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Pioneering Black Scientist to Win Nobel Prize of Climate Change

Science
Dr. Warren M. Washington (left) and Dr. Michael E. Mann (right). Joshua Yospyn / AAAS

By Marlene Cimons

Warren Washington can trace at least one of the origins of his extraordinary scientific career—more than half a century of groundbreaking advances in computer climate modeling—to a youthful curiosity about the color of egg yolks.


"I had some wonderful teachers in high school, including a chemistry teacher who really got me started," he said. "One day I asked her, 'Why are egg yolks yellow?' She said, 'why don't you find out?'" So he did. He still remembers the answer—the sulfur compounds in chicken feed become concentrated in the yolk, turning it yellow. "I also had an excellent physics teacher," he said, describing why he became an atmospheric physicist.

Those teachers would be immensely proud of him today. Before the evolution of sophisticated computers, scientists knew little about the atmosphere other than what they could observe outright. Then a young black physicist came along, eager to use early computers to understand the workings of the Earth's climate. He collaborated in creating the earliest computer climate models and went on to advise six presidents about climate change — Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2010 by President Obama. Washington, now 82, recently retired after 54 years at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, though it isn't much of a retirement. He still continues to conduct research as a distinguished scholar.

Warren Washington in 1975. National Center for Atmospheric Research

Washington was an early pioneer of climate modeling. Working with Japanese scientists in the early 1960s, he was one of the first to build computer atmospheric models using the laws of physics to predict future atmospheric conditions. Despite his accomplishment, he avoids any semblance of self-promotion and seems happy with his low public profile. "

"I am quiet, but not to the extreme," he said. "I'm just not as vocal as some people in the field, but that's OK. [Some] people say I'm a legend, while others joke about the fact that I am still alive." When compared to the subjects of the movie Hidden Figures, the black, female mathematicians who worked for NASA in the 1960s, he laughed. "You know, I think I met those ladies," he said, pausing. "It was just a small world then."

There is no Nobel Prize for climate change, the world's most pressing environmental problem. But if there were—and there is an ongoing campaign to establish one—Washington almost certainly would be on the short list. He will soon receive the next best thing, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, often referred to as the environmental Nobel. He will be sharing the honor with climate scientist Michael Mann, director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.

In addition to recognizing their groundbreaking climate research, the award also sends a message to climate skeptics who have gone after Mann and Washington. Mann has endured multiple public attacks and Washington, despite his low-key nature, occasionally fields death threats, which he said "haven't really had an effect on me." Washington applauded Mann for standing up to the critics. "He's handled it very well," he said.

For his part, Mann is thrilled to be sharing the award with Washington, his longtime idol. "I used to read his papers when I was a graduate student, and he is a real hero of mine," Mann said, pointing out that Washington received his doctorate in atmospheric sciences — only the second African-American ever to do so — at Penn State. "He is one of our most distinguished alumni," Mann said. "He is such a great role model, who speaks to the fundamentally important contribution that diversity plays in advancing science."

Washington at a computer terminal in his younger days. National Center for Atmospheric Research

Washington's father, Edwin, was reared in Birmingham, Alabama and attended Talladega College, a small historically black college. After his 1928 graduation, he left the South for Seattle, and a year later for Portland, where Washingon was born and raised. During the Great Depression, jobs were scarce, so Edwin took the only job he could find, as a waiter on the Union Pacific Railroad. "He was bitter about it," Washington said.

Washington's mother Dorothy attended the University of Oregon for 18 months, majoring in music. "She couldn't stay in the dormitory because they wouldn't allow black women," he said. "She had to work as a live-in helper for a family to have a place to stay. She left college after two years because she was upset about it."

In grade school, Washington read books about George Washington Carver and other black Americans "doing interesting science." By high school, he had decided on a career in physics. But the racism encountered by his parents was still alive at Oregon State University. "My freshman advisor told me I shouldn't stay in physics because it was probably too hard for me," he said. Ignoring the advice, he graduated in 1958 with a bachelor's degree in physics. He then earned a master's in meteorology in 1960, also from Oregon State, and finally a doctorate in atmospheric science in 1964 from Penn State.

Washington reviewing climate simulation results on film. National Center for Atmospheric Research

The earliest computer he used—he thinks it was in 1957—was an old vacuum-tube model, about the size of a room, and agonizingly slow. "In those days it took one day to generate one day of simulation," he said. Today, "for the highest resolution, we can probably do 10 years in a day. For the lowest, we can probably do 100 years in a day. Today, I probably have more computing power in my smartphone than in those very early computers."

Most of the presidents he advised—with the exception of Obama—were more interested in supporting climate research than mitigation, he said. President Obama, on the other hand, championed the Paris climate Agreement and crafted numerous climate protections.

President Obama awards Warren Washington the National Medal of Science. National Center for Atmospheric Research

Washington first met him in the fall of 2007, when Obama was still a senator. "We both were asked to speak to the Congressional Black Caucus about climate change," he recalled. "He spoke before me, and it was clear he had read the IPCC report [a major UN report on climate change]. I was next, and I teased him a little bit, 'You gave my talk.' He laughed."

Not surprisingly, Washington has not been asked to brief President Trump, who plans to exit the Paris Agreement and is working to undo numerous Obama-era climate protections."I can't figure the man out. He doesn't get briefings or read. He doesn't get advice, like most presidents [do]," Washington said. "He doesn't have any interest in reading any reports on any subject, not just science. During his State of the Union speech to Congress, he didn't even mention [climate change] once."

Nevertheless, Washington is encouraged by climate actions outside the federal government, and still has hope for the future. "I think we just have to suffer through another couple of years with this president," he said. "But I haven't lost my optimism."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.

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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0​

"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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