Preparing the scientific response to increasing climate challenges

The recent run of storms Dudley, Eunice and Franklin have brought into sharp focus the huge value of being able to forecast, and prepare for, extreme weather.

Whilst the jury is still out on the role of climate change in these storms, we do know that climate change will bring more heat waves and more flooding, and not just in the UK but across the world, write Professor Stephen Belcher (Met Office Chief Scientist) and Professor Jason Lowe OBE (Met Office Principal Fellow Applied & Climate Science).

African farmer watering cabbage crop
African farmers now benefit from long-range weather forecasts and weather warnings for rainfall to manage their crops. Picture: Shutterstock.

Today the IPCC publishes the second part of its 6th Assessment of climate change from the Working Group II on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability to climate change. The report shows that the impacts of climate change are more severe than previously thought, and that the risks are increasing. There are stark warnings that flooding, heat waves affecting health and damaging wildfires are becoming more severe, and that the effects are being felt sooner than previously thought. In many parts of the world, we are not even resilient to present day climate.

Whilst the new Working Group II report makes it clear that every nation is vulnerable to climate change, some nations are much more vulnerable than others. So, the need to adapt to future climate is a strong imperative, in addition to the urgent need to decarbonise and ensure we minimise the damage by limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.  

How can science and innovation support this transformational change?  

Firstly, we need to know just how extreme the weather events will be, and their character at the local scales on which impacts happen. This requires a new type of modelling that combines our current physics-based climate models of the weather systems with the power of AI to create data that reveals the evolving character of future weather extremes at the granular level where impacts occur. Early steps on this path show great promise: the UK’s climate projections, UKCP18, have new modelling that provides more confidence in changes to short-lived intense rainfall enabling more effective adaptations. For example, recent work by Newcastle University, the Met Office, JBA consulting and other industry partners has used the most spatially detailed climate information from UKCP18 to quantify upgrades required to city drainage systems to prepare for future flooding.   

Secondly, we need to get better at building the multi-disciplinary teams required to move from the hazards presented by extreme weather to the impacts of these weather events, and then to identify, plan and implement good adaptation. This means giving a clear voice to the local people affected by the extreme weather, alongside climate specialists, engineers, architects, city planners, and local and national government. Recently, the Met Office and several city councils have come together to develop climate change city packs, which identify the risks of climate change. This has informed Bristol City Council’s Heat Resilience Framework, which combines local knowledge of thresholds associated with high temperature impacts on health and wellbeing with climate projections to make them more meaningful to future planning.  

Thirdly, adaptation comes in many forms. In some situations, early warning might be the right approach. For example, African farmers now benefit from long-range weather forecasts and weather warnings for rainfall to manage their crops. In other situations, such as large-scale infrastructure like the Thames Barrier, when large investment is required, a risk assessment that includes both the most likely future outcome and reasonable worst-case scenarios, in this case for sea level rise, might be a better approach. Nature-based solutions can also offer appropriate routes to adaptation.

Recently, Met Office climate data has been used by the National Trust to map their exposure to the changing climate and to improve their resilience. Their specialists are now acting, for example by restoring and protecting peatlands, which are vital stores of carbon as well as important habitats for a range of plant and animal species.    

Last November the COP26 conference in Glasgow rightly shone a light on the need move to net-zero greenhouse emissions to stabilise global warming below 1.5 degrees. But our climate has changed and will continue to change until we achieve net zero emissions. Whilst there are good examples of adaptation, the IPCC report shows that we need to move faster and on a larger scale. We need science and innovation to bring about a transformation to societies, making them resilient to climate change. 

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