The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2021 to Syukuro” Suki” Manabe of Princeton University, Klaus Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, and Giorgio Parisi of Sapienza University in Rome, Italy for their groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of complex physical systems.
Manabe and Hasselmann will share half of the prize for developing physical modeling of the Earth’s climate, quantifying variability, and reliably predicting global warming. Parisi will receive the other half of the $1.1 million prize.
“Three Laureates share this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for their studies of chaotic and apparently random phenomena. Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann laid the foundation of our knowledge of the Earth’s climate and how humanity influences it. Giorgio Parisi is rewarded for his revolutionary contributions to the theory of disordered materials and random processes,” reads the Tuesday announcement from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
A senior meteorologist in the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at Princeton, Manabe was born in Japan in 1931. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees from the University of Tokyo before coming to the United States in 1958 to work as a research meteorologist with the U.S. Weather Bureau. He was a lecturer at Princeton University from 1968 to 1997 and became a senior meteorologist at Princeton in 2005.
Manabe produced a series of studies that are widely attributed with launching the long-term study of global climate warming and quantitatively linking the warming of Earth’s climate with increasing carbon dioxide emissions. His 1967 model of the atmosphere is considered the first credible calculation of the Earth’s climate. In 1969, Manabe and oceanographer Kirk Bryan created the first coupled ocean-atmosphere model.
“Syukuro Manabe demonstrated how increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lead to increased temperatures at the surface of the Earth,” reads the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announcement. “In the 1960s, he led the development of physical models of the Earth’s climate and was the first person to explore the interaction between radiation balance and the vertical transport of air masses. His work laid the foundation for the development of current climate models.”
Gabriel Vecchi, director of Princeton University’s High Meadows Environmental Institute, said the whole field of climate modeling originated with Manabe.
“The idea that you can take something so complex as the climate system and code the equations that govern it and put them in a computer and use that to simulate the climate system started with him,” Vecchi said. “With these tools he was able to ask questions about the causes of ice ages, the fundamental role of different processes in the climate system. And I think the type of work that he did that is most resonant now is he did the first simulations of how the climate system responds to increasing greenhouse gases, so we can see not just that the planet warmed in response to increasing greenhouse gases, but that patterns of rainfall shifted, that there was structure to the warming, that storms were changed. And he, in doing so, not only illustrated some of the potential consequences of global warming, but gave us a roadmap of how to do climate science.”
Manabe said he was surprised to be chosen for the Nobel Prize. He thanked his colleagues at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Princeton for their support over the years and said he has had a great time during his career.
“When I got the phone call this morning, I was so surprised,” Manabe said. “Usually, the Nobel Prize in physics is awarded to physicists making a fundamental contribution in physics. Yes, my work is based on physics, but it’s applied physics. Geophysics. This is the first time the Nobel Prize has been awarded for the kind of work I have done: the study of climate change.”
Colleagues at Princeton spoke about Manabe’s hard work, dedication, and persistence during a press conference at the university on Tuesday afternoon.
Asked about climate change denial during the press conference, Manabe acknowledged it is not easy to understand climate change. “But it’s easier to understand than the current politics,” Manabe said. “It’s so mysterious. To understand climate change is difficult, but nothing is more difficult to understand than what happens in politics and society.”
Manabe said energy, agriculture, water, and everything we can imagine are tied together with climate change. “When these major problems in society are all interwoven with each other, you can understand how difficult it is to sort this thing out,” he said. “Also, how to mitigate climate change is one thing, but we have to figure out how to adapt to climate change, which is happening right now. We are facing a very difficult problem. Some people say we really have made the right prediction in climate change, problem solved. But it is far, far from it. We are now facing a very difficult problem.”