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Robert M. White dies; meteorologist who served under 5 presidents was 92

Robert M. White, a meteorologist who served under five U.S. presidents as the nation's top weather forecaster, overseeing the launch of pioneering weather satellites and sounding early warnings about climate change, died Oct. 14 at his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. He was 92.

He had complications from dementia, said his wife, Mavis E. White.

White -- a brother of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and political journalist Theodore H. White -- devoted nearly his entire adult life to advancing scientific understanding of the atmosphere. His career coincided with the Space Age, which opened new possibilities for the study of the environment on Earth and took him to the highest ranks of government service.

Jesse H. Ausubel, director of the program for the human environment at Rockefeller University in New York, called White "a bridge between science and government and the world of politics" and credited him with building the "institutions for environmental monitoring and management that we just take for granted today."

White was president of Travelers Research Center in Hartford, Connecticut, a weather-monitoring organization established by Travelers insurance company, when President John F. Kennedy named him director of the U.S. Weather Bureau in 1963.

Two years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson made White chief of the newly created Environmental Science Services Administration, an operation that merged the Weather Bureau and the federal Coast and Geodetic Survey.

In 1970, that organization became the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which White led under Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter before stepping down in 1977. From 1983 to 1995, he was president of the National Academy of Engineering.

White was, in the description by Time magazine, "as dervish-like as the environment he has set out to control."

He was credited with helping convince Kennedy of the potential peaceful uses for satellites during the space race with the Soviet Union. Kennedy was assassinated months after selecting White for the Weather Bureau post.

Under White's leadership, the United States launched the first operational system of full-time weather-monitoring satellites. That system -- along with weather balloons, weather buoys at sea, airplanes and increasingly powerful computers -- allowed scientists to gather evermore sophisticated data.

The data, in turn, were used for frost predictions for farmers, maritime weather forecasts and preparation for natural disasters such as storms, hurricanes and tornadoes.

Ausubel also credited White with helping facilitate the global exchange of weather information, including between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He "kept the conversations on weather and climate," Ausubel said, and was "always very interested in the good of the planet."

White was among the first scientists to speak publicly about the danger posed by accumulating greenhouse gases and climate change. In 1979, while leading the climate research board of the National Academy of Sciences, he chaired the first World Climate Conference in Geneva.

"The climate is really the only environmental characteristic that can utterly change our society and our civilization," he told The Washington Post in 1977. "We do have environmental problems and they're serious ones, the preservation of species among them, but the climate is the environmental problem that's so pervasive in its effects on the society."

Survivors include his wife of 67 years, the former Mavis Seagle of Chevy Chase; and two children, Richard H. White of Arlington, Va., and Edwina "Nina" White of New York City. Theodore White died in 1986.


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