Giving Thanks to Climate Researchers of the Federal Agencies

John B. Drake, , UCS | November 16, 2017, 4:54 pm EST
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Most of my science career I worked for the Department of Energy as a climate modeler and numerical expert at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Since my retirement in 2010 I have written a text on computational climate modeling and taught graduate level engineering classes on climate science at the University of Tennessee. I had the privilege of working with many talented and dedicated scientists and hate to see their work go unappreciated because climate has become such a politicized issue. In particular, the recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA) Special Science report is the culmination of many years, even decades of scientific focus that the Congress and the nation should study with an open mind and use to reset the climate discussion in the United States.

In the early 1990’s I was one of the principals organizing an “Inter-agency agreement’’ between the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Our researchers were called the CHAMMPions (a long acronym worth remembering as Computer Hardware, Advanced Mathematics, Model Physics, Inter-agency Organization for Numerical Simulation). Most of us were new to climate research with my own background in applied mathematics. The congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment of 1990 had not found any U.S. based modeling groups producing a high-quality climate model. They borrowed the Canadian and Hadley Center models to complete the first US NCA in 2000. A little bit of national pride and the opportunity to one up the rest of the international community by using U.S. developed high performance computers was a timely motivation for our group. The models we developed and continued to improve through the 1990s and 2000s contributed to many national and international studies, in particular the CMIP (Climate Model Inter-comparison Project) study series sponsored by the DOE. We faithfully followed through on giving policy makers better tools for making informed decisions. Focusing on the science and not the politics supported our DOE sponsors through a variety of administrations.

As a DOE funded climate researcher for 20 years, I had a privileged view of the motivations behind DOE climate research. It all started with the first Secretary of Energy, James R. Schlesinger. He read a report from the Russian scientist, Mikhail Budyko, suggesting the link between earth’s climate and CO2 levels in the atmosphere, a physical theory of climatology. Knowing that the department could not ignore this connection, he asked his department heads what they were going to do about it. This was the start of DOE’s exemplary Carbon Dioxide Effects and Assessment Program in 1977.

The model that the inter-agency agreement developed is now one of the worlds most respected models. It is open source meaning that anyone can see what is in it and even new groups are welcome to contribute new physics or chemistry or ecology to the earth system modeling effort. The Climate Science Special Report, Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I is the first to provide regionally specific results. The global temperature is not the only climate parameter that can now be discussed with confidence. For example, one of the findings pertains to extreme events from heavy rainfall to heatwaves that can impact human safety, infrastructure and agriculture.

This kind of detail would not have been possible without the new capabilities that the U.S. modeling effort provided. Indeed, the report draws from the results of many modeling groups by measuring the skill of different models compared to the observational record.

The scientists I have worked with through the years in these inter-agency projects have performed a service to the nation with their dedicated focus on staying true to the science and providing usable information for policy makers. I for one am grateful for their effort and support continuing to invest in our federal scientists to help move forward on research for solutions to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. This Thanksgiving, I give thanks to the research capabilities and resources of the National Lab system and my colleagues who always put science first.


Dr. John. B. Drake was a researcher and group leader at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for 30 years and lead the climate modeling efforts at ORNL from 1990 to 2010.  Since his retirement from ORNL, he has taught graduate courses on climate modeling in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Tennessee and conducted research into the impacts of climate change. 

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