UEA’s Climatic Research Unit turns 50

Published by  Communications

On 1st Aug 2022

Hubert Lamb Building

“I am looking forward to a diverse range of exciting celebratory events to mark this important year for the Climatic Research Unit (CRU), which is widely recognised as one of the world’s leading institutions concerned with the study of climate change.”

Professor Tim Osborn (CRU Research Director)

Visionary supporters like the Wolfson Foundation helped establish the Climatic Research Unit back in the 1970s, long before climate change developed into an enormous global issue.

Pioneering research

The realisation that the climate could undergo significant change in the span of a human lifetime was the reason behind the founding of the Climatic Research Unit within the UEA School of Environmental Sciences in 1972.

Its early priority was to ‘establish the past record of climate over as much of the world as possible, as far back in time as was feasible’. The project attracted a number of early philanthropic backers, including the Wolfson Foundation’s first ever gift to UEA, now one of many.

In 1978, the Unit began what would become a historic first for climate science. A global dataset of temperature observations over land was followed by the marine sector in 1986, producing the first-ever global temperature record. The research team demonstrated unequivocally that the globe has warmed since 1850. It is humbling to think that without that early work, today’s carbon targets and climate goals may not have been possible.

Professor Phil Jones (Former Director of CRU) said, “I joined CRU in November 1976, when the study of climate change was in its infancy. Now it is front page news when IPCC reports come out and COP events take place.”

A transformative gift

In 1986, Wolfson funded a new home for the Climatic Research Unit, where it still resides today. The Hubert Lamb Building was named after the Unit’s founder and first Director.

Professor Lamb dared to ‘do different’ when it came to fundraising. When his traditional academic grant applications proved fruitless, he went to the media with his concern that the Climatic Research Unit may be forced to close without additional support.

The professor said of this time, “It soon turned out to be very difficult to attract the money needed for a programme of systematically establishing the past record.” The Unit was, he continued, “almost entirely dependent in those initial stages on whatever research on any topic might be commissioned by outside funding agencies.”

An opinion piece followed in the journal Nature, rallying support. The article had the desired effect - Prof Lamb soon received funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and then the Wolfson Foundation.

Wolfson says of the Climatic Research Unit, “Arguably their study of historic temperature records has done more than anything else to focus national and global attention - and action - on tackling climate change over the past three decades.”

At the time of his death, Prof Lamb was described as “the greatest climatologist of his time” by the Unit’s then-director, Trevor Davies.

Today, the Unit consists of research scientists and students concerned with the study of natural and anthropogenic climate change. The team continue to produce datasets that are used worldwide, alongside statistical software packages and climate models.

Wolfson and climate change

While the Climatic Research Unit at UEA was one of the Wolfson Foundation’s earliest examples of support for climate change work, there have been many examples in the years since, including the Brain STaR lab and the new Wellcome-Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre, which opened for scientific research in 2021.

 Thank you to the Wolfson Foundation for all their visionary support of climate change research at UEA.

Climate change research at UEA

While the Climatic Research Unit must be the jewel in UEA’s environmental crown, there are also a number of important projects happening during this critical decade for climate change. Passionate philanthropists continue to power globally significant research at the University – but more support is needed.

The Observatory for Climate Recovery will exploit the modern-day explosion of data to capture and understand climate trends in real-time. ScienceBrief is an ambitious online platform to collate peer-reviewed climate research and data. The Research Centre for Ecosystems and Climate Sustainability will seek to understand the pressures our ecosystems face and how ‘nature-based solutions’could mitigate the impacts of climate change. And the UEA Polar Initiative seeks to understand the mechanisms behind sea ice loss and its impact on arctic ecosystems.

If you would like to support climate change research at UEA, find out more

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