Climate modeling at Princeton

Written by
Liz Fuller-Wright
Liz Fuller-Wright, Office of Communications
July 29, 2020

For more than 50 years, Princeton researchers have led the science of climate modeling — a key tool for understanding climate change — due to the foundational efforts of key individuals and a remarkable collaboration with a neighboring institution.

Princeton’s history in climate modeling began in the late 1960s with a partnership between the University and the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL), a national lab housed on Princeton’s Forrestal Campus.

Princeton-GFDL luminary Syukuro “Suki” Manabe produced a body of work that is widely attributed with launching the long-term study of global climate warming and quantitatively linking the warming of Earth’s climate with increasing carbon dioxide emissions. His 1967 model of the atmosphere, created with Richard Wetherald, is considered the first credible calculation of the Earth’s climate, and in 1969, Manabe partnered with oceanographer Kirk Bryan to create the first coupled ocean-atmosphere model.

Since then, Princeton scientists have improved and expanded these models. Stephen Pacala pioneered a mathematical approach to incorporating the terrestrial biosphere — land plants — into the models and laid the foundation for the Earth system models in use today. Jorge Sarmiento developed some of the first models for the complex ways that ocean organisms affect the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen cycles, revolutionizing our understanding of the oceans’ role in climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) relies heavily on Princeton-GFDL models. In 2007, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Al Gore and the IPCC, including 11 Princeton faculty members and many alumni who contributed to the reports cited in the prize.

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