While once only a theory, climate change is now an undeniable truth thanks in large part to the inventive and pioneering work of Warren Washington.
Washington has spent his career building ever more finely tuned models of our planet’s weather and atmosphere, models that over the years have grown to incorporate a huge amount of data on everything from wind patterns to volcanic eruptions to the state of the permafrost on the Siberian tundra.
When Washington began his work in the 1960s, the computer he used took up an entire room and had to be painstakingly programmed by hand using paper tape. Nonetheless, the models of Earth’s atmosphere that he created were groundbreaking. They allowed scientists to study the atmosphere and make increasingly accurate predictions about the weather, both locally and globally.
Over time, as computers got more powerful, Washington’s models grew more complex–and more groundbreaking. Using equations that pulled in information from physics, chemistry, oceanography, meteorology, and biology, he and his collaborators realized that they could project climatic conditions far into the future.
That provided a means of studying not just the weather, but the large scale of Earth’s climate as a whole. He was among the first to study the effects of concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and one of the first to sound the alarm about the dangerous build up of this greenhouse gas.
Washington has been a pioneer outside the lab as well. He was only the second African American to earn a PhD in atmospheric sciences. (The first was one of his mentors, Charles E. Anderson, a weather forecaster for the Tuskegee Airmen.) He has served as a scientific advisor to every president since Carter and as head of a number of important scientific institutions. Throughout his career he has used his influence and high profile to advocate tirelessly for the advancement of women and minorities in the sciences.