The prestigious BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award will be presented to Isaac Held, Ph.D., a senior research scientist with the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J., at a ceremony in Madrid, Spain, in June of this year for his scientific contributions that have improved our understanding of climate change and atmospheric circulation systems.
“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.”
Born in a German refugee camp in 1948 before immigrating to the United States at the age of 4, Held was inspired to become a climate researcher after reading one of the first scientific assessments on climate change in 1972.
Held was worked for 34 years with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, during which time he has continually improved the scientific communities understanding of the atmosphere’s structure and circulation. Specifically, his studies on atmospheric water vapour have led to a much greater understanding of how water vapour affects atmospheric warming and earned Held 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.
In Held’s case, BBVA jury chairman Bjorn Stevens noted that, though climate change research often focuses solely on rising temperatures, Held’s research has opened up the focus to include the essential role of water, both by studying its movement in the atmosphere and by investigating how water vapour influences the greenhouse effect. His research has subsequently shed light on the processes behind the existence of geographic climate zones and helps scientists 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.”
Regarding Held, NOAA shed some light:
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.