Robert M. White, a meteorologist who served under five U.S. presidents as the nation’s top weatherman, overseeing the launch of pioneering weather satellites and sounding early warnings about the threat of climate change, died Oct. 14 at his home in Chevy Chase, Md. He was 92.
He had complications from dementia, said his wife, Mavis E. White.
Dr. 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 Dr. 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.”
Dr. White was president of Travelers Research Center in Hartford, Conn., 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 Dr. 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 Dr. 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.
Dr. White was, in the description of Time magazine, “as dervish-like as the environment he has set out to control.” He was credited with helping persuade Kennedy of the potential peaceful uses for satellites during the space race with the Soviet Union. Kennedy was assassinated months after selecting Dr. White for the Weather Bureau post.
Under Dr. 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 ever-more 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 Dr. 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.”
Dr. 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.”
Robert Mayer White, one of four children, was born in Boston on Feb. 13, 1923. His mother was a secretary, and his father, a Russian immigrant, was a lawyer.
Theodore White, who became widely known for his “The Making of the President” series, wrote in the volume “In Search of History” that his earliest recollection was of his mother weeping to his father because they could not afford shoes for their children.
The boys’ father died when Robert White was 8. He described his brother “Teddy,” eight years his senior, as “the closest thing I had to a father.”
Robert White was a geology graduate of Harvard University, where he became interested in meteorology when a professor offered him a summer job conducting hourly weather observations at the Blue Hill observatory in Massachusetts.
After the U.S. entry in World War II, he joined the Army Air Forces, an event that helped shape his future career. “What the government was looking for was not geologist but meteorologists,” he told The Post. “They needed weather officers.”
He studied meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, receiving a master’s degree in 1949 and a doctoral degree in 1950.
Dr. White did research for the Air Force before leading the Travelers organization. After his government service, he was founding president of the Washington Advisory Group, a science, engineering and management consulting organization. His honors included the International Meteorological Organization Prize, awarded to him in 1980.
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.
Dr. White confessed that, as a forecaster, he made the occasional mistake. Perhaps to the chagrin of weather buffs, he predicted that, with advances in science, “the margin of error in forecasting will be reduced, but not eliminated completely.”
“It sounds corny, but people do hold a warm spot in their heart for the weatherman,” he told the Associated Press in 1963. “Most of the kidding is good-natured and the amount of it is an indication of the important place the weatherman has in this country. Besides, in this country, humor is an indication of affection.”