UEA has pioneered climate research for nearly 50 years. Our Climatic Research Unit and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research have both broken new ground in understanding the global climate system and its implications for society, and continue to do so. Read more about the global impact that UEA climate research has made in this field since 1972.
Climatic Research Unit established
Climatology used to be part of Geography, not a subject in its own right. But this began to change in the 1970s. A landmark moment came when Hubert Lamb from the UK Meteorological Office established and became Director of our new Climatic Research Unit (CRU). Over the years, the CRU has led the way, pioneering world-class research across many aspects of climate science. The construction of the global temperature record. The attribution of observed warming to man’s influence. The development of simplified models to guide the development of climate policy. And major contributions to all the Assessment Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Construction of Global Temperature Record
Our Climatic Research Unit (CRU) is famous for constructing a global record of surface air temperatures up to the present day. This includes measurements from weather stations around the world, information from historical records and data from proxies such as tree rings and even beetle remains! 1982: first CRU temperature series for land in the northern hemisphere published covering 1881 to 1980. 1986 – marine data combined to produce the first truly global temperature record. 1990s to present - CRU (land) and UK Meteorological Office (marine) combine their data to produce the most thorough record of how the planet is warming.
Creation of Political Ecology discipline
Political Ecology operates at the intersect of human and environmental interactions. Piers Blaikie at our School of International Development was instrumental in the growth and influence of the discipline in the late 1980s. He published The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries in 1985 and Land Degradation and Society with Harold Brookfield in 1987. Both texts are considered cornerstones of modern Political Ecology - a discipline that remains vibrant and influential in explaining social vulnerability and highlighting the causal chains of influence and the role of different actors in contributing to often deleterious environmental change.
Geoengineering the oceans
As oceans absorb around 30% of the CO2 injected into the atmosphere by fossil fuel burning, the idea of fertilising the oceans with iron, so that the marine plankton can absorb even more CO2 is a tantalising one. The research groups of Andy Watson and Peter Liss in our School of Environmental Sciences were major players that experimented with seeding iron on patches of the ocean surface. While the plankton certainly grew, it was apparent that iron fertilisation was not an efficient way of removing carbon from the atmosphere. A finding that’s informed geoengineering ocean policy since.
‘A discernible human influence on global climate’
It’s one of the most quoted phrases in the climate debate. Appearing in the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 2nd Report published in 1995, it indicated that governments worldwide had accepted that humans were influencing the climate. A paper from the Climatic Research Unit was seminal in enabling the Panel to come to this conclusion. In the paper, our previous PhD student Ben Santer, and his supervisors Tom Wigley and Phil Jones, showed that the ‘fingerprint’ of human activity from a climate model could be detected in the observational data, which validated the phrase.
The Tyndall Centre established
The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has transformed how the world understands what to do about climate change. Founded in 2000 by UEA as a partnership of UK Universities, Director Mike Hulme brought together climatologists, social scientists, energy analysts, engineers and economists to understand climate change solutions. Science for policy highlights include Decarbonising the UK (2005), 4 Degrees and Beyond Conference (2009), 2011 Radical Reduction Emissions Conference, annual Global Carbon Budgets led by Corinne Le Quéré, and major work for the Stern Review, UK Climate Change Risk Assessments and IPCC. www.tyndall.ac.uk
UEA authors make major contribution to 4th IPCC Report
To date UEA researchers have contributed in a major way to all of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Reports. For the 4th Report, which was published in 2007, UEA staff were major authors, which appears to be the highest contribution from any academic institution. It was also the year when the IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Al Gore for “their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change”.
Earth & Life Systems Alliance established
In 2008 Norwich Research Park (NRP) became the home to the new Earth & Life Systems Alliance. Colin Murrell, an Environmental Microbiologist at UEA, became the first Director in 2012. The Alliance integrates and enhances internationally excellent research in biological and environmental sciences across the NRP, including UEA, John Innes Centre, The Sainsbury Laboratory and Earlham and Quadram Institutes. Encompassing many aspects of climate change, the research focuses around three key themes: Biodiversity in the Face of Global Environmental Change; Food Security & Global Change; Elemental Cycles that Sustain Life and the Planet. https://elsa-nrp.net
Climategate – Hacking of CRU emails
In November 2009 the server of the Climatic Research Unit was hacked and many e-mails were stolen and published online. Some of the email content was falsely interpreted by climate deniers as casting doubts on the veracity of the work of the unit. This created huge media interest, particularly as the hacking occurred just a few weeks before the important UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. A number of independent enquiries were subsequently held to establish if the accusations by climate change deniers had any grounds. Our scientific methods and published results were always vindicated. The hackers have never been found.
School of International Development wins Queen’s Anniversary Prize
In 2009 our School of International Development received the highest National Honour awarded to UK colleges and universities - ‘The interdisciplinary approach of the University’s School of International Development has produced pioneering research into the links between resources management, poverty alleviation and wider political economy. Alongside many other projects, it has had considerable success in tackling land and forest degradation and water conservation in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. The University has also established a not-for-profit organisation to maximise the School’s practical contribution to global development in an age of climate change.’
Global Environmental Justice Group formed
An interdisciplinary team of UEA researchers, the Global Environmental Justice Group, focuses on the links between social justice and climatic/environmental change at local to global scales. Their founding principle is that sustainable development can only succeed if justice issues lie at the heart of environmental governance, with a particular emphasis on promoting the needs and voices of those suffering from poverty and disempowerment. They envision and support more effective forms of environmental governance and social mobilisation in countries across the world through research, engagement, international conferences and online teaching programmes.
Enterprise Centre Building UEA
When this multiple award-winning Centre opened in 2015, it represented the apogee of UEA’s trail-blazing efforts in campus energy efficiency and building sustainability which started in the 1990s. It was the first large-scale building assigned Passivhaus Certification and BREEAM Outstanding Status. Local and recycled materials were used in its construction where possible. And 30% of its electricity consumption is generated through solar panels. A performance monitoring network and in-built flexibility also enable the testing of new materials for research and demonstration. Further, the Centre has a strong focus on supporting and developing partnerships with low-carbon innovation businesses.
School of Environmental Sciences wins Queen’s Anniversary Prize
To mark its 50th anniversary the UEA School of Environmental Sciences received the highest National Honour awarded to UK colleges and universities - ‘In 1967 UEA established the interdisciplinary School of Environmental Sciences. The purpose was to combine research and teaching in the natural, social, and environmental sciences in order to better understand and address emerging global environmental phenomena. Today we have a better appreciation of the world’s complex environmental concerns which is partly due to the University’s lead role in building scientific understanding and public awareness, creating a widely accepted approach for academic institutions and leading by example in caring for the environment.’
In September 2019 the research umbrella ‘ClimateUEA’ was established, encompassing 18 schools across all 4 faculties of UEA and connecting with partnering institutions across the NRP and further afield including CEFAS and Anglian Water. Six cross-disciplinary climate-focused research pillars underpin ClimateUEA: 1. ‘Capturing the critical decade for climate change’, 2. ‘Developing resilience through climate narrative’, 3. ‘Understanding the climate system and its interactions with society’, 4. ‘Tackling poverty through action on climate change’, 5. ‘Climate innovation’, and 6. ‘Seizing the power of natural capital in a changing climate’.
ClimateUEA is Chaired by Prof. Konstantinos Chalvatzis (Professor of Sustainable Energy Business), with the theme overseen by a full-time Executive Officer Dr Natalie Porter and Administrator Louise Ulph. An internal leadership group, with intellectual power and representation from across UEA steers ClimateUEA activities. Membership includes: Prof. Fiona Lettice (Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation), Prof. Corinne Le Quéré (CBE, FRS and Royal Society Research Professor of Climate Change Science), Prof. Robert Nicholls (Director of the Tyndall Centre and Professor of Climate Adaptation), Prof. Peter Liss (CBE, FRS and Emeritus Professor of Environmental Sciences), Prof. Andrew Lovett (Professor of Geography), Prof. Manoj Joshi (Professor of Climate Dynamics), Prof. Roger Few (Professor of International Development), Prof. Jean McNeil (FRSA, FRGS, Professor of Creative Writing), Dr Jo Geere (Director of the UEA Water Security Research Centre) and Mr Asher Minns (Executive Director of the Tyndall Centre).
Revival of ‘The Contingency Plan’
Created in 1970, the Creative Writing programme at UEA has an impressive global reputation with graduates including Sir Kazuo Ishiguro (Nobel Prize winner), Ian McEwan, Tracey Chevalier and Anne Enright. Novels, poetry and plays published by UEA graduates reflect the importance of environmental concerns and illustrate the strong interaction between the environment and literature fostered here. In October 2022, UEA Professor of Drama, Steve Waters, from the UEA School of Language Drama and Creative Writing, revived his original 2009 play ‘The Contingency Plan’ at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. A double-bill comprising ‘On The Beach’ and ‘Resilience’, the play comprehensively deals with the climate emergency we face.