The 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to a trio of scientists whose work laid the foundation for our understanding of complex physical systems, including Earth’s climate.
Syukuro Manabe, of Princeton University in New Jersey, and Klaus Hasselmann, formerly of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, will share half the price “for physical modeling of the Earth’s climate, quantification variability and reliable forecasting global warming. “Giorgio Parisi, of the Sapienza University in Rome, will receive the other half” for the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from the atomic scale to the planetary scale “, the Academy Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, which is responsible for selecting the Nobel laureates in physics, announced Tuesday (October 5).
These complex systems are inherently difficult to understand, as they are characterized by both randomness and disorder, according to one statement by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. “This year’s award recognizes new methods of describing them and predicting their long-term behavior,” the statement said.
Manabe began this work in the 1960s, as the first person to explore how the Earth’s energy balance – the difference between the amount of solar energy received by Earth versus the energy returned to space – could affect atmospheric movements. With this understanding, he demonstrated the link between more carbon carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and rising temperatures on the Earth’s surface – work that is used in climate models today.
About 10 years later, Hasselmann created a model that linked weather to climate, showing how climate models could make reliable long-term forecasts despite the varied and chaotic nature of short-term weather patterns. This work has also enabled him to develop methods which have identified “fingerprints” revealing acute events, both natural and human, which have had an impact on the climate. These methods were then used to prove that the increase in atmospheric temperatures was the result of carbon dioxide emissions from human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels.
Around 1980, Parisi continued this work with a more theoretical look at how hidden patterns could be spotted in complex systems. By studying a metal alloy called spin glass – a material in which iron atoms scattered on a grid of the copper lead to significant changes in the magnetic properties of the material – he described how seemingly small adjustments to large systems can have profound effects. This led to much later knowledge, not only in the physics of climate, but also in fields as diverse as mathematics, biology, neuroscience and machine learning.
“The findings recognized this year demonstrate that our knowledge of climate has a solid scientific basis, based on rigorous analysis of observations,” said Thors Hans Hansson, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said in the statement. “This year’s winners have all helped us better understand the properties and evolution of complex physical systems.
The award comes just ahead of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, in November. At the conference, countries are expected to negotiate plans to urgently and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade.
On August 9, a landmark report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a stern warning that the Earth should reach a critical threshold: a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) due to climate change in the next 20 years.
The report, which UN Secretary-General António Guterres has described as a “code red for humanity,” warns that increasingly extreme heatwaves, droughts and floods will become more frequent as the planet will heat up.
“The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: Greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation are suffocating our planet and putting billions of people in immediate danger, “said Guterres said in a press release. “If we combine our forces now, we can avert a climate catastrophe. But… there is no time for delays and no room for excuses.”
The prize comes with a prize of 10 million Swedish kronor ($ 1.15 million), half of which will be shared equally between Manabe and Hasselmann. The other half will be given to Parisi.
Originally posted on Live Science.