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Nobel Peace Prize Award in Physics: The Role Of Humanity In Climate Change

Emily Heaslip

For the first time ever, this year’s Physics Nobel Prize went to three scientists for their contributions toward predicting the impact of global warming. Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann, and Giorgio Parisi shared the honor for their work that “demonstrate[s] that our knowledge about the climate rests on a solid scientific foundation,” the committee said.

Though climate science has been recognized by the Nobel committee in the past, this is the first time the Physics prize has been awarded specifically to a climate scientist. The recognition is quite overdue - government bodies and organizations have long been using this research to monitor and mitigate degradative effects of climate change.

Recognizing the science behind climate change

Researchers and scientists use computer programs to model how the planet will respond to rising greenhouse gas emissions. Such models inform long-term disaster responses in preparation for an anticipated “planetary emergency” caused by rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 

These computer models would not be possible without the work from Manabe, Hasselmann, and Parisi. 

Dr. Manabe developed a computer model in 1967 that confirmed the connection between carbon dioxide and the warming of Earth’s atmosphere. By linking increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to increased temperatures at the surface of the Earth, Dr. Manabe set the foundation for increasingly sophisticated models. 

“Dr. Manabe’s later models, which explored connections between conditions in the ocean and atmosphere, were crucial to recognizing how increased melting of the Greenland ice sheet could affect ocean circulation in the North Atlantic,” reported The New York Times

Following the work of Dr. Manabe, Dr. Hasselmann was awarded for his model that connected short-term climate phenomena (namely, the weather) to longer-term climate change (e.g., ocean and atmospheric currents). His model laid the groundwork for future studies that establish the impact of climate change on droughts, heat waves, and intense rainstorms. 

Dr. Parisi’s work, which has been described as “incredibly eclectic”, is seemingly unrelated to climate change at first glance. Parisi studied a metal alloy called spin glass, which mixes iron atoms randomly into a grid of copper atoms. His work showed that although there were relatively few iron atoms, they changed the material’s magnetic properties in a “radical and very puzzling manner.” 

This work demonstrated the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems. The Nobel awards committee “saw spin glass as a microcosm for the complex behaviour of the Earth's climate. Complex systems, on atomic and planetary scales, may share certain features, such as being chaotic and disordered, with behaviour that seems to be governed by chance,” explained BBC News.

Understanding the role of humanity in climate change

The decades of work published by all three scientists cements the fact that climate change was accelerated by human activity. Their published research has only become more important as the effects of climate change continue to intensify. 

"Together [the new laureates] have laid the foundation of our knowledge of the Earth's climate and how humanity influences it, as well as revolutionized the theory of disordered materials and random processes," David Pendlebury, a senior citation analyst at the research company Clarivate's Institute for Scientific Information told CNN

This August, the IPCC released a report that concluded that the average global temperature will rise by 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100, even if emission cuts targeted by the Paris agreement are met. Models built from Manabe and Hasselmann’s original work indicate that higher temperatures are making sea levels higher, waves stronger, and extreme weather events more unpredictable in the ocean. 

The UN’s upcoming Climate Change Conference (COP26) will use Physics Nobel Prize winners’ research to make decisions about how to reduce emissions, protect communities, and secure financing needed to mitigate climate change risk. 

While lowering greenhouse gas emissions is crucial, we can’t talk about climate change without considering the ocean. “The current outlook on the climate crisis barely even considers the oceans, even though it covers two thirds of the earth’s surface,” wrote Ian Urbina, director and founder of The Outlaw Ocean Project

Managing the climate starts with the ocean. Conserving coastal ecosystems, for instance, can lower the risk of storm surges and coastal flooding. Decarbonizing the shipping industry is another good place to start. Sofar Ocean’s Wayfinder routes captains across oceans on voyages optimized for fuel efficiency and thereby emissions reductions while also alerting seafarers of unsavory weather well in advance. To learn more about global warming and our oceans, visit the Sofar Ocean blog

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