A long wait for a Nobel weather laureate

 

There is no Nobel Prize, alas, for meteorology. Nor indeed have many meteorologists, acting in any other guise, figured on the lists of laureates under the various headings for which the prizes are awarded.

It is true, of course, that one of the first recipients of the Nobel Prize for chemistry was the Swedish scientist Svante August Arrhenius, who was honoured in 1903 for "the extraordinary services he has rendered to the advancement of chemistry by his electrolytic theory of dissociation". But Arrhenius is better remembered nowadays as the man who first drew attention in the 1890s to the problems that might be caused by the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a result of burning massive quantities of coal; he might be described as the father of our modern theories about global warming.

Guglielmo Marconi, too, was no meteorologist. But he shared the prize for physics in 1909 for his contribution to the development of wireless telegraphy, and his inventions have had a profound effect in many ways on the development of meteorology. And Sir Edward Appleton, whose physics prize in 1947 recognised his discovery in the upper atmosphere of what has come to be called the Appleton layer, had strong meteorological connections. But we had to wait until 1995 before what we might call "a real meteorologist" achieved the honour.

Paul Crutzen was born in Amsterdam in 1933 and qualified as a civil engineer, a profession in which he practised for several of his early years. He had ambitions towards the academic world, however, and in 1958 he saw an advertisement in a Swedish newspaper for a computer programmer in the department of meteorology at the University of Stockholm. He applied and was successful, and thus fortuitously became involved in the early stages of the development of numerical weather prediction. He went on to acquire two doctorates in meteorology.

But international fame beckoned for Paul Crutzen when he developed an interest in stratospheric ozone in the 1960s. His work began with an investigation into the possible harmful effects of emissions from supersonic aircraft on the ozone layer, and culminated during the 1970s in his elegant explanation of the way in which chlorine compounds, produced by the now infamous CFCs, could act as catalysts at very low temperatures to promote the widespread deletion of ozone in the upper atmosphere.

Crutzen's theories were confirmed by the surprise discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole in 1985. Ten years later he shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry with two others in recognition of their exceptional contribution to our understanding of these critically important atmospheric processes.