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Researchers who helped shape our understanding of climate change win Nobel Prize

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded today to three scientists for their work, predicting the seemingly unpredictable. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports that the researchers helped shape our understanding of climate change.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: When Syukuro Manabe first began studying Earth's climate more than six decades ago, weather forecasting was as much an art as a science. But Manabe, now at Princeton University, was thinking much bigger. He was building computer models to predict how the entire planet would respond as humans pumped carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

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SYUKURO MANABE: I made a numerical experiment using this model, changing one thing at the time, thereby understanding how climate system works.

BRUMFIEL: Manabe was speaking to the Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the prize. He shared half of today's Nobel with Klaus Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany. Hasselmann's work showed that even though weather continues to be hard to predict, changes to climate can be foreseen.

The other half of the prize went to physicist Giorgio Parisi from Sapienza University of Rome in Italy. Parisi's work was on a completely different topic - something called a spin glass. It's a material made of tiny magnets that struggle to line up in the same direction. Parisi found patterns in the chaos of the flipping magnets, and his technique turned out to have lots of applications in other fields of science.

The perks of the prize stand on their own, but they're also meant to send a message. Goran Hansson is secretary general at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. He says even when things like the weather seem unpredictable, researchers can find a pattern, such as climate change.

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GORAN HANSSON: The notion of global warming is resting on solid science.

BRUMFIEL: And this year's Nobel winners all agree that stopping warming will require immediate action. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.