensively, advise US presidents, chair the National Science Board, lead the American Meteorological Society, and receive the National Medal of Science from President Obama. In 2019, he was awarded the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, known as “the Nobel Prize for the environment.”

In 2018, after 54 years, Washington retired as a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), where he remains a distinguished scholar. He continues to mentor students, give lectures, and review reports for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

For this issue focusing on climate change, I spoke with Washington about his remarkable career and the future of his field. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.

When did you first realize that you were interested in science?

Well, I think very young . . . I was anxious to learn how things worked, and I always enjoyed cars and airplanes and so forth. My mother took me to the library, and that was really important for me. I got a library card, and I was checking out books about various scientists. One of the things that impressed me was that a lot of the scientists—both African American and Caucasian—came from backgrounds that were about the same as mine, so I felt that I could get into science too. And that’s what I did.

What made you pursue a career in meteorology in particular?

I switched my major [at what’s now Oregon State University] from physics to meteorology because I thought it was a very interesting application of physics. My thesis adviser received a call from some people at Stanford Research Institute who were looking for a mathematician and physics major to help them on a project to build a computer model of the atmosphere, and I took that job for the summer of 1959. I was really impressed that this was a project that used my skills—it had mathematics, it had physics, and I thought it was neat to build a model that simulated how the atmosphere worked.

After working at Stanford Research Institute, I asked them if there was a place I could go to get a PhD in computer modeling of the atmosphere and the climate . . . It turned out that [of those institutions], one of them I couldn’t go to because it was segregated. That was Florida State University. It had a good meteorology program, but they weren’t admitting African American students. I think I was accepted at most of the other schools, and I ended up going to Penn State.

How has climate change research and modeling evolved since you began your career in the 1960s?

Our group here at NCAR was one of the few places that started using models to explore climate change. [At that time] scientists like myself were interested in whether we could simulate the observed climate system . . . [and] build a model to verify that we had the right physics for the present climate. It wasn’t until a few years later that we turned our models into an investigating tool for the causes of climate change [in order to] understand how you go from when we started burning fossil fuels to the present. We tried to simulate the warming that was taking place, and we had to take into account the concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The models that we have presently have a lot of detailed physics; for example, how clouds form, how they maintain themselves, how they change the energy balance, surface temperatures, warming of the oceans—[all of that] came a little bit later.

While activists like Greta Thunberg are making headlines and it’s a topic that’s top of mind, the rate of practical action on climate change isn’t very encouraging. How optimistic or not do you feel about our society’s capacity for real change?

Polls are showing that 70 percent of the public in the US agree that climate change is happening. Given that, Congress is very much in favor of doing something about it, so when the president tries to cut the budget of climate change research, it’s always been restored by Congress, which considers it a serious problem. Unfortunately, the president has taken us out of the Paris Agreement, and we’re one of the few countries that isn’t trying to set targets and come up with schemes to cut back on the use of fossil fuels. What’s encouraging is that the young people we interact with who understand something about how climate change works are helping to influence elections. But there’s a lot more that could be done.

Do you have any advice on how to communicate with climate change skeptics or deniers?

Depends on the person, of course. Basically, if I encounter a skeptic, I try to sit down and chat about what their understanding is . . . I try to find out why they’re skeptical. I’ve heard things like, “The satellites prove that the atmosphere is cooling, not warming.” Well, it turns out that some of the instruments that are on satellites were drifting a little bit, were drifting out of orbit, which is not unusual. When corrected, it shows a warming trend . . . Every indicator shows that warming is taking place and that we’re melting the sea ice and melting glaciers . . . and the sea level is rising. All these things are consistent with climate change.

What is your advice for physics students who want to have a career in meteorology and make an impact on climate change?

My advice to young people is that they can come into the field in a number of different ways. We have people contributing to improving the mathematical techniques for solving [certain] equations, and they’re usually people who have strong applied mathematics skills and computing skills. We also need to have people who understand how modern computers are configured so that we can put these models onto computers and more quickly solve the equations. So there are many different fields that can contribute, including physics, of course.

For more about the life of Warren Washington, read his autobiography, Odyssey in Climate Modeling, Global Warming, and Advising Five Presidents (Createspace, 3rd ed., 2012).

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