Carbon Brief, a climate-focused online newspaper based in the United Kingdom, requested the major writers of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) fifth assessment report to choose the three most impactful climate change research publications ever published in 2015. The paper with the highest votes was one by Syukuro Manabe and Richard Wetherald from 1967, which explained the influence of carbon dioxide and water vapour on global warming for the first time.
Manabe, who is now 90 years old, has had a profound impact on climate science and its practitioners. He was given the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday (Wetherland died in 2011). Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann, another climate scientist, split half of the award, while Georgio Parisi received the other half for his contributions to the understanding of complex systems. Weather and climate events are examples of complex systems, which have a significant degree of unpredictability. The Physics Prize was awarded this year for “groundbreaking advances to our knowledge of complex systems,” according to the Nobel Prize Committee.
The first recognition
This is the first time a Nobel Prize in Physics has been given to a climate scientist. The IPCC received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, in recognition of its efforts in raising awareness about climate change, while Paul Crutzen received the Chemistry Nobel in 1995 for his work on the ozone layer, which is considered the only other time someone from atmospheric sciences has received this honour.
As a result, Manabe and Hasselmann’s honour is being seen as an acknowledgement of the relevance of climate research in today’s world.
“That 1967 paper was a watershed moment. It was the first description of global warming mechanisms. For the first time, Manabe and Wetherland built a climate model. The complex models that we use today, which are so important to climate research, have their roots in Manabe’s model. “He was a pioneer in so many aspects, and the father of climate modelling,” said R Krishnan, head of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology’s Centre of Climate Change Research in Pune.
In the late 1990s, Krishnan collaborated with Manabe at Japan’s Frontier Research Centre for Global Change. Manabe, a Japanese scientist, spent the most of his career at Princeton University’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.
“He didn’t have the Nobel Prize at the time, but he had a huge effect.” By that time, he and others had significantly improved climate models. In the 1970s, Manabe was also a key figure in the development of the first linked model, which included ocean and atmospheric interactions. “I recall Manabe expressing great admiration for Hasselmann’s work in a handful of talks,” Krishnan remarked.
Hasselmann, a German oceanographer who went into climate research, is also 90 years old. He is well recognised for his work detecting unique characteristics, or “fingerprints,” in climatic events that allowed scientists to determine whether they were generated by natural processes or human actions, as the Nobel committee termed them.
“Hasselmann was crucial in the development of the area of attribution science. There was a lot of dispute in the 1990s and early 2000s over the origin of global warming – whether it was caused by human activity or was due to natural variability. Even the scientific community was split. The IPCC’s second and third assessment assessments were cautious in assigning blame for increasing temperatures to human activity. The work of Hasselmann in detecting these fingerprints has effectively ended the issue. “If you look at the IPCC’s sixth assessment report, which came out earlier this year, it is unequivocal in saying that climate change is occurring as a result of human activities,” said Bala Govindasamy, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru’s Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, and one of the report’s contributors. Govindasamy collaborated with Manabe at Princeton University’s laboratory.
Previous IPCC reports were also written by Manabe and Hasselmann. Both contributed to the first and third assessment reports, with Hasselmann also contributing to the second report as an author.
“As public awareness of climate change grows, it is heartening to see the Nobel Physics Prize honouring the work of scientists who have made significant contributions to our understanding of climate change, including two IPCC authors, Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann,” the IPCC said in a statement.
Bringing climate science into the mainstream
Climate science’s delayed acknowledgment, according to some experts, could not have arrived at a better time.
“Climate change is the greatest threat to the world’s and humanity’s survival today.” Unfortunately, some individuals and governments remain sceptical of reality, despite the fact that this is rapidly changing. Apart from the fact that Manabe and Hasselmann’s acknowledgment is well-deserved and long overdue, the Nobel Prize will, hopefully, encourage more people to believe in climate science,” said M Rajeevan, former Secretary of the Ministry of Earth Sciences.
Climate research, according to Krishnan, was not regarded essential even in scientific circles until recently. “Perhaps it was due to the inaccuracy of our weather predictions.” The reality that this science was inherently unpredictable and chaotic was not grasped by many. Climate research has never had the same allure as, say, particle physics or string theory. That view, however, is shifting today. Thanks to the efforts of scientists like Manabe and Hasselmann, weather predictions have gotten significantly more precise, and the evidence for climate change has grown far more convincing. “This Nobel Prize will almost certainly assist mainstream climate science,” he remarked.