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Dr. Warren Washington, the American Meteorological Society's 1st black president, was a pioneer in atmospheric computer modeling

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

Dr. Warren Washington in 1993 - Oregon State University

(Photo/Special Collections and Archives Research Center, Oregon State University Libraries and Press)


Regarded as one of the pioneers of numerical climate modeling, internationally recognized atmospheric scientist and climate researcher Dr. Warren Morton Washington was one of the first developers of groundbreaking atmospheric computer models, which have been key to helping scientists understand climate change.

“Numerical climate modeling uses the fundamental laws of physics to predict how climate will change under different mechanisms,” said Dr. Roy Haggerty, dean of Oregon State University’s (OSU) College of Science. Washington earned his Bachelor of Science degree in physics and Master of Science degree in meteorology from OSU in 1958 and 1960, respectively.

He went on to earn his doctoral degree in meteorology from the Pennsylvania State University in 1964, the second African-American in the United States to do so.

“He’s one of the founders of this whole field [of numerical climate modeling], and as a consequence, he really has had an enormous impact on the field of earth science, because so much of earth science is now connected to climate,” Haggerty told AccuWeather.

Washington was one of the early climate modelers during a time when computer programs themselves were fairly primitive and computing power was limited, said Dr. Philip Mote, vice provost and dean of OSU’s graduate school as well as a professor with the university’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences.

“He made some really tremendous advancements, despite being pretty severely hampered by the computing power available at the time,” Mote said.

A Portland, Oregon, native born in 1936, Washington, for more than 50 years, has demonstrated continued involvement in the further development of broader climate models that include not just the atmosphere, but also oceans, ice and land, according to Dr. Claire Parkinson, a senior climate change scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center who was mentored by Washington during her doctoral studies in the late 1970s and co-authored two editions of “An Introduction to Three-Dimensional Climate Modeling” with him.

Washington joined the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in 1963 as a research scientist. In 1975, he developed one of the first atmospheric computer models of the Earth’s climate, and shortly afterward, Washington became the head of the organization’s Climate Change Research Section in the Climate and Global Dynamics Division, according to TheHistoryMakers.org.

Dr. Warren Washington and former President Barack Obama

Dr. Warren Washington was awarded the 2010 National Medal of Science by former President Barack Obama. (Photo/Ryan K. Morris/National Science and Technology Medals Foundation)


During his extensive career, Washington was elected as the first African-American president of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) in 1994; has authored more than 150 publications; served as a member of the President's National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere; and received numerous awards and honors, including the 2010 National Medal of Science awarded by President Barack Obama for Washington’s "fundamental contributions to the understanding of Earth's coupled climate system through numerical simulation, leadership in United States science policy and inspiring mentorship of young people of all backgrounds and origins.”

In February 2019, 82-year-old Washington was selected as one of two climate scientists recognized with the Tyler Prize, awarded for pioneering innovative scientific investigations and analysis of global change.

“It can’t be stated too strongly how influential a scientist Dr. Washington is,” Haggerty said.

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The accomplished researcher is known not only for his astounding contributions to the field of atmospheric science but also for his dedication to mentorship. Washington has supported many budding scientists in the climate and modeling arenas, said Parkinson, who was initially introduced to the world of climate modeling after hearing Washington’s lecture at her university in the 1970s.

“He’s been a role model and provided encouragement to young people who are trying to figure out which fields to go into,” Parkinson told AccuWeather.

“I felt that I really had to give back not only to the field, but to the African-American community,” Washington told Penn State University, adding that he’s always felt compelled to increase diversity.

The National Science Foundation has reported that African-Americans are underrepresented in science and engineering occupations.

“For science to realize its full potential in our society, it needs to involve everyone, people from various backgrounds, and Dr. Washington is a fantastic example of an excellent scientist who is African-American,” Haggerty said.

Parkinson also noted the importance of role models with which everyone can identify. “The scientific community definitely can benefit by having more diversity than just a huge predominance of white males, because diversity does bring different perspectives, and those different perspectives help to advance science,” she said.

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