Warren Washington shares recollections from a rich career

NCAR senior scientist honored as Distinguished Scholar

November 21, 2016 | As he was honored last week as an NCAR Distinguished Scholar, Warren Washington regaled colleagues with anecdotes from his storied, half-century-long career, such as the time he put a simplified climate model on a floppy disk for a White House chief of staff.

Wearing his trademark bow tie, Washington peppered a 70-minute talk with science and reminiscences in front of appreciative colleagues at the Mesa Lab Main Seminar Room.

Washington is widely recognized for groundbreaking work in computer modeling of Earth's climate.  Over the course of his career, he has published more than 200 papers, advised five presidents (Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush), contributed to the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore — and mentored dozens of researchers. Washington was appointed to the National Science Board in 1994 and served as its chair from 2002–2006. In 2010, President Obama presented Washington with a National Medal of Science.

Warren Washington received National Medal of Science
President Obama presents Warren Washington with the National Medal of Science in 2010. (Photo courtesy The White House.)

Many of Washington's accomplishments came while raising six children.

"I have had a good 53 years here, and I have a couple more," Washington said, quipping, "I was looking for a gold watch."

NCAR Director Jim Hurrell said the Distinguished Scholar designation is the highest honor that NCAR bestows on a scientist who is retiring or is in a phased retirement. "It recognizes a truly exceptional career," Hurrell said, adding that Washington is "one of the true pioneers in the field of climate modeling." He said "Introduction to 3D Climate Modeling," the book Washington co-authored with Claire Parkinson (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center) in 1986 and the two of them revised in 2005, remains a standard reference for scientists in the field.

Hurrell characterized Washington, who helped bring Hurrell to NCAR 26 years ago, as a dear friend and colleague and "someone I try to emulate every day."

Warren Washington and colleague Akira Kasahara
NCAR colleagues Akira Kasahara and Warren Washington worked together on atmospheric computer models starting with a general circulation climate model in the 1960s. (©UCAR. Photo by Rebecca Swisher. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)

Washington grew up in Portland, Oregon, and became interested in science in elementary school. He received his master's degree in meteorology at Oregon State University in 1958, and then was recruited as a mathematician by the Stanford Research Institute. Stanford was just getting into climate modeling, which Washington said inspired him to continue in that direction after a short stint there.

He went on to Pennsylvania State University, where he completed a doctorate in meteorology. He was hired at NCAR in 1963 at an annual salary of $9,000.

About six months in, at a lunch with NCAR Associate Director Phil Thompson, Washington and colleague Akira Kasahara expressed a desire to start building a general circulation climate model. Washington said that Thompson replied, "That's why we hired you." But until then, "nobody had actually talked to us about it," Washington said, explaining things were more casual at NCAR during that time.

Washington and Kasahara would become known for their atmospheric computer models, later adding ocean and sea ice to the computations. More recently, Washington has collaborated with NCAR scientist Jerry Meehl and other colleagues to examine climate change impacts using the Community Earth System Model.

In addition to advising presidents, Washington once briefed then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who visited NCAR in 1990 — the first foreign head of government to do so. Washington characterized Thatcher, a research chemist by background, as "very inquisitive" and reluctant to leave until she had heard all of his presentation.

Washington also was invited in 1990 to speak about his climate research to cabinet officials in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. The meeting led to a request from Chief of Staff John Sununu — who had a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT — to get a copy of Washington's climate model to run at the White House.

Warren Washington and wife, Mary
Warren Washington and wife, Mary, at the recent NCAR Distinguished Scholar event. (©UCAR. Photo by Rebecca Swisher. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)

Washington explained that the model was too large to run on a personal computer without doing some dramatic simplification, and he thought Sununu would forget about his request. But six weeks later, the White House science advisor, Allan Bromley, implored Washington to "get [Sununu] off my back and get him a model."

NCAR scientist Jeff Kiehl helped simplify the model, and it was saved to a floppy disc and handed over to Bromley.

At 80 years old, Washington, who has 16 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, has remained active. He recently traveled to China with his wife, Mary, and has continued to conduct research, most recently into how the number of mid-latitude storms may change in the future.  

He also is serving as chair of the Committee to Advise the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The committee is busy developing transition documents that will explain the science of climate change and its possible impacts for the next presidential administration.

Jeff Smith, Science Writer and Public Information Officer