[ 7 February 2019 ]

Climate science and weather forecasting

The average Brit talks about the weather three times a day. With this obsession comes expertise. Nice Briefing today, isn't it?

An Act that mattered

In 2008, the UK passed the Climate Change Act which enshrined legally-binding targets for emissions reductions in law. It was an impressive world first – and has been led many other governments to take climate action. (But we can only be proud of this for so long – it’s widely thought that tougher targets and reform of the Act are now needed if the UK is to meet its international climate obligations.) And there is widespread public support for this: one survey last year showed that 63% of UK adults agreed that “the UK should be a global leader in tackling climate change.”

"It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather"

Dr Johnson, writing in 1758

We’re good at the science

“The UK consistently over-achieves on climate science,” observes the BBC’s Roger Harrabin in this article. “Despite spending cuts, Britain continues to supply a disproportionate number of lead scientists for influential UN reports warning of the urgency of climate change.”

And we provide the finance

London has already underwritten and issued $80bn of green bonds but in order to meet global climate goals, it’s estimated that a mere $90 trillion needs to be mobilised by 2030. A Green Finance Institute has been formed, funded jointly by government and the City of London, to lead this combined British offer of climate science and climate capital. Fancy being the CEO? Recruitment is currently under way.

Along with the Climate Change Act, another ten year old initiative in which the UK has been a moving force are the Climate Investment Funds (CIFs). Designed to help developing countries transition towards “low-carbon and climate-resilient development,” the UK is the largest contributor, having invested £2bn (out of a total of $8bn) to projects such as the world’s largest solar farm in Ouarzazate in Morocco.

Taking steps
The Bank of England is planning to include the impact of climate change in its UK bank stress tests as early as next year, according to the FT, in what would be an unprecedented move for a central bank of a major financial centre.


Photograph: Craig Whitehead @sixstreetunderhttps://unsplash.com/photos/W3y3F8bkwNw

Reading and Leeds: masters in meteorology

The 2017 Center for World University Rankings by Subject listed the University of Reading as second-best in the world for meteorology and atmospheric sciences. Leeds University also appears in the top ten in this subject. The ranking is based on the number of published research articles “in top-tier journals.”

Providing ‘lead authors’ for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a pretty good stamp of approval of authority in this field. Here, too, Reading and Leeds come up trumps. The University of Reading is the most represented institution globally in the first working group of authors chosen to produce the next climate change report – with six researchers in its Department of Meteorology being named as lead authors in Working Group I for the 6th Assessment Report (AR6). Leeds provided five lead authors for the last IPCC assessment.

A great atmosphere here

The National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) is a world leading research centre dedicated to the advancement of atmospheric science, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). With an annual budget of £15m NCAS carries out research in air pollution, climate and high-impact weather, and long-term global changes in atmospheric composition and climate, and provides state-of-the-art technologies for observing and modelling the atmosphere. It’s based in Leeds.

"Man cannot still the raging of the wind,
but he can predict it. He cannot appease
the storm, but he can escape its violence,
and if all the appliances available for the
salvation of life [from shipwreck] were
but properly employed the effects of
these awful visitations might be
wonderfully mitigated."

Admiral Robert Fitzroy, 1859

The Met Office – the Best Office?

The 800-pound gorilla in British weather and climate science is the Met Office. Its model is recognised as one of the most accurate (its model is used under licence by six other forecast centres and over 50 research centres around the world). Apparently its four day forecast is now as accurate as the one day forecast was 30 years ago. It is one of only two centres in the world to provide forecasts for the whole of the world for all the major long-haul airlines. In a rare moment of immodesty, its former chief executive said that the Met Office used to pride itself as being “the best weather and climate service in the world. Now we think of ourselves as the best in the galaxy.”

The Met Office Scientific Advisory Committee (MOSAC) runs an independent assessment of its capabilities. MOSAC’s last published report – at the end of 2017 – said that the Met Office was second only to the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF) in the ranking for “global model predictions based upon a comparison of deterministic scores, and to deliver state-of-the-art, high quality and timely regional deterministic and ensemble forecasts. In effect the Office remains one of the world’s leading operational weather forecasting centres.” Incidentally, the ECWMF is based in Reading.

Centuries of fascinated observers

There’s a rich heritage of the British watching - and explaining - the climate and the weather.

In 1990, the Met Office Hadley Centre was opened as a dedicated centre for research of the earth's climate. It’s named after George Hadley, an 18th century lawyer and amateur meteorologist who first explained the trade winds. (Hat tip here to the man from County Meath – Francis Beaufort – who came up with the Beaufort Scale in 1805. He served in the Royal Navy and died in Sussex as a British citizen – a great man of the British Isles.)

Cirrus, cumulus, nimbostratus - the names of clouds were coined by the Quaker and slave trade abolitionist Luke Howard, who studied them assiduously on his way to and from work in Tottenham, north London. The first volume of his The Climate of London was published in 1803. (He would have enjoyed the Met Office video below.)

Three members of the British Antarctic Survey – Joe Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jonathan Shanklin – wrapped in quilts and taking readings from primitive equipment, were the first to identify the hole in the ozone layer, publishing their findings in 1985. Nasa had failed to find the 40 per cent drop in ozone because its software “was set to ignore such unusual readings.”

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