Nicolas Nierenberg, Warren Washington, and Margaret Leinen

Nierenberg Prize Awarded to Distinguished Atmospheric Scientist Warren Washington

Trailblazing climate researcher accepts Scripps-given award for science in the public interest

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego has awarded pioneering atmospheric scientist Warren Washington with the 2021 Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest. Washington is an internationally renowned scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) who has specialized in climate research—particularly climate modeling—for more than five decades.

The Nierenberg Prize, which includes a bronze medal and $25,000, is awarded for outstanding contributions to science in the public interest. Previous awardees include biochemist Jennifer Doudna, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry; former NASA astronaut and administrator Charles Bolden; filmmaker Sir David Attenborough; and primatologist Dame Jane Goodall, among others.

Washington was selected to receive the Nierenberg Prize in 2021, but a formal event to honor this achievement was postponed until July 2022 due to the pandemic. In lieu of a large, in-person lecture, Washington participated in a recorded interview at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo. with fellow atmospheric scientist Vernon Morris. Morris is currently a professor and director of the School for Mathematical and Natural Sciences at Arizona State University, and a mentee of Washington.

Their conversation, now available for public viewing, covers Washington’s early influences and pathways into science, his early work on climate model development, and his later service on a national stage, where he worked to bridge science and policy through five presidential administrations. In the interview, he also reflects upon his experience as a trailblazing leader in atmospheric science, and looks forward to the next generation of scholars in climate science.

“I think that the award is timely and very good,” said Washington, who is currently a distinguished scholar at NCAR’s Climate and Global Dynamics Laboratory. “It brings together the science but also the responsibilities of other parts of our society to deal with these problems and come up with solutions.”

Washington said he was honored to receive the Nierenberg Prize, noting, “It's clear that awards like this one can help stimulate a higher degree of interaction in between society and science.”

A young Warren Washington
Warren Washington examines simulation results early in his career. Photo: NCAR

Washington is highly regarded as one of the first developers of groundbreaking atmospheric computer models in the early 1960s, work done in collaboration with scientist Akira Kasahara. These models have helped scientists understand climate change by using the fundamental laws of physics to predict future states of the atmosphere. As his research developed, Washington worked to incorporate the oceans and sea ice into climate models. Such models now include components that depict surface hydrology and vegetation as well as the atmosphere, oceans, and sea ice.

“Dr. Washington is a pioneer and visionary in computer-based simulation of the atmosphere. His work spanned decades and not only inspired current generations of climate simulations, but many programs developed by his team are still in use today. In addition, Dr. Washington has worked hard to promote diversity in science, and particularly in atmospheric science,” said Nicolas Nierenberg, the son of the late Professor William A. Nierenberg for whom the prize is named.

Born and raised in Portland, Ore., Washington developed an interest in science in grade school with the encouragement of some teachers. Later, he earned a bachelor's degree in physics and master's degree in meteorology from Oregon State University, followed by a PhD in meteorology from Pennsylvania State University—making him the second African-American to earn a doctorate in the atmospheric sciences in the U.S. In 1963, he joined NCAR as a research scientist, ultimately rising to the rank of senior scientist.

For more than 50 years, Washington has given advice, testimony, and lectures on climate change. He has been a member of the President's National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere, with presidential appointments under the Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush administrations, and later served on the National Science Board. Throughout his career, he has also mentored dozens of graduate students, as well as undergraduates in the UCAR-based SOARS program.

“Dr. Washington has been a leader throughout his career in the development and use of these coupled atmosphere-ocean general circulation models, which have sharpened our ability to understand the impact of climate change,” said Scripps Director Margaret Leinen. “His entire career has highlighted science in the public interest, as has his decades-long commitment to communicating about climate change, and to fostering and mentoring new generations of atmospheric scientists—especially those from communities that traditionally have been underrepresented in science.”

Scientist Warren Washington and President Barack Obama
Warren Washington was awarded by President Barack Obama with the National Medal of Science in 2010. Photo: Ryan K. Morris, National Science and Technology Medals Foundation

Models that Washington worked on were used extensively in the 2007 IPCC assessment, for which NCAR scientists, including Washington, and colleagues around the world shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Additionally, he is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and has received distinguished awards from the American Meteorological Society, the National Weather Service, the Department of Energy, and many others. In 2010, President Obama awarded Washington with the National Medal of Science—the nation’s highest science award, and in 2019 he received the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. He has authored more than 150 publications and an autobiography, Odyssey in Climate Modeling, Global Warming and Advising Five Presidents.

The Nierenberg Prize was created through a generous gift from the Nierenberg family to honor William A. Nierenberg (1919-2000), a renowned national science leader who served Scripps Institution of Oceanography as director from 1965 to 1986. He was a leading expert in several fields of underwater research and warfare and was known for his work in low-energy nuclear physics. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1971 and was the recipient of numerous awards and honors for professional research and public service.

About Scripps Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.

About UC San Diego

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