For Warren Washington, a lifetime of researching the heavens began with a relatively simple question posed by a high school chemistry teacher: Why are egg yolks yellow?
“Instead of explaining the answer,” recalled Washington, “she asked me to find out, which stimulated me. The answer lay in their diet. I looked up what chickens ate, and most of the time, they ate seeds and corn. I looked for the compounds that had yellow in them, and it turns out that they were compounds that had sulfur.”
“Pure sulfur is bright yellow, and certain sulfur compounds are found in seeds. When chickens ate those things, it concentrated the sulfur in the yolk. I found the answer to that and never looked back.”
He has been posing questions and seeking answers ever since. But his intellectual gaze has been focused on the heavens, rather than the terrestrial world, and he has become one of the world’s foremost authorities on climate modeling. Washington heads climate-change research, one of the most talked-about areas of science today, at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Washington, who says he was always intrigued with mathematics, earned his bachelor’s degree in physics at Oregon State University, and got a summer job in 1959 at the Stanford Research Institute as a mathematician making computer models of the atmosphere. At the time, Oregon State had one of the earliest major computers, the ALWAC, and “it seemed like an exciting prospect to have a computer model that could predict and simulate the atmosphere.”
“Physics has certain laws which govern the motion of things like how fluids flow, and the atmosphere could be considered a fluid. Some of the basic equations on forecasting the fluid flow of weather were known as early as 1904, and you could write them down, but couldn’t solve them until the electronic computer became available. It was always intriguing that you knew the equations but could not solve them.”
Washington earned a master’s degree in meteorology at Oregon State and then went to Penn State, which was attempting to develop accurate computer models of the atmosphere, and became the nation’s second African American (after Charles Anderson) to earn a Ph.D. in meteorology. Upon graduation, Washington joined the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and began a career developing the world’s primary modeling techniques for long-range, global climate forecasting.
In the early 1960s, he said, computers were “fairly primitive” compared to the super computers of today, and the major problem for Washington and his four colleagues was just getting them to work at all. “Now we run these models on the world’s fastest computers, and have large groups of people all over the world.”
Washington’s specialty was long-term climate modeling—noting patterns over decades and centuries rather than dealing with individual storms lasting a matter of days. These models incorporate the earth’s atmosphere, the oceanic interaction, land processes such as vegetation and terrain, heat generation from deserts as opposed to cities, and the impact of sea ice, to name a few. Washington developed models which accurately accounted for the observed past and present climate events, and then forecast long-term climate changes.