NOAA researcher earns international honor for discoveries on the role of atmospheric water vapor in climate change

January 23, 2012

Isaac Held, Ph.D.

Isaac Held, Ph.D.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Isaac Held, Ph.D., a senior research scientist with the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J., will receive the prestigious BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award for his contributions to improved understanding of climate change and atmospheric circulation systems. He will accept the award at a ceremony in Madrid, Spain, in June.

In his 34-year career with NOAA, he has enhanced the scientific community’s understanding of the atmosphere’s structure and circulation. His studies on atmospheric water vapor have led to a greater understanding of how it affects atmospheric warming. This research has earned him an international reputation for his unique contributions to the field. The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards recognize scientific and cultural contributions that address some of the world’s most pressing challenges in science, technology, society, and economics.

Held, who was born in a German refugee camp in 1948 and immigrated to the United States at age 4, says that reading one of the first scientific assessments on climate change in 1972 inspired him to become a climate researcher.

“I was completely surprised by this award when I received the call from the selection committee,” said Held. “The committee emphasized studies of atmospheric water vapor and climate change, partly, I think, because of the importance of projections for the drying of the subtropics, including the Mediterranean area, a subject on which I have written. There are many excellent researchers pursuing similar studies, and I am just happy to be considered a productive member of this group.”

BBVA jury chairman Bjorn Stevens said that while climate change research often focuses on rising temperatures, Held has opened up new avenues of interest that examine the essential role of water, both by studying its movement in the atmosphere and by investigating how water vapor influences the greenhouse effect.

Held’s research on water vapor and atmospheric circulation has helped reveal the processes behind the existence of geographic climate zones. His work also helps predict how climate zones will change as the atmosphere warms.

“Isaac Held’s choice to investigate the role of water vapor in atmospheric warming was, in the 1970s, a turn down Frost’s ‘road less traveled’,” said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D. “His brilliant research and tenacious pursuit of knowledge have given us a better ability to predict future changes in climate that will result from a warming atmosphere. I am very proud to have researchers of his caliber working for NOAA.”

Held is the first U.S. government scientist to receive the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge in the climate change category. The foundation has also given the climate change category award to British scientist Nicholas Stern, German physicist and mathematician Klaus Hasselmann, and Wallace Broecker of Columbia University who receives funding through NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Climate Applications and Research.

Held’s initial academic interest was in physics, and he earned a master’s degree in physics from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1971. However, reading about the effects of greenhouse gases drew his interest in another direction. He continued his studies at Princeton University, earning a doctorate in atmospheric and oceanic sciences in 1976. After a research fellowship at Harvard University, he joined NOAA in 1978. He is also an associate faculty member at Princeton University.

He is a fellow of both the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2003. He received the U.S. Commerce Department gold medal in 1999 for world leadership in studies of climate dynamics.

Learn more about Held by visiting his homepage, http://www.gfdl.noaa.gov/isaac-held-homepage.

BBVA is an international financial services group based in Spain. The BBVA Foundation established the Frontiers of Knowledge Awards in 2008 to recognize outstanding contributions and significant advances in a broad range of scientific and technological areas.

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