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Isaac Held earns International Honor

January 17th, 2012

Isaac Held, Ph.D.Isaac_Held_BBVA-2, 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 GFDL, 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 water vapor 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 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.

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 economist Nicholas Stern, German physicist and mathematician Klaus Hasselmann, and Wallace Broecker of Columbia University.

His 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 GFDL 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.  In 2008, he received the American Meteorological Society’s Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Medal, their highest award for atmospheric science.

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. The full citation for Held’s award reads:

“For fundamental and pioneering contributions to our understanding of the structure of atmospheric circulation systems and the role of water vapour, the most important greenhouse gas, in climate change. Dr. Held’s contributions have been pivotal in understanding tropical circulations and climate patterns, and the climate in the mid-latitudes, e.g., European and North American climates. His ideas have laid the basis for our interpretation of how, in a warming world, the hydrological cycle and other emergent properties of the climate system (such as the distributions of winds and storms) can be related to basic physical principles. Dr. Held’s accomplishments have been critical in assessing the robustness and limitations of complex models used to predict climate change.”