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Nobel Prize in Physics signals win for climate science

In a landmark moment for climate science, this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded jointly to Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselman for modelling Earth’s climate and reliably predicting global warming, and to Giorgio Parisi for the discovery of the interplay of disorder between physical systems from atomic to planetary scales.

The award recognises the trio for groundbreaking contributions to understanding complex systems on Earth, and sends a strong message that our knowledge of climate change rests on a rigorous scientific foundation.

Today, climate scientists routinely use the approaches pioneered by Manabe and Hasselmann. Their work, carried out in the 1960s and 1970s, helped set the course for environmental science for decades to come. We asked researchers across the National Centre for Atmospheric Science to reflect on what the Nobel Prize Award means for climate science.

What did Manabe and Hassellman achieve?

Manabe and Hassellman are key figures in the history of climate science. They helped us to decode and understand Earth’s complex climate system, as Professor Rowan Sutton, Director for Climate at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science and University of Reading, explains:

“Syukuro Manabe led the world on the path to develop computer-based models of the global climate system, which we now use every day to understand how climate has changed, is changing, and will change in the future.”

“Shortly after, Klaus Hasselmann developed fundamental insights into the relationship between weather and climate, and the role of the oceans in the climate system. He also developed key methods to detect how the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is affecting Earth’s climate.”

Manabe laid the foundation for modern climate models, such as the UK’s first Earth System Model. Hasselmann’s methods played a critical role in helping scientists to determine the cause of climate change, and underpin the foundations for climate research. 

Dr Scott Osprey, Research Scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science and University of Oxford agrees that Manabe and Hasselmann have been instrumental in helping scientists to understand the climate system.

“Manabe and Hasselmann’s work has shown that global climate change can be worked through with a degree of confidence, even when weather changes are inherently unpredictable. The foundation for this lies in a series of equations that you could write on a single piece of paper.”

“Their work has emboldened legions of climate scientists to refine these equations in different ways to describe the connection between climate and weather, and our impact on how these may change.”

How influential is Manabe and Hasselmann’s work today?

At a time of environmental crisis, the significance of Manabe and Hasselmann’s research is hard to overstate.

“Manabe’s work was foundational to the way we make projections of our future climate, and Hasselmann to the way we think about climate change at a local level.” says Professor Bryan Lawrence, Professor of Weather and Climate Computing at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science and University of Reading.

Professor Sutton echoes the same sentiment, highlighting that “all global climate models have some aspects that can be traced directly to Suki Manabe’s first models of the atmosphere, which progressively became more complete, including other components of the climate system, such as oceans and land surface”

“Meanwhile, Klaus Hasselmann pioneered a set of methods known as ‘finger-printing’ which help us to distinguish between natural variability of weather, and external factors that affect the climate, such as concentrations of greenhouse gases and volcanic activity.”

“These methods have provided evidence that is a central plank of the assessment reports of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” he adds.

Dr Martin Juckes, Head of Atmospheric Science at the Centre for Environmental Data Analysis, points out that “the problems of complexity in our climate system continue to challenge scientists today, and are compounded by the threat of the climate crisis.”

In that sense, Manabe and Hasselmann’s work could not be any more important. It has, and continues to, shape our future on earth.

What does the Nobel Prize Award mean for society?

The Nobel Prize has highlighted the work of climate scientists worldwide at a pivotal time in our history, as the world prepares for the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

Like many scientists worldwide, Professor Sutton and Dr Juckes are delighted to see climate science recognised at the highest level. But ultimately, they hope the award will underline the need to respond urgently to climate change. Only time will tell if the Nobel Prize can provide a clarion call to world leaders in light of the challenges we face.

“The science has been proved correct. Now is the time for very serious action” says Professor Sutton.

“The world is at a turning point. We must accelerate actions to minimise future warming and enable societies to adapt to the changes that have already taken place and those that cannot be prevented.”