For 60 years atmospheric scientist Warren M. Washington has conducted groundbreaking climate modeling—and launched brilliant careers
— It began with a challenge from a high school teacher: Figure out why egg yolks are yellow. That’s when Warren Washington, who was working as a dishwasher and janitor at a hospital in Portland, Ore., while attending school, began thinking about becoming a scientist.
By the late 1950s, Washington had finished his undergraduate degree in physics. When he was partway through a master’s at Oregon State College in Corvallis (now Oregon State University), he accepted an internship at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, Calif. The work he did that summer—atmospheric modeling—fascinated him and tested his skills in physics, chemistry, and atmospheric science.
Washington became captivated with the idea that Earth’s past, present, and future meteorological conditions could be calculated using computer models. By 1964, he had finished his Ph.D. in meteorology, making him only the second African American to obtain a doctorate in the atmospheric sciences.
Climate on a Computer
Shortly afterward, Washington began working on some of the earliest simulations of Earth’s climate. He and colleagues at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., did “simple things,” he told Eos, like running models that tested the effects of doubling the carbon dioxide concentration in Earth’s atmosphere.
“All of the computers had vacuum tubes and were very slow,” he recalled. Likewise, coarse spatial and temporal resolution hampered even the best models that he and other scientists devised. Still, the glimpses that their efforts gleaned of the future and the past tantalized Washington. Over time, he and his collaborators continued to refine their simulations by applying more realistic increases in carbon dioxide and incorporating such factors as sea ice and ocean temperature.
“All of the computers had vacuum tubes and were very slow.”
The Real Deal
The scientific community overwhelmingly accepts the reality of the climate change that has unfolded on the computers of Washington and his colleagues and that other researchers have also modeled and abundantly documented in the field. Yet some people remain unconvinced, Washington acknowledged. “We’ve had to take on the skeptics.”
As wide-reaching repercussions of climate change, such as migrations and variations in agricultural productivity, made it a political topic, this climate specialist embraced the political side of his work. Washington served as an adviser to five presidential administrations: Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, and Bush Jr.
“Mentoring should be an ingrained part of every scientist.”
Washington’s work has garnered broad recognition: In 2013, he was elected a Fellow of AGU, and he has received awards from the American Meteorological Society, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, among others. In 2010, Washington was awarded the National Medal of Science, one of the nation’s highest scientific honors, at a ceremony presided over by then president Barack Obama.
Washington is also known for making time to create opportunities for the next generation, particularly those underrepresented in the sciences. “Mentoring should be an ingrained part of every scientist,” he wrote in his autobiography, Odyssey in Climate Modeling, Global Warming, and Advising Five Presidents.
Washington has lived by that mantra: A symposium in his honor held last year at Pennsylvania State University in University Park attracted attendees who, as students, postdocs, or early-career researchers, benefited from Washington’s mentoring. Here Eos highlights four of the many students, postdocs, and early-career researchers whom Washington has influenced during his 6-decade career.
Marshall Shepherd: From Bugs to Weather
This atmospheric scientist at the University of Georgia in Athens might have become an entomologist if an allergic reaction to a bee sting in sixth grade had not started him thinking about studying the weather instead. Today, Shepherd investigates extreme events like hurricanes, heat waves, and flooding. His recent work has focused on how urban areas make their own weather patterns by helping to create, for instance, rain-producing clouds. “Cities under certain conditions can generate their own storms,” said Shepherd. That’s because heat rising off cities can force air to rise, and particulate matter associated with pollution can act as the seeds necessary to form clouds.
Shepherd shares Washington’s interest in understanding the weather and climate from a global perspective. While at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., from 1993 to 2005, Shepherd was the deputy project scientist for the Global Precipitation Measurement satellite. This satellite, in orbit around Earth at an altitude of roughly 400 kilometers, makes measurements of rain and snowfall every few hours.
Its data inform models of weather, climate, and flooding. “You can’t put rain gauges over most of the planet,” so going to space is critical to getting a big-picture view of Earth’s weather, Shepherd said.
“I guess he recognized I had some potential.”
Shepherd remembers meeting Washington at conferences in the 1990s, but it was an offer from the elder scientist, seemingly out of the blue, that cemented their relationship: Washington invited Shepherd, then a graduate student at Florida State University in Tallahassee, to join him for a week at NCAR. “I guess he recognized I had some potential,” Shepherd said.
That short stay would prove influential. “In that week alone, Warren gave me so much advice,” Shepherd noted. One piece of wisdom that sticks with Shepherd today: Always establish your science credentials. People who have a certain look or are from certain groups can get typecast, he recalled Washington cautioning him. That resonated with Shepherd, he explained. “I want the science to be first.”
Shepherd’s scientific work has garnered numerous awards, including the Presidential Early Career Award in 2004 given by then president George W. Bush. Shepherd has also served as the president of the American Meteorological Society, a position previously held by Washington.
Greg Jenkins: The Human Side of Climate
“The weather always grabbed my imagination,” said Jenkins, an atmospheric scientist at Pennsylvania State University. He focuses on what he calls “human-driven research” like studying the impact of Saharan dust storms on health, the prevalence of biomass burning that contributes to poor air quality, and the lightning-induced production of ozone, a greenhouse gas. “I’ve always been interested in problems that have more than one dimension,” Jenkins explained. Protecting vulnerable populations, particularly those in West Africa, from climate change is also something that drives his work. Jenkins received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, and he is a fellow of the American Meteorological Society.
Jenkins was a graduate student in the 1980s in the Department of Atmospheric Oceanic and Space Sciences at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor when he first met Washington. That experience was a game changer, Jenkins said. Seeing someone who, like himself, was African American in the atmospheric sciences “shifted the ground for me.”
Washington helped Jenkins define a thesis project—an analysis of the climate of ancient Earth during the Archean eon—and invited the young researcher to join him at NCAR in the summer of 1989 to conduct climate modeling for his thesis.
That experience of being surrounded by accomplished scientists doing research that Jenkins was passionate about motivated him to “give 110%” to his work, he recalled. Jenkins also admired Washington’s methodical way of starting with a general circulation model and continuously adding complexity. “That’s the way a career is built,” he said. Washington’s willingness to mentor anyone who walked through his door continues to inspire Jenkins. “I’m never seen him turn a person away.”
Claire Parkinson: A Passion for Ice
As an undergraduate at Wellesley College in the 1960s, Claire Parkinson thought she was on her way to becoming a mathematician. But concerns about societal issues and the lure of Antarctica, an entire continent reserved for scientific, peaceful purposes, led to her becoming a graduate student in polar studies, not math, at Ohio State University.” A chance meeting with Warren Washington would also set her on a new course.
“I’d never gone up to a speaker [after a talk] before, but I went up to Washington.”
Washington was at Ohio State to talk about computer modeling of the atmosphere. His talk sparked Parkinson’s interest in climate simulation, but his modeling didn’t include sea ice, which she was studying, Parkinson recalled. So, despite her shyness, she summoned the courage to approach Washington. “I’d never gone up to a speaker [after a talk] before, but I went up to Washington,” she remembered. On the basis of that conversation, Washington invited Parkinson to join him at NCAR to work on climate models incorporating sea ice. That research launched her career.
As a climate scientist today at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where she has worked since 1978, Parkinson focuses on sea ice and how it affects the rest of Earth’s climate. Thick reservoirs of ice exist near the planet’s poles, and understanding the properties of this dynamic ice is critical to accurately modeling the past, present, and future climate, Parkinson noted. “Sea ice blocks some of the exchanges between the ocean and the atmosphere.” That is, heat that would otherwise flow from the ocean to the atmosphere is prevented from doing so by sea ice. “Ice kind of caps things,” Parkinson noted.
Parkinson, a Fellow of AGU and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, has collaborated with Washington on several research projects. In 1986, the two scientists co-authored a university textbook, Introduction to Three-Dimensional Climate Modeling. “Neither Warren nor I could have written that book alone,” said Parkinson. “We came [to it] with very complementary skills.”
Eric Barron: Climate of Ancient Earth
His training in geology and oceanography made him, in his own words, an “oddball” applicant for a summer fellowship at an atmospheric science–focused institution like NCAR. But Eric Barron, then a graduate student at the University of Miami in Florida, dutifully applied at a professor’s urging.
“Washington believes that his job is to help young people be successful. “[He] is a superb mentor.”
When he was awarded the fellowship, Barron brought with him some unique work: geological maps he had created of Earth’s surface as it was roughly 100 million years ago. When he showed those maps to Washington, the atmospheric scientist suggested using Barron’s data to model the climate of ancient Earth. The result: “Warren and I did the first ever general circulation model experiments with a different geometry of the continents,” recalled Barron.
This innovative mapmaker returned to NCAR several times as he continued to work on his dissertation, which garnered the University of Miami’s Smith Prize for being the most creative. Crossing from one discipline to another just wasn’t very common back then, Barron noted. But Washington recognized Barron’s skills. As Barron explained it, Washington believes that his job is to help young people be successful. “[He] is a superb mentor.”
After Barron finished his Ph.D., he accepted a job at NCAR and continued to collaborate with Washington. Over time, he gradually transitioned away from research to administration: He served as director of NCAR from 2008 to 2010, then as Florida State University president, before becoming the president of Pennsylvania State University, a position he holds currently. Barron is also a Fellow of AGU.
Looking back, Barron credits Washington’s science and humanity with helping to launch his career. He also knows that he’s not alone in having benefited from Washington’s mentorship. “The combination has served a lot of people well,” Barron said.
This article kicks off a Centennial series of profiles in Eos of eminent Earth and space scientists that takes a look at not only their scientific journeys but their “family portraits,” the luminaries and the students, postdocs, and collaborators — their scientific progeny — who have received inspiration, encouragement, and guidance from these leading lights of science.
by Katherine Kornei | Eos