Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded to Scientists Who Warned the World of Climate Change

Their groundbreaking research answered fundamental questions about our universe and Earth’s complex climate

A black and yellow line drawing illustration of the three winners
The Nobel Committee in Physics was awarded to Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann, and Giorgio Parisi earlier today. © Ill. Niklas Elmehed / Nobel Prize Outreach

Early Tuesday morning, three scientists received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their decades of work studying the hidden forces that govern Earth’s complex atmosphere. Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi were awarded the prize for their independent, groundbreaking research that provides the basis for current climate models and helped sound an early alarm on human-caused climate change.

“The discoveries being recognized 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 Hansson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics. “This year’s Laureates have all contributed to us gaining deeper insight into the properties and evolution of complex physical systems.” 

In the 1960s, Syukuro Manabe of Princeton University led innovative research that linked increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to rising temperatures on the Earth's surface. His first climate model relied on a computer that had half a megabyte of memory and took up a whole room, report Rob Picheta and Katie Hunt for CNN, and provide the basis for the climate models sciensits use today. A decade later Klaus Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg created a reliable mathematical model that links weather and climate. Around 1980, Giorgio Parisi of the Sapienza University of Rome advanced scientists’ understanding of hidden patterns within seemingly chaotic physical systems—from tiny atoms to huge planets.

“The climate scientists of today stand on the shoulders of these giants, who laid the foundations for our understanding of the climate system,” says Ko Barrett, senior adviser for climate at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to reporters for the New York Times. “It is important to understand that climate science is built on basic foundations of physics,” she says.

Together, the pioneering work of Manabe, Hasselmann and Parisi untangled the mysteries of the natural world's smallest components in our atmosphere to help us better understand large and complex physical systems. Their discoveries provide the foundation for current climate models that help predict the major warming and weather events, which scientists expect will intensify in the coming years. In August, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released a report showing that global temperatures were rising and will likely reach 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Warmer temperatures alter climate systems and can lead to more extreme droughts, floods and fires. The committee's decision comes just weeks before world leaders meet at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference.

The winners will also be awarded 10 million Swedish kronor—over $1.1 million USD—with half going jointly to Manabe and Hasselman, and the other half to Parisi, reports the Guardian’s Linda Geddes. Last year’s Nobel in Physics went to Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for their work that contributed to our understanding of the universe, including black holes. Yesterday’s prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian their work on our perception of heat and touch. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be awarded Wednesday, Literature Thursday, and the Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday. The Nobel in economic science will be announced on October 11.

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