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Explained: The first ever physics Nobel Prize for climate scientists

Explained: The first-ever physics Nobel Prize for climate scientists

Explained: The first-ever physics Nobel Prize for climate scientists
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By Oct 7, 2021 9:01:36 PM IST (Published)

The recognition of the work done by Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann in the field of climate science underscores concerns about humanity's looming crisis. While Giorgio Parisi’s work seems unrelated to the greater field of climate change, his work on the particle level complex systems and his mathematical models open the door for further work on other complex systems like Earth’s climate.

The Nobel Prize is conferred on individuals who have done seminal work in the fields of  physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. This year’s winners of the Nobel Prize for physics are Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi. While many prize winners are recognised for their work in the previous year, the three are unusual in the sense that their contributions in physics came nearly half a century ago and more importantly, constituted the foundations of modern climate science.

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The winners and their work
Manabe, along with his co-author Richard Wetherald, had for the first time in the modern era described the effects of water vapour and carbon dioxide on global temperatures and the atmosphere. Manabe, 90, and Wetherald, who would have been 85 and certainly one of the recipients of the prize, first published their discoveries in 1967.
Their work has been considered seminal in the understanding of global warming, long before the issue was turned political. If their warnings had been heeded, the world might have been looking at a completely different climate future.
Japan-born Manabe, now a senior meteorologist at Princeton University in New Jersey went on to lead the development of physical models of the climate along.
Nearly a decade later, Hasselmann, 89, from the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, took the models that were developed from Manabe’s work and created computer models that managed to link weather and climate.
His work enabled scientists to identify specific signatures of whether a certain phenomenon was caused by natural forces or human activity. The oceanographer’s seminal work resulted in the development of climate models that lead to further climate models that went beyond just predicting the weather.
Parisi, who teaches at the Sapienza University of Rome, is not a climate scientist and his work does seem related to climate change. But he found insights into the hidden rules that influence the random behaviour of solid materials and developed mathematical solutions to quantify them.
The Nobel Prize Committee said the Physics Prize this year was given for “ground-breaking contributions to our understanding of complex systems.”
Dr Martin Juckes, Head of Atmospheric Science and Research and Deputy Head of UK's Centre for Environmental Data Analysis (CEDA), said: "It is fantastic to see the work of climate scientists rewarded with the Nobel Prize in physics today. The problems of complexity in climate systems, compounded by threats of the climate crisis, continue to challenge climate scientists today."
The growing importance of climate science
Climate science, as a field of science, has often been side-lined. Due to the high degree of unpredictability, which is an innate property of the science, it was overlooked in terms of honours and recognition.
The decision of the Nobel Prize Committee to award the Physics Prize to climate scientists, who have authored different drafts of the UN climate change panel reports, highlights a shift in the importance of climate science in scientific circles. Manabe and Hasselmann were authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s first and third assessment reports, while Hasselmann was an author in the second assessment report as well.
“Climate change is the biggest crisis facing the world, and the humanity, today. Unfortunately, there still are some people, and governments, that are not convinced of the reality, although that is changing quickly. Apart from the fact that the recognition of Manabe and Hasselmann is richly deserved and long-awaited, this Nobel Prize will, hopefully, also help in more people believing in climate science,” said M. Rajeevan, former secretary in the Ministry of Earth Sciences.
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