Trio of scientists win Nobel prize for physics for climate work

Sykuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi share award for advancing climate knowledge

Three scientists have won the 2021 Nobel prize in physics for their groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of complex physical systems – including how humanity influences the Earth’s climate.

The winners, Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi, will share the award, announced on Tuesday, presented by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and worth 10m Swedish kronor (£870,000).

One half of the prize was jointly awarded to Manabe and Hasselmann for their physical modelling of Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global heating. The other half went to Parisi for his discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales.

Characterised by randomness and disorder, complex systems are difficult to understand, but this year’s prize recognised new methods for describing them and predicting their long-term behaviour.

Paul Hardaker, the chief executive of the Institute of Physics, said: “Whilst complex systems are difficult to deal with mathematically they are all around us and affect our lives in many different ways, not least through the way they affect the nature of our weather and climate.

“Their work has laid the foundations for our understanding of the Earth system and the impact of our interactions with it. Never has this been more important than in what we are doing now to tackle the challenges of our changing climate and move toward a new green economy.”

Manabe, a senior meteorologist at Princeton University, demonstrated how increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can lead to increased temperatures at the Earth’s surface. During the 1960s he also led the development of physical models of the Earth’s climate, laying the foundations for the climate models in use today.

About 10 years later, Hasselmann, a professor at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, created a separate model that linked together weather and climate, helping to answer the question of why climate models can be reliable despite the weather being changeable and chaotic.

He also developed methods for identifying specific signals that natural phenomena and human activities imprint in the climate, demonstrating that increased atmospheric temperatures can be linked to human carbon dioxide emissions.

Professor Ralf Toumi, co-director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, said: “It is almost impossible to imagine that there would be such widespread call for action on climate change without the work of many modellers, but particularly Manabe and Hasselman.”

Parisi’s groundbreaking work focused on identifying hidden patterns in disordered complex materials called spin glasses, making it possible to understand and describe many different and apparently entirely random materials and phenomena.

“[He] tamed this complicated landscape by building a deep physical and mathematical model which was so broad that it has impacted a vast range of fields far beyond spin glasses, from how granular materials pack, to neuroscience, to how we compute to random lasers, and to emergent phenomenon far beyond what he envisioned in the 1970s when he started this work,” said the Nobel committee member John Wettlaufer, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Yale University in the US.

Thors Hans Hansson, the chair of the Nobel committee for physics, said: “Although the prize is divided into two parts, there is the common theme that has to do with how disorder and fluctuations together – if you understand it properly – can give rise to something that we can understand and predict.

“The discoveries being recognised this year demonstrate that our knowledge about the climate rests on a solid scientific foundation, based on a rigorous analysis of observations. This year’s laureates have all contributed to us gaining deeper insight into the properties and evolution of complex physical systems.”

Asked about the timing of the award, Parisi, a professor at Sapienza University of Rome, Italy, said: “We are in a situation where we can have a positive feedback that may accelerate the increase of temperature. It is clear that for the future generations, we have to act now in a very fast way and not with a strong delay.”

Physics was the prize area that Alfred Nobel mentioned first in his will from 1895, dictating that his entire remaining estate should be used to endow “prizes to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”.

The other awards are prizes for physics and chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and the championship of peace.


Linda Geddes

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Three scientists share Nobel prize in physics for work on black holes
Roger Penrose says win, shared with Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez, ‘is in some ways a distraction’

Nicola Davis Science correspondent

06, Oct, 2020 @1:58 PM

Article image
Nobel prize in medicine awarded to US-UK trio for work on hepatitis C
Harvey Alter, Michael Houghton, Charles Rice share 10m Swedish kronor prize

Ian Sample Science editor

05, Oct, 2020 @4:32 PM

Article image
Three scientists share physics Nobel prize for quantum mechanics work
Alain Aspect, John F Clauser and Anton Zeilinger win prize for work on phenomenon Einstein described as ‘spooky action at a distance’

Nicola Davis Science correspondent

04, Oct, 2022 @1:19 PM

Article image
In pictures: Nobel prize winners 2010

This year's recipients of the most prestigious awards in science and literature

06, Oct, 2010 @12:32 PM

Article image
Nobel prize predictions: Higgs offers headache over division by three

Bob Dylan for literature prize? The physics committee has a much bigger dilemma over rewarding the Higgs boson discovery

Ian Sample, science correspondent

06, Oct, 2013 @5:20 PM

Article image
Nobel prize for physics goes to Manchester University scientists
Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov used a block of carbon and some Scotch tape to create graphene, a new material with extraordinary properties

Ian Sample

05, Oct, 2010 @12:10 PM

Article image
The other Nobel prize winners

Barack Obama picked up his Nobel peace prize in Oslo today, but less high-profile recipients have also been rewarded

Mark Tran

10, Dec, 2009 @4:35 PM

Article image
Pair win Nobel prize in chemistry for work on organic catalysts
Benjamin List and David MacMillan’s findings revolutionised development of drugs and hi-tech materials

Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

06, Oct, 2021 @2:54 PM

Article image
'The money is a nice part of the process': on winning a Nobel prize
How do Nobel laureates spend their winnings? And how important is the financial aspect of the award?

Esther Addley

01, Oct, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Kajita and McDonald win Nobel physics prize for work on neutrinos
Takaaki Kajita and Arthur McDonald win for discovery of neutrino oscillations, which show that neutrinos have mass

James Randerson and Ian Sample

06, Oct, 2015 @5:15 PM