C. W. Thornthwaite

Charles Warren Thornthwaite (March 7, 1899 – June 11, 1963) was an American geographer and climatologist. He is best known for devising a climate classification system in 1948 that is still in use worldwide, and also for his detailed water budget computations of potential evapotranspiration.

He was Professor of Climatology at Johns Hopkins University, adjunct professor at Drexel University, President of the Commission for Climatology of the World Meteorological Organization, a recipient of the Outstanding Achievement Award of the Association of American Geographers, and the Cullum Geographical Medal from the American Geographical Society.


Thornthwaite was born in Bay City, Michigan.[1] He attended Central Michigan Normal School, graduating in 1922. He taught at high school for the next two years in Owosso, Michigan, then for the next four years he was employed as a geographer for the Kentucky Geological Survey. While there, he also became an assistant professor in the University of Oklahoma Department of Geography, serving there from 1927 to 1934. Meanwhile, he studied geography through the auspices of the University of California, Berkeley, a student of Carl Sauer.

In 1930 he received a Ph.D. in geography; his thesis was on "Louisville, Kentucky: A Study in Urban Geography", a research project which used aerial photographs, field observation, data analysis and detailed mapping to describe the urban geography of Louisville. He moved away from geography to climatology, but recent scholarship suggests he was nonetheless ahead of his time in his thesis project and that many of the techniques he used would later be standard procedures.[2]

At Central Michigan Normal School, Thornthwaite befriended John Leighly. Later, they both studied at Berkeley, with Leighly becoming his mentor. Leighly, a professor at UC Berkeley for 62 years, would write his obituary.[3][4]

In 1931 Thornthwaite published “The Climates of North America: According to a New Classification”,[5] which launched his career as a climatologist and married the science of climatology with that of geography. In 1934, he left the University of Oklahoma to study internal migration within the United States at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1935, he was appointed chief of the climatic and physiographic research division of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The division ceased to function in 1942, but he remained on staff of the USDA until 1946. Included in his output from this period was the USDA technical bulletin, written with Benjamin Holzman, Measurement of Evaporation from Land and Water Surfaces.[6]

Leaving government in 1946, Thornthwaite opened the Laboratory of Climatology in Seabrook, New Jersey, which he operated until his death in 1963. The facility continued to operate under the management of John Russell Mather.[7] One of his first papers would also be his most cited: "An Approach Toward a Rational Classification of Climate" (1948).[8] This paper would be used by scientists across North America and around the world. It incorporates evapotranspiration, temperature and precipitation information and is widely used in studying animal species diversity and potential impacts of climate change.

Mather shared authorship with Thornthwaite in their 1955 monograph "The Water Balance",[9] which was Thornthwaite’s second major contribution to climatology, after Rational Classification. The water budget was a simple and easily used methodology for estimating water surpluses and runoff, and the difference between surpluses and runoff, to estimate the amount of water would recharge an aquifer.

Thornthwaite was a professor of climatology at Johns Hopkins University from 1947 to 1955.

Personal life

Thornthwaite married Denzil Slentz in 1925. They had three daughters. When his wife died in 1962, he established the Charles Warren and Denzil Slentz Thornthwaite Memorial Scholarship Fund in her memory. The fund awards annual merit scholarships to students in meteorology and earth science at Central Michigan University.[10]


  1. Much of this article is derived from a chronology by Charles H. Smith et al.
  2. James O. Wheeler and Stanley D. Brunn, “An urban geographer before his time: C. Warren Thornthwaite's 1930 doctoral dissertation”, “Progress in Human Geography”, Vol. 26, No. 4, 463-486 (2002)
  3. Berkeley: The Itinerant Geographer Archived 2008-03-13 at the Wayback Machine
  4. University of California: In Memoriam, 1986: John Leighly, Geography: Berkeley
  5. C. W. Thornthwaite, “The Climates of North America: According to a New Classification”, Geographical Review, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Oct., 1931), pp. 633-655
  6. USDA Technical Bulletin #817. 1942.
  7. "Charles P. Daly Medal recognizes UD geographer" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-12-17. Retrieved 2008-06-18.
  8. "An Approach Toward a Rational Classification of Climate", Geographical Review
  9. "The water balance", Climatology, 8:1-104, 1955.
  10. "Charles Warren and Denzil Slentz Thornthwaite Memorial Scholarship Fund". Archived from the original on 2008-02-13. Retrieved 2008-06-18.

Further reading

  • F. Kenneth Hare, “Obituary: Charles Warren Thornthwaite 1899-1963” Geographical Review, 53:595-597, 1963.
  • John Russell Mather and Marie Sanderson, The Genius of C.Warren Thornthwaite, Climatologist-Geographer, University of Oklahoma Press, 1996. (Synopsis)
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