Israel Prize to Prof. Dan Yakir

Honor highlights his insights on forests’ critical role in climate and the environment



Date: April 2, 2019
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The Weizmann Institute’s Prof. Dan Yakir has won this year’s Israel Prize for Research in Geology, Earth Sciences and Atmospheric Sciences, for his groundbreaking insights into the impact of semi-arid forests on the global climate.

“At the station he founded in the Yatir Forest, Prof. Yakir explores the interactions between the biosphere and the atmosphere, especially the ways in which vegetation influences the environment and the climate,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted.

Prof. Yakir, a member of the Institute’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, has been operating the Yatir Station—an Aleppo pine forest located at the edge of the Negev Desert—for nearly two decades. This semi-arid ecosystem has informed the basis for a wide range of broader climate studies, enabling Prof. Yakir and his colleagues to use the forest as a model for understanding how plants influence their larger environment and the climate.

By measuring tiny differences in oxygen and carbon isotope concentrations as plants undergo photosynthesis, Prof. Yakir has been able to uncover unique chemical processes that occur in both plants and soil, and assess carbon storage mechanisms in the biosphere. His data has revealed how these gas exchanges fluctuate in response to environmental stressors like air pollution, heat waves, and droughts, giving policymakers a more precise benchmark for assessing the impact of human activity. Prof. Yakir’s work has also played a critical role in promoting carbon sequestration in forests, as well as countering desertification in vulnerable regions.

A recent Yakir lab study, published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, suggested that planting semi-arid forests in two previously neglected areas of Africa and Australia could radically offset human-induced global warming. Such trees, the research found, could absorb an amount of carbon equivalent to 10% of the world’s uptake and help cool the Earth within around six years. The study, piloted by Prof. Yakir’s former student Dr. Gil Yosef, showed that the trees could collectively promote cloud formation—intensifying moisture in the atmosphere above them and cooling the surface below them.

Crediting Prof. Yakir for developing “innovative methods” that employ stable isotopes and other trace gases to assess the significance of photosynthesis to the global climate, the Israel Prize committee praised him for divulging critical processes in the “plant-soil-atmosphere system” and for founding the Yatir Research Station.

“The station is integrated in a network of global stations in different climactic zones and provides unique data on the impact of semi-arid ecosystem on the climate of the Earth under climate change,” a statement from the committee said. “Prof. Yakir has made a great contribution to the advancement of science and to relationships between science and society in Israel and around the world.”

Prof. Yakir will receive the prestigious award at an annual state ceremony in Jerusalem on Independence Day, alongside Weizmann Institute colleague Prof. Prof. Adi Kimchi—who will be awarded the Israel Prize for Life Sciences. Prof. Kimchi, a member of the Weizmann Institute’s Department of Molecular Genetics, is a pioneer in the field of programmed cell death and has developed RNA screening methods for identifying the agents responsible for a cell’s choice to live or die.

Prof. Yakir is supported by the Sussman Family Center for the Study of Environmental Sciences, the Cathy Wills and Robert Lewis Program in Environmental Science, and Dana and Yossie Hollander.