2021 Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded for Environmental Research

PREDICTING CHANGE: 2021 Nobel Prize for Physics winners Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann, and Giorgio Parisi. Jonathan Nackstrand | AFP

Shayna Sparks | News Editor

October 6, 2021

Announced on October 4 at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three scientists who measured the effects of climate change and predicted future impact. Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann, and Giorgio Parisi have been modeling and researching climate change since the 1960s, finding patterns in the chaos of changing weather patterns and rising temperatures.

Manabe, a meteorologist who is currently a professor at Princeton University, created physical climate models called General Circulation Models, which monitored and predicted carbon dioxide levels and heat transfer between oceans and the atmosphere. His 1967 research showed that a global 2°C increase in temperature could result from a doubling of carbon dioxide levels, a temperature estimate which he actually increased in a 1975 paper. 

Oceanographer Klaus Hasselman, from the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, mathematically connected weather and climate, continuing Manabe’s research and proving Manabe’s theoretical predictions. Through his research, he was also able to determine that the climate change he measured was due to carbon dioxide emissions caused by humans.

Their predictions formed the baseline for future research by other organizations, including the UN; their Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted a 2.7°C increase in the next 80 years. Considering that the temperature increase of about 1°C worldwide in the last 150 years caused a drastic increase in climate events like hurricanes and fires, the research done by Manabe and Hasselman is integral to preparing for the future of climate change.

The final winner—Giorgio Parisi—is a theoretical physicist at the Sapienza University of Rome in Italy. Although his work is not specifically in environmental science, his research did establish patterns in disordered systems, which can be applied to climate change. Since the climate consists of many complex, moving parts, the ability to organize the climate and predict future changes is crucial in recognizing our effect on the environment.

A PRESTIGIOUS AWARD The Nobel Prize is awarded to a select few every year, yet this is the first time it has been earned by environmental scientists. Fernando Vergara | AP

Parisi earned half of the prize and the $1.1 million in prize money, while Manabe and Hasselmann split the other half equally. This victory brings revolutionary recognition to environmental science, since previous physics winners have been awarded for accomplishments like developing new lasers, detecting gravitational waves, or discovering a black hole in the center of our galaxy. This recent attention to environmental science shows that the future of science is changing.

“Especially with climate change and other detrimental factors to the environment, I think this was the right time for environmental work,” senior Nicole De Santos said. “Additionally, as environmental politics are progressing, the Nobel Prize winners illuminate the importance of environmental science in contemporary society.”

However, the current political climate and attitudes toward climate change may mean the award is too late to make an impact. “It is quite late in time to [highlight environmental science], and I think it will spark more controversy over whether people actually believe in climate change or not,” senior Seth Hahn said. “Since there is a large number of people who don’t believe in it, it may be seen as more of a political move.”

Regardless of the timing, these Nobel Prize winners built the foundation for past, current, and future environmental research. Their work, recognized after many years, provides tangible evidence for climate change beyond theories and emphasizes the importance of climate awareness.

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