Observing and explaining climate change: a research symposium to celebrate 50 years of the Climatic Research Unit.

Throughout 2022 we organised a series of four research-focused meetings to reflect on CRU’s past contributions and explore current developments in these fields.

Watch the recordings of the talks below.

Learning from the Palaeoclimate Record

Past climates inform our future

Professor Jessica Tierney (Department of Geosciences, University of Arizona, Tucson, USA)

Back to the future with tree-ring standardization: maybe Schulman did it the right way and why it matters

Professor Ed Cook (Tree-Ring Laboratory, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, New York, USA)

Using tree ring data to improve global vegetation models

Dr Jonathan Barichivich (LSCE,France; and Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Valparaíso, Chile)

The Climatic Research Unit’s key contributions to researching past climates'

Professor Tim Osborn (Climatic Research Unit, School of Environmental Sciences, UEA, Norwich, UK)

CRU’s founding objective was to establish the past record of climate over as much of the world as possible, as far back in time as was feasible and with enough detail to establish the underlying processes that are responsible for climatic changes. Work began with the gathering and interpretation of historical records, and soon expanded into natural archives of past climate information. In collaboration with institutions throughout the world, CRU exploited the vast potential of tree rings to produce annually-resolved climatic reconstructions over hundreds and thousands of years. And independent information from other natural archives has been invaluable in placing recent climate change into a longer context.

This research meeting explores key elements from this highly active field of climate research. Talks covered how we have learnt much about our climate over recent centuries and millennia, with an increasing level of quantitative detail. And how this fits in with our understanding of the drivers of climate change and the links between climate and society.

Observing and Explaining Climate Change

Instrumental Temperatures: CRU Work Compared to Others’ – Professor Phil Jones (Climatic Research Unit, School of Environmental Sciences,UEA, Norwich, UK)

Fingerprinting the Climate System’ – Dr Ben Santer (Formerly at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, USA)

Towards robust future climate projections: using the observational record to constrain future changes’ – Dr Kasia Tokarska (Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science, ETH Zürich, Switzerland)

Observing our changing climate with surface humidity, an awkward but essential climate variable’ - Dr Kate Willett (Met Office, Exeter, UK)

CRU’s work to produce a record of how the world’s temperature was changing began in 1978 and reached a particular milestone with the creation of the first combined land and marine temperature record in 1986 (the precursor to the current HadCRUT dataset). This record demonstrates unequivocally that the globe has warmed since 1850, and provides the basis for research that aims to explain the causes of this warming. CRU started to explore “fingerprint” methods to assess how the observed patterns of climate change match those that can be attributed to particular causes. By the mid-1990s, an international research team, including CRU, was able to detect the fingerprint of human-caused climate change. This finding has been strengthened ever since, as climate change emerges ever more strongly from the background natural variability.

This research meeting explores the development of global instrumental records of climate change – including, but not limited to, CRU’s seminal contribution – and how they are used in the detection and attribution of climate change. Talks covered both the earlier developments as well as the state-of-the-art research.

Climate Dynamics

Extreme precipitation triggered by equatorial waves in the Maritime Continent’ - Dr Natasha Senior (Climatic Research Unit, School of Environmental Sciences, UEA, Norwich, UK)

The climates of terrestrial planets orbiting red dwarfs’ – Professor Manoj Joshi (School of Environmental Sciences, UEA, Norwich, UK)

Changes in surface temperature persistence under climate change’ – Professor Dave Thompson (School of Environmental Sciences, UEA, Norwich, UK)

CRU’s work has always included research into the dynamical processes that govern the expression of climate change on a regional scale and on the hydrological cycle. This aspect has, however, greatly expanded in the last decade of CRU’s 50-year existence, so that it is now a central focus of many of its staff and students. We consider many aspects of climate dynamics, including large-scale climate variability, monsoons, ocean-ice shelf interactions, the role of clouds in amplifying climate change, the warming contrast between land and sea – and even the climates of Earth-like exoplanets.

This research meeting explores many facets of climate dynamics to which CRU’s research has made significant contributions towards improved understanding.

From Climate Science to Climate Action

'Overview of key CRU contributions' - Professor Tim Osborn (Climatic Research Unit, School of Environmental Sciences, UEA)

'Transitioning climate change information into policy and action: some reflections' - Professor Jean Palutikof (Griffith University, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility)

'Climate Information for Society' - Dr Clare Goodess (Climatic Research Unit, School of Environmental Sciences, UEA)

Our climate futures (5-minute lightning talks by current PhD students)

  • Modelling future droughts in East Anglia: uncertainty from different sources - Ms Nele Reyniers (School of Environmental Sciences, UEA)

  • Future changes of flood events in the UK under climate change - Ms Qianyu Zha (School of Environmental Sciences, UEA)

  • How will the urban heat island effect in growing cities behave under climate change? - Ms Sarah Berk (School of Environmental Sciences, UEA)

  • Applications of machine learning for understanding extremes & constraining future warming - Ms Sophie Wilkinson (School of Environmental Sciences, UEA)

'Avoiding Impacts and Reducing Risks' - Professor Rachel Warren (Professor of Global Change and Environmental Biology, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, UEA)

'MAGICC, Mitigation Pathways and Carbon Budgets' - Dr Malte Meinshausen (University of Melbourne, Climate & Energy College; School of Geography)

'How to get to NetZero' - Dr Nem Vaughan (Associate Professor in Climate Change, School of Environmental Sciences, UEA)

CRU developed some of the very first climate change projections using outputs from Global Climate Model simulations as well as analogue approaches. CRU developed a number of tools to make climate projections and scenarios that are relevant to decision makers, whether policymakers or practitioners. These include simple climate models (or, reduced complexity models, such as MAGICC) and techniques such as pattern scaling to get detailed regional information, together with a range of downscaling approaches and weather generators.

Climate projections have facilitated impact risk assessments and decision making for different sectors such as agriculture, water, energy and health. Global policy to mitigate climate change is being guided by the relationships between carbon emissions, the carbon cycle and climate change – as well as by the capacity to adapt to the regional climate changes that are already underway.

This research meeting will explore how the approaches pioneered by CRU have evolved over the decades and how they have informed climate action. We will also highlight the ongoing challenges in co-developing and communicating robust information for users including the growing climate services community.