Climate Science and Nobel Prize in Physics

The Physics–based climate models made it possible to predict the amount and pace of global warming, including some of the consequences like rising seas.


Representational Image (Photo: Pixabay)

Weather is what you see hour to hour and day to day. Weather involves just the atmosphere. Climate is the average weather over decades and is influenced by the ocean and the land surfaces. Weather and climate are complicated because they involve many different physical processes—from the motion of the air to the flow of electromagnetic radiation, such as sunlight, to the condensation of water vapor—across a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. The system is incredibly complex and interconnected. For example, a cluster of small thunderstorm can influence a weather system that spans a continent. But winners of 2021, Nobel Prize in Physics built mathematics of climate modeling, making predictions of global warming and modern weather forecasting possible. Three scientists have been awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work to understand complex systems, such as the Earth’s climate.  SYUKURO MANABE, KLAUS HASSELMANN and GIORGIO PARISI were announced as the winners at an event in Stockholm for their groundbreaking work over the past 60 years predicted climate change and decoded complex physical systems.

Research by Manabe and Hasselmann led to computer models of the Earth’s climate that can predict the impact of global warming. MANABE said that figuring out the physics behind climate change was 1000 times easier than getting the world to do something about it. He said the intricacies of policy and society are far harder to fathom than the complexities of carbon dioxide interacting with the atmosphere, which then changes conditions in the Ocean and on the land surface, which then alters the air again in a constant cycle. He called climate change ‘’a major crisis’’. PARISI’s research largely centers around sub-atomic particles, predicting how they move in seemingly chaotic ways and why and is somewhat esoteric. While the work by MANABE and HASSELMANN is about large-scale global forces that shape our daily lives. It is incredibly difficult to predict the long-term behavior of complex physical systems such as the climate. Computer models that anticipate how it will respond to rising greenhouse emission have therefore been crucial for understanding global warming as a planetary emergency. Indeed the award comes as world leaders are preparing for a crucial UN climate conference known as COP26 to be held in Glasgow this November. Ask about the timing, Prof. PARISI said, we have to act now in a very fast way and not with a strong delay.

Japan –born Syukuro Manabe, 90, who is senior meteorologist at Princeton University in New-Jersey, demonstrated how increased level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could lead to increase temperatures at the surface of the Earth. 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 climate models. Roughly a decade later, Klaus Hasselmann, 89, from the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, created a computer model that linked together weather and climate. His work answered the question of why climate models can be reliable despite weather being changeable and chaotic. He also developed methods for identifying specific signals, fingerprints that both natural phenomena and human activities imprint in the climate. His methods have been used to prove that the increased temperature in atmosphere is due to human emission of carbon dioxide. On a superficial level, the original work carried out by Prof. Parisi, 73 who is currently at Sapienza University of Rome, seems to bear little relation to climate change. Around 1980. Parisi discovered hidden pattern in disordered complex materials. His discoveries are among the most important contribution to the theory of complex systems. They make it possible to understand and describe many different and apparently entirely random complex materials and phenomena, not only in physics but also in other, very different areas such as mathematics, biology, neuroscience and machine learning. He demonstrated with a metal alloy called spin glass, in which Iron atoms were randomly mixed into a grid of copper atoms. Even tough there are only a few Iron atoms; they change the material’s magnetic properties in a radical and very puzzling manner. But the Nobel Committee saw spin glass as a microcosm for the complex behavior of the Earth’s climate complex systems on atomic and planetary scale, may share certain features, such as being chaotic and disorder with behavior that seems to be governed by chance. Parisi found that hidden rules influence the apparently random behavior of solid materials—and worked out a way to describe them mathematically. Prof. John Wettlaufer, a physicist at Yale University, in New Haven US explained, ‘’what emerged from the Committee’s work was the duality between the study of earth’s climate which is complex on scale from millimeters to the size of the planet—and Giorgio Pairisi’s work’’.  The Italian physicist was ‘’building from the disorder and fluctuations of complex system at (the level of) their microscopic constituents- Prof. Wattlaufer said. The work of Syukuro Manabe, on the other hand ‘’ is taking the components of individual processes and knitting them together to predict the behavior of a complex physical system. Prof Hassel Mann’s work encompassed both the microscopic world added to physicist from Yale.

Even though we’ve divided the prize between the climate part and the disorder part, they really are linked. Dr Martin Juckes, head of atmospheric science and research and deputy head of UK’s Center for Environmental Data Analysis (CEDA) said; it is fantastic to see the work of climate scientists rewarded with the Nobel Prize in physics today. The problem of complexity in climate system, compounded by threats of the climate crisis, continue to challenge climate scientists today.  This year’s physics laureates were announced during a news conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Science. One half of 10 million krona goes to Manabe and Hasselmann, while the other goes to Parisi. The Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel founded the prizes in his will, written a year before his death in 1896. A total of 218 individuals have now won the Physics Prize since it was first awarded in 1901. Only four of these laureates have been women; one physicist John Bardeen won the prize twice in 1956 and 1972. The Physics–based climate models made it possible to predict the amount and pace of global warming, including some of the consequences like rising seas, increased extreme rainfall events and stronger hurricanes decades before they could observe.

First Published:Oct. 11, 2021, 1:43 a.m.

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