Pioneering black scientist to win Tyler Prize for climate change
Dr. Warren Washington is an exceptional scientist, an innovator in the field of meteorology, and a man who has overcome obstacles his entire life to make the world a better, more informed place.
Dr. Warren Washington will be the next winner of the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, also known as the environmental Nobel Prize. This incredible honor follows on the heels of the Presidential Medal of Honor, bestowed by President Obama in 2010, and is one more deserved accolade honoring the work of an incredible scientist.
Pioneering is the most common word associated with Dr. Washington, and for good reason. Not only has he overcome incredible obstacles to get to where he is today, but he has also revolutionized the world of climate change research by developing computer-assisted modeling to help scientists track the rise of greenhouse gasses in the environment.
Dr. Washington was born in 1936 in Oregon. His mother, Dorothy, was a practical nurse (she attended the University of Oregon for 18 months, but as she was refused a place in the dormitories because of her race, she didn’t complete a degree). Edwin Washington, Dr. Washington’s father, worked as a waiter for the Union Pacific Railroad after graduating from Talladega College in 1928.
Washington had an interest in science from a young age. Reading about famous scientists like George Washington Carver inspired him, and instead of pursuing a career in business (like his high school counselor encouraged), he followed his passion and received a B.S. in Physics from Oregon State University in 1958.
Even in his early years, he was a trailblazer asking his teachers tough questions (such as: “Why are egg yolks yellow?”) and pursuing a Ph.D. in meteorology when he was only the second African American to have ever completed a doctoral degree in atmospheric science.
His interests and degrees led Washington to work as a professor of meteorology and oceanography at the University of Michigan until 1971 when he joined the staff at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. This would be where he did his most wide-reaching and world-changing work.
In the 1960s, Dr. Washington began working on computer programs that would predict future atmospheric conditions. The work he did then and the work he continues to do today (because despite being retired, even at 82 years old he’s contributing to the field) has informed the way scientists and researchers look at and understand climate change.
His computer models, which rely on physics to formulate their predictions, remain an instrumental part of climate change research. Using physics fundamentals, these programs track the movement of heat energy, chemicals, and water vapor between oceans and the atmosphere. This information then enables scientists to predict what the world’s atmosphere will look like (or has looked like) in certain periods of time.
As the programs (and computers) developed, Williams started to include oceans and sea ice into the computers’ calculations, and today, those programs have grown to consider sea vegetation, oceans, sea ice, and more.
Before Dr. Washington and his incredible physics-based computer models, climate science was less about physics and more about guessing. Scientists would theorize about the past and future of climate and make predictions based on their observations, but Dr. Washington would change all that. His work makes it possible for scientists to study the world’s climate using accurate, physics-based models of past climate and future climate. They can analyze patterns in the weather, project future weather patterns and the impact of climate change, and study weather and climate over the past tens of thousands of years.
In addition to his work as a researcher, he has served as an advisor to not one, not two, but six different US presidents (Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama). He has also served on the National Science Board, as a leader for the National Science Foundation, and as a member of following world-renowned societies: the National Academy of Engineering, the American Meteorological Society, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Dr. Washington has over 150 publications to his name, including an autobiography and a book (An Introduction to Three-Dimensional Climate Modeling, with Claire Parkinson) that remains the go-to reference text in the field.
More than the science
When Dr. Washington was born, the African American population in Oregon constituted less than 1% of the entire state’s population. He has never let the prejudice, misconceptions, or hate spewed by other people keep him from pursuing and achieving his dreams, whether the negativity stemmed from racial discrimination or climate change deniers. His focus is and always has been on the good he can do for his country and for the world.
The Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement is one more well-deserved honor in Dr. Warren Washington’s long life of successes, personal as well as academic. Despite his awards, accolades, and achievements, he continues to remain dedicated to his research and to inspiring others to follow their dreams.
Dr. Warren Washington is an important man to know, and not just because of his scientific discoveries and advances. His perseverance despite the obstacles as well as his commitment to discovery and innovation should serve as an example to us all. And, despite everything, Dr. Washington said it best when he said: “I haven’t lost my optimism.”