Kirk Bryan

Former NOAA scientist Kirk Bryan Jr., Ph.D., was named the winner of the 2023 National Academy of Science (NAS) Alexander Agassiz Medal for his pioneering work in oceanography and climate science.

Bryan is widely credited as the originator of ocean computational modeling, and his work in the late 1960s at NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) in Princeton, New Jersey resulted in the first general circulating climate model of its kind, combining both oceanic and atmospheric processes, to gain insights into how the ocean and atmosphere interact to influence climate. The model also predicted how changes in the natural factors that control climate, such as ocean and atmospheric currents and temperatures, could lead to climate change. The model is still considered a breakthrough of enormous importance for climate science and weather forecasting and was the basis for current ocean models. Previous knowledge of oceanic and atmospheric circulation and their interactions was based solely on theory and observation.

“Kirk Bryan had to learn to simulate the circulation of fluids in the challenging geometry of the world ocean,” said Steve Thur, Ph.D, NOAA associate administrator for ocean and atmospheric research. “His work has essentially helped us to see how the ocean affects climate and also to understand how our climate is changing.”

The work was particularly impressive given the computational limitations of the time. The computer used to design and run the first model Bryan developed ran on just half a megabyte of memory — not enough to store a modern high-resolution digital image in 2023. In contrast, the modern supercomputer at GFDL offers more than 100,000 times the computing power of that early machine.

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Joseph Smagorinsky, founding director of the GFDL, with Kirk Bryan (seated in chair, left) and his research partner Syukuro “Suki” Manabe (standing), discuss paper they wrote in 1969 on the coupled atmosphere-ocean model. Photo credit: NOAA

“When my career started, the trend was to describe the atmosphere more or less qualitatively and to trace water masses from one part of the ocean to another,” Bryan said. “I’m immensely proud of the work we’ve done to advance the quantitative knowledge of things and I’m excited to accept this award and grateful that our breakthroughs are recognized in this way.”

Bryan led the GFDL Ocean Division from 1961 until his retirement in 1995. In 2006, Nature magazine cited GFDL’s original climate model among other breakthroughs in its list of milestones in scientific computing that have had a profound impact on society with innovations such as the first CT scanner, the first scientific calculator and the Internet.

Awarded only every five years, the Alexander Agassiz Medal recognizes original contributions to the science of oceanography. The award, which includes a medal and $20,000 in cash prizes, will be presented during the 160th NAS Annual Meeting on April 30 at 2:00 p.m. ET and will be webcast live. Visit the NAS website for more information.

Media contact: Alison Gillespie, [email protected], 202-713-6644


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