Princeton’s Syukuro Manabe receives Nobel Prize in Physics for modeling climate change

Princeton University senior meteorologist Syukuro “Suki” Manabe has been awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics “for the physical modeling of Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming.”

In announcing the award Oct. 5, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted that Manabe’s work in the 1960s developing physical models of the Earth’s climate “demonstrated how increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lead to increased temperatures at the surface of the Earth” and ” laid the foundation for the development of current climate models.”

“When I got the phone call this morning, I was so surprised,” said Manabe, 90, who is a senior meteorologist in the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (AOS) and has been on the Princeton faculty since 1968. “Usually, the Nobel Prize in physics is awarded to physicists making a fundamental contribution in physics. Yes, my work is based on physics, but it’s applied physics. Geophysics. This is the first time the Nobel Prize has been awarded for the kind of work I have done: the study of climate change.

“If you look at the list of past winners, they are amazing people who have done marvelous work,” he said. In contrast, what I have been doing looks trivial to me. But I’m not going to complain!”

Manabe joins a number of other Princeton faculty and alumni who have been awarded Nobel Prizes. He shares his Nobel Prize for the physical modeling of the climate with Klaus Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, Hamburg, Germany. The other half of this year’s physics prize was awarded to Giorgio Parisi of the Sapienza University of Rome, Italy. The prize amount is 10 million Swedish kroner, or about $1.14 million.

“The whole field of climate modeling originates with Suki,” said HMEI director Gabriel Vecchi, professor of geosciences and the High Meadows Environmental Institute.

“The idea that you can take something so complex as the climate system and code the equations that govern it and put them in a computer and use that to simulate the climate system started with him,” said Vecchi, who also is deputy director of Princeton’s Cooperative Institute for Modeling the Earth System. “He not only illustrated some of the potential consequences of global warming, but gave us a roadmap of how to do climate science.”

Manabe points at a map with a colleague in the 1960s
In this archival photo from the 1960s, Manabe (left) works on research with Joseph Smagorinsky, the first director of GFDL. “In the 1960s, [Manabe] 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 current climate models,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in announcing the Nobel Prize on Tuesday, Oct. 5. (Photo courtesy of GFDL)

“Suki is that rare combination: both a brilliant and modest person,” said Michael Oppenheimer, the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs and the High Meadows Environmental Institute. Oppenheimer, Manabe and other Princeton colleagues were recognized by the Nobel Committee in 2007 when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Oppenheimer met Manabe when they were among the witnesses at the famous 1988 Senate hearing that was the first big public splash for the climate change issue.

“Suki is the producer of the first modern climate model,” Oppenheimer said. “Without the science of climate modeling that Suki initiated, we might still know that Earth’s greenhouse effect was increasing due to human activity and that Earth was warming. But linking those two facts would be more difficult, and projection of the future at any useful level of detail would be impossible.”

“Suki Manabe is a pillar in the field of climate science,” said HMEI associate faculty member Denise Mauzerall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and public and international affairs, at Princeton. “Climate models built on Manabe’s foundation are critical tools today for predicting and analyzing how the world will change as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, and to quantify the enormous benefit of rapidly decreasing greenhouse gas emissions for life on Earth.”

Manabe was born in 1931, in Ehime-Ken, Japan and earned his B.S. in 1953 and his Ph.D. in 1958, both from University of Tokyo. He moved from Japan to join NOAA’s predecessor organization, the National Weather Service, in 1958, to use physics to model weather systems. In 1963, he came from Washington, D.C., to Princeton as one of the founding scientists of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL), a national climate research laboratory that is a joint endeavor by Princeton University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In 1968 , he became a member of Princeton University’s faculty as a lecturer with the rank of professor in the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Sciences (today known as Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering).

“Our parallel careers for half a century have engaged with the same questions about how our small planet works and how to live within its constraints,” said Rob Socolow, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, emeritus, and associated faculty in HMEI, who met Suki soon after coming to Princeton in 1971. “I am ecstatic about Suki’s award. I have known Suki since I came to Princeton 50 years ago. He is an imp, always with a twinkle in his eye. Unfailingly polite. And deep.”

“Dr. Manabe is a brilliant man,” said Laure Resplandy, assistant professor of geosciences and the High Meadows Environmental Institute. “He laid the foundations for climate science and modeling. What is amazing to me is that Suki always showed such curiosity and genuine interest in the research of young climate scientists. I am also thrilled that this prize recognizes how important climate science is for society.”

Syukuro Manabe poses with students and Robert Socolow
Princeton students in the Freshman Seminar “Time Capsules for Climate Change, to be Opened at Your Reunions,” taught by Rob Socolow (far left) take a photo with Manabe (center) at an outdoor reception behind Alexander Hall. Socolow, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, emeritus, who has known Manabe for more than 50 years, said: “Suki is such a scientist’s scientist. This is such a winner to have my students meet him!” (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications)

Isaac Held, senior meteorologist in AOS and an HMEI associate faculty member, first worked with Manabe as a Ph.D. student at Princeton. ”He’s a humble guy, and he’s funny, and he’s excited about his research. I am impressed by his intuitive feel for the climate system,” Held said. “That’s what always stood out to me right from the beginning — he seemed to have a better understanding of how things fit together and what was important and what wasn’t important, and especially for those things that are relevant for climate change and the response to increasing greenhouse gases.

“He was way ahead of the curve,” Held said. “All of his ideas really — just about all of them — have turned out to be correct and foundational to the subject.”

“Suki has not just done pioneering work in terms of research, but he’s set the tone for the entire field,” said GFDL Director Venkatachalam (Ram) Ramaswamy, who also is associated faculty in HMEI.  Climate science is now sitting in a place where it is duly recognized. This is a very big day for the field.”

“I joined GFDL in 1985 and like many people there, I was in awe of him” Ramaswamy continued. “He seemed to radiate ideas and intensity. He worked with and mentored a lot of people at GFDL, including me.”

At a midday press conference the day the Prize was announced, Manabe was greeted with a standing ovation as he took the stage. His brief remarks at the conference were punctuated by gentle chuckles from the audience, made up of more than 100 students, faculty and staff.

“It is a great surprise and honor to be chosen by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to receive the Nobel Prize, established through the generosity and farsightedness of Mr. Nobel,” he said. “I would also like to thank the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory of NOAA and Princeton University, where I have enjoyed exploring climate change of not only the industrial present, but also the geological past, during the last several centuries. I have had a really great time. Thank you!”

“We usually associate the Nobel Prize in physics with stellar music and faraway galaxies. This year, this prize is devoted to someone who devoted his life to the study of our very home,” said HMEI associated faculty Stephan Fueglistaler, a professor of geosciences and the director of both AOS and the Cooperative Institute for Modeling the Earth System. “Dr. Manabe’s work is a wonderful example of how essentially blue-sky research, decades ago, can provide the foundation for understanding — and, hopefully, solving — existing problems.”

Princeton University peers and colleagues describe the legacy and impact of Manabe’s pioneering research in the field of climate modeling, including HMEI director Gabriel Vecchi and HMEI professors Bess Ward, Laure Resplandy and Michael Oppenheimer. (Video by the Princeton Office of Communications)

During the question and answer portion, Manabe repeatedly cited the “great fun” to be had in modeling Earth’s climate, and urged students to follow their curiosity and their joy, rather than trying to predict what research may prove impactful in future decades.

“I never imagined that this thing I was beginning to study [would have] such huge consequences,” he said. “I was doing it just because of my curiosity. I really enjoyed studying climate change. Curiosity is the thing which drives all my research activity. It is great fun to use a model to study how climate change over the last 400 million years has evolved.”

Following the press conference, Manabe attended an outdoor reception for members of the University, held in a large tent behind Alexander Hall. Manabe, champagne glass in hand, posed for photos with former laureates, then greeted a long line of undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty colleagues waiting patiently to congratulate him.

“I am really surprised and really excited,” said Jing Feng, a postdoctoral research associate in the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences who did his graduate research on Manabe’s 1964 climate model. “To have the Nobel Prize in our field is so important.”

Abigale Wyatt, a graduate student in geosciences, said she was thrilled to meet Manabe. “I’ve read his papers, gone to his talks. He was already a legend, and now he’s an even bigger legend.”

T. K. Chu, a retired physicist from Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, who has known Manabe for more than 50 years, was overcome with emotion as he hugged Manabe tightly for several minutes. “This [prize] was earth-shaking,” he said. “I just feel so happy.”