Trio shares Nobel prize for groundbreaking climate science over 60 years

A US-Japanese meteorologist and climatologist, a German oceanographer and climate modeller and an Italian theoretical physicist have been jointly awarded the 2021 Nobel prize for physics for their pioneering work developing climate models and complex physical systems over the past 60 years. 

“The discoveries being recognised this year demonstrate that our knowledge about the climate rests on a solid scientific foundation, based on a rigorous analysis of observations,” said Thors Hans Hannson, the chairperson of the Nobel committee for physics, in a statement.

Syukuro Manabe, 90, who is a senior meteorologist at Princeton University in New Jersey, and Klaus Hasselmann, 89, a professor at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, were jointly honoured for the “physical modelling of the Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliability predicting global warming”, according to a statement from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Italian physicist Giorgio Parisi, 73, a professor at Sapienza University of Rome, won the other half of the prize for “the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales”.

Manabe’s work demonstrates how increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to increased temperatures at the surface of the Earth. In the 1960s, he led the development of physical models of the Earth’s climate and was the first person to explore the interaction between radiation balance and the vertical transport of air masses. His work laid the foundation for the development of climate models, according to the statement.

In the 1970s, Hasselmann created a model that links weather and climate, answering the question of why climate models can be reliable despite weather being changeable and chaotic.

He developed methods for identifying specific signals — fingerprints — that both natural phenomena and human activities imprint in the climate. His methods have been used to prove that the increased temperature in the atmosphere is caused by human emissions of carbon dioxide. 

Parisi was rewarded for his revolutionary contributions to the theory of disordered and random phenomena. In the 1980s, he discovered hidden patterns in disordered complex materials. 

His discoveries, according to the statement, are among the most important contributions to the theory of complex systems, making it possible to understand and describe many different and apparently entirely random complex materials and phenomena, not only in physics but mathematics, biology, neuroscience and machine learning.

The climate models that have built on the winners’ research form a crucial part of the evidence on which leaders at the upcoming United Nations Climate Conference — COP26 — will base their decisions.

The winners will share the prize money of 10 million Swedish krona, with one half jointly to Manabe and Hasselmann and the other half to Parisi.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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