News / USA

Scientist Explores Mysteries of Changing Climate

Warren Washington improves power of computer models and explains them to policy

Warren Washington receives the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama in 2010.
Warren Washington receives the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama in 2010.

Multimedia

Audio
Shelley Schlender

Warren Washington has dedicated his life to solving the mysteries of the world's changing climate.

As a boy in the 1930s, scanning the night skies through his father’s telescope, he was already thinking like a scientist.

"I always had a strong feeling that I wanted to understand everything," says Washington. "I wanted to know how things worked."

Breaking barriers

He held onto that feeling, even after a high school science advisor told him that, because he was an African-American, he should train for something practical such as business.

"He didn’t think that a child with my background should bother getting a science education."

In those days, even when African-Americans graduated from college, they were often barred from professional careers. But Washington's parents wanted a better future for their son, so they urged him to follow his dreams.

Warren Washington standing in front of one of the first Cray computers in 1970.
Warren Washington standing in front of one of the first Cray computers in 1970.

He was inspired and motivated after reading the biographies of such towering scientific pioneers as physicist Albert Einstein, inventor Thomas Edison and agricultural chemist George Washington Carver, an African-American.

"It actually convinced me that I could go into science. Because, when you read their life stories, they came from what seemed to be fairly ordinary families, and since I read those books I said, 'Geez, I think I can do this, too.'"

Looking to the skies

Washington’s boyhood interest in the skies was rekindled by an Oregon State physics professor with a passion for climate studies. Washington excelled in physics, a skill which led to a summer job as a research mathematician with scientists who were just beginning to use computers to forecast the weather.

By today’s standards, the machines were primitive. Still, Washington says, if you input accurate data about today’s weather, those computers could predict tomorrow’s weather.

Warren Washington and a fellow student looking at weather maps in 1977.
Warren Washington and a fellow student looking at weather maps in 1977.

"What surprised everyone is that the skill of the forecast was pretty much the same as a skilled forecaster. So everyone immediately saw great promise in this new tool."

Washington earned a PhD in atmospheric science, the second African-American in the United States to do so.

In 1963, he drove to Boulder, Colorado, to join the federally-funded National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Researchers at NCAR had a more advanced tool for scientists - a room-sized complex of giant computers, each the size of a modern refrigerator.

"They ran very slow," says Washington. "And I wouldn’t be surprised if the amount of memory we had was smaller than you can get on an I-phone."

Climate influences

Still, those computers helped NCAR scientists forecast the weather several days in advance. And with Washington’s expertise, their capabilities continued to expand.

Scientist Warren Washington
Scientist Warren Washington

At first, NCAR focused on natural influences on climate, such as volcanic eruptions and solar flares. Then, in 1978, Washington says, the U.S. Department of Energy asked the scientists to study something that was not natural.

"They wanted to accelerate the use of our models for investigating climate change caused by increasing carbon dioxide. In other words, man-caused."

NCAR’s models revealed that as human activities such as coal-fired power plants generate more CO-2, weather throughout the world will grow more severe.

Innovator

Washington improved the power of the computer models and explained them to policy makers.

Warren Washington signing the book making him a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the same book that was signed by the founders of the United States (2009).
Warren Washington signing the book making him a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the same book that was signed by the founders of the United States (2009).

"I’ve actually worked with five presidential administrations, most of them with presidential appointments."

These days, NCAR uses high-speed supercomputers to store and analyze data ranging from how oceans and sea ice affect the climate to how plants - and burning coal and even burning grass - influence what may happen in the years ahead. Washington says the resulting data is widely available.

"Our models can be downloaded by anyone, and they can use some of the models to do climate change studies."

NCAR’s leading edge climate modeling has won Washington growing recognition and acclaim. In 2007, he received a Nobel Prize as a member of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

So the child who once read biographies of scientists has himself become a world-famous scientist. But Washington says his primary motivation is something deeper. Just as his parents wanted a better future for their children, he wants the same for his.

"I have 16 grandchildren, and one great grandchild, and I’d like to see the world better at solving problems and climate change is one of those problems."

And while Washington continues to improve NCAR’s climate models, he’s also writing an autobiography to inspire others, he says, to become scientists and perhaps join his effort to study and combat global climate change.

You May Like

US Imposes Sanctions on Alleged Honduran Drug Gang

Treasury department alleges Los Valles group is responsible for smuggling tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into US each month More

At 91, Marvel Creator Stan Lee Continues to Expand his Universe

Company's chief emeritus hopes to interest new generation of children in superheroes of all shapes and sizes by publishing content across multiple media platforms More

Photogallery New Drug Protects Against Virus in Ebola Family

Study by researchers at University of Texas Medical Branch, Tekmira Pharmaceuticals is first looking at drug's effectiveness after onset of symptoms More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebolai
X
George Putic
August 20, 2014 8:57 PM
While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls For Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid