The Nobel Prize Is a Lagging Indicator of Climate Change
Climate science has consistently shown that humanity is powerful enough to transform the planet. It is reshaping the world's most powerful and critical industries, including energy, transportation and agriculture. It accurately predicted stronger storms, higher seas and galloping fires.
But until Tuesday, climate science never won a Nobel Prize in physics. Three researchers shared the award:
- Princeton University's Syukuro Manabe in the 1960s built the earliest computer climate model. It showed how adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere raises its temperature, and how the extra heat affects the up-and-down movement of air masses.
- Klaus Hasselmann of Hamburg's Max Planck Institute for Meteorology wrote a model in the 1970s that helped scientists understand both how weather and climate interact and how to diagnose humanity's role in heating the atmosphere.
- Giorgio Parisi, of Sapienza University of Rome, explained seemingly random patterns in complex natural systems that led to breakthroughs in physics beyond the atmosphere.
Climate science is a decades-long enterprise, which means an award to three people leaves out many other pioneers. "It's great (and unexpected) that climate science is getting recognized," Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in an e-mail. "Of course picking two or three people to represent all the advances in climate science is fraught and pretty subjective."
Indeed, if it were possible to win a Nobel prize posthumously — benefactor Alfred Nobel himself stipulated this was a no-no — a little-known giant of science might have won a second one this year. The scientific background material published with this year's prize mentions Svante Arrhenius 14 times, just four fewer than Manabe, who actually won.
Arrhenius, a Swede who lived from 1859 to 1927, won the 1903 prize in chemistry. In recent decades, his legacy has turned less on advances in electrochemistry than on an 1896 paper in which "he built the scientific framework central to the atmospheric column models used in successively more complex treatments that have developed since then," the Nobel committee wrote this year.
Translation: He invented climate modeling.
So people assessing climate change anew today rely and expand on findings first demonstrated quietly 12 decades ago. And the research of Tuesday’s winners — some accomplished decades ago itself — informs the climate debate today. Take Hasselmann's research, which answers two basic questions.
One is how scientists can predict the climate a century out, but not the weather in two weeks. The answer: The weather fluctuates day to day, but the range of the weather’s effects and their magnitude — that is, the climate — has been stable. At least until recently.
That leads to Hasselmann's second practical answer: How to determine whether weird events, like a sudden temperature increase, are caused by expected natural variations, the Sun, the Earth's orbit, volcanoes or (spoiler alert) greenhouse gases. Hasselmann showed that if you combine observed data and models, you can test which factor is causing the problem. That visualization is based on a study scientists do every few years to gauge what’s influencing the climate.
“It's very exciting" that the physics award went to climate scientists, Schmidt said in an interview. “This is not the kind of thing that they have traditionally awarded prizes for. ... These are big, team efforts. They're not quite the same as, ‘This one person did this one experiment that shows that X, Y, and Z happens.'"
This year isn’t the first time a Nobel committee has awarded atmospheric researchers the world's most famous prize. Three scientists who discovered that certain industrial chemicals destroy the Earth's protective ozone layer won in 1995. The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize went to former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The 2018 economics prize went to Yale University’s William Nordhaus, who explored the costs and consequences of global warming.
But 2021’s prizes come amid unprecedented global attention, thanks to a cavalcade of disasters, said Susan Solomon, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology atmospheric scientist who shared in the 2007 prize. And people are asking the questions the winners answered years ago.
"This award is important not only because it recognizes the great work these amazing scientists have done," Solomon said, "but also because the world is experiencing so many vivid illustrations of what our future climate will be like if we don’t act — ranging from wildfires in western North America to unusual flooding in Europe, Central America, and China, and heat waves in many parts of the world."
Eric Roston writes the Climate Report newsletter about the impact of global warming.
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