How Warren Washington Is Solving the Puzzle of Climate Change

One egg yolk at a time.


Perhaps Washington’s greatest contribution to the science of climate change was the development of the concept of parallel climate modeling. With funding from the Department of Energy, Washington put together a team in 1964 which began developing computer systems which would allow analysis of separate climate inputs from different parts of the world simultaneously. With parallel processing, he said, 1,000 computers could each be working on a different problem in a different part of the globe, and each received constant updates from the other computers. Eventually, the inputs from the entire globe are incorporated to some degree in every computation.

It is this development which made the international calculations of climate change possible and, he said, “We shared in getting the Nobel Prize, along with the other groups around the world.” He is referring to the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Al Gore and to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, of which the National Center for Atmospheric Research is a member.

Washington now heads the Climate Change Research Section of the Climate and Global Dynamics Division of NCAR. His book, An Introduction to Three-Dimensional Climate Modeling, written with Claire Parkinson, is the standard text on the subject.

From 1978 to 1984, he served on the President’s National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere. He has served on the secretary of energy’s biological and Environmental Research Advisory Committee since 1990. In 1995, he was nominated by President Bill Clinton to the first of two six-year terms on the National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation. And while he is not an engineer, in 2002, he was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering “for pioneering the development of coupled climate models, their use on parallel supercomputing architectures, and their interpretation.”

At age 71, Washington is still at work refining models on the changing global climate picture. The worldwide research on the issue is a far cry from the situation half a century ago, when he worked with just a handful of scientists on climate modeling.

“I was one of those early canaries in the mine who was ignored back then,” Washington mused. It is nice to know that the world is paying attention now.”

Roger Witherspoon is a journalist based in New York who writes about energy at Energy Matters.