Memorandum submitted by the Natural Environment
Research Council (NERC)
1. The Natural Environment Research Council
(NERC) welcomes this opportunity to provide evidence into the
Committee's enquiry into scientific advice on climate change.
2. NERC is the UK's leading organisation
for basic, strategic and applied research and training across
the spectrum of the environmental sciences. NERC's purpose is
to support high quality scientific research, survey, monitoring
and postgraduate training with the objective of enhancing knowledge,
understanding and prediction of the environment and its resources.
NERC achieves this through its support of scientists at universities
and through its own Centres and Surveys: the British Antarctic
Survey (BAS), the British Geological Survey (BGS), the Centre
for Coastal and Marine Sciences (CCMS), the Centre for Ecology
and Hydrology (CEH) and the Southampton Oceanography Centre (SOCa
joint venture with the University of Southampton).
3. NERC considers knowledge transfer, including
provision of advice based on its scientific research, to be a
key element of delivering its mission. Provision of scientific
advice is governed by guidelines drawn up by the government's
Chief Scientific Adviser. NERC is contributing to a current DTI
consultation exercise with a view to updating these guidelines.
4. Our evidence, which includes comments
from NERC's Centres, Surveys and University units, is structured
around four main headings in order to cover the questions posed
by the Committee.
Research and other activities funded by NERC in
relation to climate change
5. In setting NERC's Science Budget allocation
for the current planning period (1999-02), the government gave
NERC three priorities one of which is "to develop a climate
research agenda, including joint work with EPSRC (Engineering
and Physical Sciences Research Council) and ESRC (Economic and
Social Research Council)".
6. In December 1998 NERC set up a small
ad hoc group chaired by Professor Brian Hoskins FRS (Reading
University) to examine the coherence of NERC's climate change
research portfolio, particularly with regard to future UK climate
change research needs and in the context of research supported
by other Research Councils. The group concluded that: NERC had
a coherent suite of climate change programmes (examples summarised
at Annex 1); linkages with EPSRC would need to be formed in the
area of marine renewable energy, possibly through the Climate
Change Centre (see paragraph 7); and there was more research required
in land-vegetation-atmospheric modelling. The group endorsed the
links with Government Departments and the links between NERC's
modelling of the climate system and the work of the Hadley Centre.
7. NERC, together with EPSRC and ESRC is
establishing a new interdisciplinary Climate Change Centre. Up
to £10 million will be available over five years for the
Centre to conduct innovative research, integrated across environmental,
technological, and socio-economic disciplines. Collaboration with
other groups in the UK and abroad will be important. Through integrated
research, the Centre aims to help society find sustainable solutions
to the problems posed by climate change. Solutions will involve
mitigating against climate change, as well as adapting to its
inevitable impacts. The Centre will be required to utilise and
create effective mechanisms for turning relevant research results
into scientific advice to government and business. The DTI has
pledged a further £70K per annum to support the centre's
business liaison activities.
Assessments of the validity or otherwise of climate
8. A senior SOC scientist has been advising
climate modellers from the USA, UK, Germany and elsewhere on the
ocean model requirement for good reliable climate predictions,
including the need for higher resolution models to avoid over
emphasis of the chances of catastrophic climate change around
the North Atlantic.
9. NERC is funding a new thematic programme
PRESCIENT (Palaeoclimate Research and Earth System Modelling for
Enhanced Climatic and Environmental Prediction). The programme
will provide high quality, high resolution palaeoenvironmental
data to enable rigorous testing of the capabilities and reliability
of General Circulation Models (GCMs). A specific focus will be
on increasing the sophistication and versatility of the Hadley
Centre's Earth System model. This will improve our ability to
disentangle natural and anthropogenic climate change and allow
greater confidence in the detection and attribution of human-induced
climate change through a better understanding of natural climate
Investigation into the possible alternative explanations
for apparent trends in climate change other than increasing concentrations
10. In 1995 the Inter-governmental Panel
on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded, "the balance of evidence
suggests a discernible human influence on global climate".
However at the present time we cannot be sure of the extent of
this influence. Not enough is known about positive and negative
feedback to model climate change as a function of atmospheric
change. Therefore current natural changes cannot be fully separated
from anthropogenic change.
11. Science may still not have identified
all the potential contributors to global climate change. Recent
research at the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory has shown how measures
of geomagnetic activity can be used as a monitor of changes in
solar irradiance. Using records from a UK magnetic observatory
extending over 130 years UK researchers have found that increases
in solar output over that time could be sufficient to account
for at least some of the observed rise in global temperature over
the last 30 years.
12. NERC is in discussion with the Particle
Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) concerning a possible
joint research programme to investigate solar variability and
its role in climate change.
13. To understand the possible significance
of alternative explanations, more attention should be given to
the modelling and prediction of climate changes that occurred
naturally either side of the last ice age. Historical data can
be an invaluable resource. TIGGER (Geological Aspects of Terrestrial
Initiative in Global Environmental Research) a NERC programme
which has now finished, considered a series of proxy data for
the past climate change. This provided valuable insights into
our knowledge of climatic and ecological change over the past
millennia. Similar insights are possible through RGGE (Rapid Global
Geological Events) and the now closed NEAPACC (North East Atlantic
Palaeoceanography and Climate Change) NERC thematic programmes.
The geological record could be used to a greater extent in the
calibration of climate change models.
14. The global carbon budget remains one
of the major uncertainties in the earth system. As part of the
International Geosphere Biosphere Programme (IGBP) CCMS have been
carrying out research for the Joint Global Ocean Flux Study (JGOFS)
into sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere. The project
includes experiments designed to increase ocean carbon sequestration
by the addition of iron to the system.
15. Methane and methane hydrates could also
play an important role in the future. The Ocean Drilling Programme
(ODP), an international research effort aimed at scientific investigations
beneath the seabed, has discovered that there are huge masses
of methane producing bacteria living within the sediments beneath
the Earth's ocean basins. The methane, generated by these bacteria
can escape by percolating through the seabed, into the oceans
and then into the atmosphere. It could be a significant component
of the greenhouse gas equation.
16. The rate of escape of this gas is moderated
by the extent of the methane hydrate cap, within the deep continental
margin sediments. Methane hydrate is a compound of methane and
water that forms an ice-like substance under conditions of high
pressure and low temperature. More methane could exist as methane
hydrate than all the known reserves of natural gas, worldwide.
This makes methane hydrate a vast potential source of energy,
but also a huge natural driving force in global climate variability.
Under the relatively stable conditions the temperature of the
deep ocean keeps the methane hydrate cap relatively stable. However
any warming could destabilise the hydrate cap and release huge
pulses of methane into the atmosphere. Further research is needed
to determine the global extent of methane generating bacteria,
methane hydrates and the temperature variability of deep oceanic
bottom waters, along continental margins.
Scientific advice on climate change based on NERC
research and uptake by Government
17. In 1997 Sir Robert May FRS, the Chief
Scientific Adviser published a note on his own personal view on
climate change. He also made the following comments about climate
change research in the UK "Ultimately the problem of climate
change demands international co-operation and co-ordination. The
quality of the UK's contribution to research on climate change
is strong and out of all proportion to our relative size. We should
aim to maintain this strength, so as to have international policy
underpinned by fundamental understanding, to maintain our position
of international and scientific leadership in this area, and to
help persuade the world's sceptics that climate change is a real
and serious problem". These comments emphasise the importance
of the research that is carried by NERC and other bodies in the
18. NERC research underpins scientific advice
to government through a variety of direct and indirect routes,
with key examples given in the following paragraphs. Concordats
between NERC and key government departments and agencies (including
DETR, MAFF and Environment Agency) provide formal communication
channels to help ensure that NERC gets its message across effectively.
NERC science has been used in other ways including:
NERC contributed to the ACBE study
Climate Change: A Strategic Issue for Business published
in March 1998.
NERC has made many and various inputs
to the three assessments of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC), both through staff as scientific experts and through
its programmes, for example the International Permanent Mean Sea
Level (PSMSL) recorded and held by CCMS.
NERC collaborates with the Hadley
Centre for Climate Prediction and Research for access to General
Circulation Models (GCMs). Only through GCMs can process studies
and case studies be used to benefit the understanding of the entire
Earth System. Government, through DETR, benefits directly from
DETR has commissioned a report, involving
the participation of NERC scientists, to study the risk of a collapse
of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the consequences for the future
of sea level.
A briefing note was produced by NERC
during the run up to the 1997 Kyoto Conference (copy attached).
This took the approach of outlining the scientific certainties
and uncertainties of the facts and consequences of climate change.
A senior scientist at SOC has been
an advisor for about 10 years, to a World Meteorological Organisation
committee on the science of climate change prediction.
Scientists from CEH have provided,
under contract to DETR, independent estimates of the UK emissions
of nitrous oxide and methane.
Antarctic observations carried out
over a 38 year period have revealed a systematic contraction of
the neutral (unionised) atmosphere. This change is consistent
with cooling induced by greenhouse gas concentrations and provides
further evidence for the reality of anthropogenic climate change.
19. In general, Government departments are
in a better position to comment on the value of advice based on
NERC research and the extent of its uptake in the development
of policy. However, NERC can point to a number of specific areas
where the government has clearly acted on scientific advice resulting
from NEC climate change programmes:
Data extending over a 30 year period
collected by BAS established the existence of ozone loss in the
springtime Antarctic stratosphere. The time series now extends
to 45 years, and the last 15 years have seen a further halving
of ozone concentrations and the stratospheric cooling now extending
into the summer. There is no doubt that the discovery of the ozone
hole by BAS scientists spurred international action to eliminate
DETR has a contract with CEH to provide
annual estimates of the UK inventory of carbon sources and sinks
involving plants and soil. The methods and results form part of
the UK report submitted under the United Nations Framework Convention
on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and are used by DETR in discussions
within the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice.
Under contract, CEH provides DETR
with assessments of the impacts on global ecosystems of future
climates predicted by the Hadley Centre.
The first set of Indicators of Climate
Change in the UK that provided evidence that change is occurring
were defined by a team from CEH, under contract to DETR. The report
and the website were launched by the Minister for the Environment
Work by CCMS for MAFF has been used
as a basis to plan coastal defence measures.