Claude Lorius


2001 Balzan Prize for Climatology


Claude Lorius, Research Fellow and later Director at the CNRS Glaciology and Environmental Geophysics Laboratory as well as President of the French Institute of Polar Research and Technology IFRTP in Grenoble, was born in Besançon in 1932. Lorius is a foreign member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and has been a member of the Académie des sciences since 1994. 

He has taken part in 20 polar expeditions, primarily carried out at the South Pole in Antarctica. Lorius has distinguished himself as an organiser of interdisciplinary research teams and leader of international scientific collaboration. In this field, he has emerged as something of a father to a new generation of scientists.

Considered the heir to Paul-Emile Victor, he completed his first mission in 1957 with a winter spent at the Charot station in Antarctica. Especially noteworthy was his stint at the Vostok station in 1982 when, in the context of Russian-French collaboration, he was able to get Russian, French and American specialists to work together on joint research activities. Temperatures at the time reached a record low of 89.3°C below. Team members bored through ca. 2100 meters of ice, which translates to around 140,000 years of accumulation. In 1999, the ice cores had reached 3623 meters, representing an archival database of 420,000 years. From this data, four sequences of warm periods and ice ages can be identified, reaching back approximately 18,000, 135,000, 245,000 and 335,000 years. The results of this research back the assumption that variations in the parameters of the earth's orbit are the cause of variable intensity of solar irradiation, which in turn can instigate or trigger natural, climatic changes.

We have Claude Lorius to thank for the mid-1960s discovery that air bubbles trapped in the ice for millennia may contain fundamental data on the composition of atmosphere in the past. The investigations of Lorius and his fellow researchers confirm that the isotopic composition of the ice may indicate its temperature at the time of precipitation. Using special analytical methods, it is furthermore possible to determine atmospheric pressure at the time of ice formation.

Such data have played a fundamental role in reconstructing climate changes over past millennia, marked by ice ages and periods of warming. Yet equally important - when the chemical composition of the atmosphere from the recent past is reconstructed - is the discovery of the close relationship between climate and the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and its possible connection to human activities. Lorius was one of the first scientists to sound the alarm bell and warn of the dangers posed by the current warming of the planet.


Past winners of Balzan Prizes for Climatology

The dynamic of the climate and its history over many millennia are not just recorded in the eternal ice. The oceans also serve as a valuable source for learning more about our planet's climate and its future fate. The past Balzan Prizes for Climatology have been primarily bestowed in the area of oceanographic research. In 1986, the work of Roger Revelle was honoured with an award. In 1993, the prize went to Wolfgang H. Berger for his paleontology-based studies in the field of oceanography, and in 1998 the recipient was American geochemist Harmon Craig. In 1996, alternatively, the discipline of meteorology was recognised with the Balzan Prize going to Norwegian Arnt Eliassen.