He accurately predicted climate change. But this Princeton scientist never saw the Nobel Prize coming.

His title is senior meteorologist, but Syukuro Manabe doesn’t focus on if it’s going to rain tomorrow.

Manabe, a Princeton University climatologist from Japan, looks at the big picture. A much bigger picture.

He created the first climate models in the 1960s that accurately predicted what would happen when carbon dioxide built up in the atmosphere. And on Tuesday, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics along with two others for their work in explaining and predicting the complex forces of nature.

Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann from Germany have been cited for their research involving physical modeling of Earth’s climate, quantification of variability, and “reliable prediction of global warming”.

Giorgio Parisi from Italy was named for his work explaining the disorder in physical systems.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, announcing the prize in Stockholm, said Manabe “had laid the groundwork for the development of current climate models”.

However, receiving the news during a phone call to his home left him stunned.

“I never dreamed of receiving a magnificent award like this,” he later said at a press conference in Princeton. “My research is on climate change, and I never dreamed of being recognized for an award in physics. “

Manabe, now 90, came to the United States in 1958 to work for the National Weather Service, the predecessor organization of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, to use physics to model weather systems. .

Syukuro Manabe on his arrival at Princeton and at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.Courtesy of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory

In 1963, he moved from Washington, DC, arriving in Princeton to become one of the founding scientists of the Laboratory for Geophysical Fluid Dynamics, a national climate research laboratory and a joint venture of Princeton and NOAA. He later became a member of the faculty of Princeton and would become a familiar face there, often seen jogging on the Forrestal campus of the university where the GFDL is located.

“The whole area of ​​climate modeling comes from Suki,” said Gabriel Vecchi, professor of geosciences and climatologist at Princeton, who heads the High Meadows Environmental Institute there. “The idea that you can take something as complex as the climate system and code the equations that govern it and put them into a computer and use it to simulate the climate system started with him.”

Stephan Fueglistaler, director of atmospheric and ocean sciences at Princeton who heads the Cooperative Institute for Modeling the Earth System, said Manabe’s models were the first reliable calculation to show the impact of carbon dioxide on the planet’s atmosphere , but have gone beyond that with 3 dimensional climate models.

“He created a plan for each climate model in use today,” Fueglistaler said at the press conference.

Manabe explained that his research focused on simple curiosity.

“I never imagined that this thing that I was starting to study would have such huge consequences,” he said. “I was doing it out of curiosity. “

He believed that many discoveries that later could have had a great impact on society were happening in the same way.

“The most interesting research is driven by curiosity-driven research,” he said.

Still, he suggested that the physics behind this climate change might be less difficult to understand than getting the world to do something about it.

In less than four weeks, world leaders will hold high-level climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, and will be called upon to step up their commitments to curb global warming.

“To try to understand climate change …”, remarked Manabe in response to questions about climate change skeptics and the often resentful political debate about its consequences. “It’s easier to understand than what’s going on in current politics.”


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Ted Sherman can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on twitter @TedShermanSL

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