Three scientists received the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday for work that is essential to understanding how the Earth’s climate is changing, pinpointing the effect of human behavior on those changes and ultimately predicting the impact of global warming.
The winners were Syukuro Manabe of Princeton University, Klaus Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, and Giorgio Parisi of the Sapienza University of Rome.
Others have received Nobel Prizes for their work on climate change, most notably former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, but the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said this is the first time the Physics prize has been awarded specifically to a climate scientist.
“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.
Complex physical systems, such as the climate, are often defined by their disorder. This year’s winners helped bring understanding to what seemed like chaos by describing those systems and predicting their long-term behavior.
In 1967, Dr. Manabe developed a computer model that confirmed the critical connection between the primary greenhouse gas — carbon dioxide — and warming in the atmosphere.
That model paved the way for others of increasing sophistication. Dr. Manabe’s later models, which explored connections between conditions in the ocean and atmosphere, were crucial to recognizing how increased melting of the Greenland ice sheet could affect ocean circulation in the North Atlantic, said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University.
“He has contributed fundamentally to our understanding of human-caused climate change and dynamical mechanisms,” Dr. Mann said.
About a decade after Dr. Manabe’s foundational work, Dr. Hasselmann created a model that connected short-term climate phenomena — in other words, rain and other kinds of weather — to longer-term climate like ocean and atmospheric currents. Dr. Mann said that work laid the basis for attribution studies, a field of scientific inquiry that seeks to establish the influence of climate change on specific events like droughts, heat waves and intense rainstorms.
“It underpins our efforts as a community to detect and attribute climate change impacts,” Dr. Mann said.
Dr. Parisi is credited with the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems, including everything from a tiny collection of atoms to the atmosphere of an entire planet.
“The main thing about his work is that it is incredibly eclectic,” said David Yllanes, a researcher with the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, a nonprofit research center. “Many important physical phenomena involve collective behavior that arises out of fundamentally disordered, chaotic, even frustrated systems. A system that looks hopelessly random, if analyzed the right way, can yield a robust prediction for a collective behavior.”
These ideas can help understand climate change, which “involves fluctuations that come from the interaction of many, many moving parts,” Dr. Yllanes said.
But Dr. Parisi’s effect on climate science is small compared to his impact across many other fields, including mathematics, biology and computing. This involves everything from lasers to machine learning.
Dr. Manabe and Dr. Hasselman will split half of the approximately $10 million prize. The other half will go to Dr. Parisi, whose work was largely separate from that of the other two. After the prize was awarded, many climate scientists said they were only marginally aware of Dr. Parisi’s work — or had not heard of him at all.
Dr. Manabe said in a phone interview that five days ago a group of Japanese journalists contacted him saying they had heard a rumor that he would soon win the Nobel Prize. But he did not believe them.
Then, early this morning, he received a phone call from the Nobel committee.
“That’s when I believed I had won,” he said.
Three hours after the prize was announced, Dr. Manabe said he was not aware he was sharing the prize with two others. He praised Dr. Hasselman’s work and how it built on his own, but said he was not familiar with Dr. Parisi.
After taking the call from the committee, Dr. Manabe parsed through the list of past winners of the Physics prize, before realizing this was the first time the prize has been awarded for climate science.
“I think they have made a point of choosing something that is critical to society,” he said.
Work that helps forecast our warming future.
All three scientists have been working to understand the complex natural systems that have been driving climate change for decades, and their discoveries have provided the scaffolding on which predictions about climate are built.
The importance of their work has only gained urgency as the forecast models reveal an increasingly dire outlook if the rise in global temperature is not arrested.
In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, a body of scientists convened by the United Nations, released a report showing that the nations of the world can no longer stop global warming from intensifying. The global average temperature will rise 2.7 degrees Celsius by century’s end even if all countries meet their promised emissions cuts under the Paris Agreement. That temperature rise is likely to bring more extreme wildfires, droughts and floods, according to a United Nations report released in September.
The IPCC report says that nations have a short window in which to curb fossil-fuel emissions and prevent the worst future outcomes. And that work builds directly on Dr. Manabe’s models.
“The climate scientists of today stand on the shoulders of these giants, who laid the foundations for our understanding of the climate system,” said Ko Barrett, senior adviser for climate at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who is also vice-chair of the IPCC.
Robert Kopp, a climate scientist at Rutgers University who also worked on the IPCC report, called Dr. Manabe a critical figure in the rise of climate science in the mid-1960s.
“He took the weather models that were beginning to emerge in the period after World World II and turned them into the first climate models,” he said.
Piers Forster, a climate scientist at the University of Leeds in England, called Dr. Manabe’s 1967 paper detailing these models “arguably the greatest climate-science paper of all time.”
Dr. Barrett also hailed Dr. Hasselmann and Dr. Parisi for expanding on this work and praised the Nobel Committee for showing the world that today’s climate studies are grounded in decades of scientific work. “It is important to understand that climate science is built on basic foundations of physics,” she said.
Who are the winners?
Dr. Manabe is a senior meteorologist and climatologist at Princeton University. Born in 1931 in Shingu, Japan, he earned his Ph.D. in 1957 from the University of Tokyo before joining the U.S. Weather Bureau. In the 1960s, he led groundbreaking research into how increased levels of carbon dioxide lead to higher temperatures on the surface of the Earth. That work “laid the foundation for the development of current climate models,” according to the Nobel judges.
Dr. Hasselmann is a German physicist and oceanographer who greatly advanced public understanding of climate change through the creation of a model that links climate and chaotic weather systems. He is a professor at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg. He received his Ph.D. in 1957 from the University of Göttingen in Germany before founding the meteorology institute, which he was head of until 1999. He is also the founder of what is now known as the Global Climate Forum. In 2009, Dr. Hasselmann received the 2009 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Climate Change.
Dr. Parisi is an Italian theoretical physicist who was born in 1948 in Rome and whose research has focused on quantum field theory and complex systems. He received his Ph.D. from the Sapienza University of Rome in 1970. In 1980, he was responsible for discovering hidden patterns in disordered complex materials. He is a professor at the Sapienza University of Rome.
Referring to forecasts for the changing climate at a news conference after the prize was announced, Dr. Parisi said, “It’s clear that for the future generation, we have to act now in a very fast way.”