Pioneering Black Scientist to Win Nobel Prize of Climate Change
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.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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