The invention of atmospheric science

At the outset of the twenty-first century, the remit of atmospheric science would have been beyond the imagination of the early pioneers of the subject. Investigations into the atmosphere began long before the term ‘atmospheric science’ was coined in the 1950s. What started as a meteorological enterprise, focussed largely on surface weather conditions, was transformed under the development of new technologies and observational capabilities.

Atmospheric science was buoyed by the invention of the supercomputer in the 1950s, opening the door for mathematical simulations of the atmosphere, and by 1967 the first computer model of the earth’s climate was produced. Atmospheric science depended on cross-disciplinary collaborations, and could combine aspects of mathematics, chemistry, physics and meteorology. Inevitably, as research capabilities started to improve so too did the complexity of the task facing scientists. By the 1990s the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council were funding several large thematic programmes into various strands of atmospheric science.

In the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) 1997 Portfolio Planning Exercise, UK atmospheric science was identified as being ‘at a very high level internationally.’ However, the UK government supported atmospheric science through a set of individual centres and programmes dispersed across the country at various universities and faculties, which offered little long-term security to the atmospheric research community, and made it difficult for scientists to collaborate or share resources.

Securing the long-term health of UK atmospheric science

The NERC Atmospheric Science and Technology Board, who were responsible for developing funding strategy, proposed a significant restructuring exercise in the early twenty-first century. The board was composed of members of the atmospheric science community and chaired by Mike Pilling. This was an influential group of individuals at the forefront of relatively young scientific discipline, who felt responsible for securing the long-term health of UK atmospheric science.

In 2001, the NERC Atmospheric Science and Technology Board put forward a proposal to create a new centre for atmospheric science. Board members argued that an umbrella institution could provide long-term stability for atmospheric science by coordinating not only research, but facilities too. The organisation would “refocus existing resources” and serve to facilitate links between the different strands of atmospheric science: climate processes, air composition, and weather. The centre for atmospheric science would also manage the observational and data facilities required by the atmospheric science community.

Creating a national centre

The new National Centre for Atmospheric Science would sit above both the observational and data management facilities, providing support and coordination. There was a management group composed of the directors and heads of the centres and facilities, chaired by the director of NCAS. There was also a steering committee, including independent atmospheric science experts and key stakeholders, which was responsible for guiding and reviewing the development of NCAS.

Over time, the National Centre for Atmospheric Science has increased its visibility and reputation within the global science community. NCAS has formed key research partnerships in the UK, including with the Meteorological Office and the Environment Agency, undertaken independent reviews for BBC weather forecasting, and emissions monitoring for oil company Total.

Across the globe, NCAS has formed strong links with leading organisations. NCAS is closely tied to the U.S National Centre for Atmospheric Research, especially in regards to climate models. In Africa, NCAS is involved with pioneering weather research, bringing together researchers from universities and meteorological institutions in Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal. In Europe, NCAS has links with a variety of atmospheric research centres and was responsible for leading the scientific investigation into the Icelandic Eyjafjallajokull volcanic eruption, a major global incident. In 2018, The International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) invited five climate experts from NCAS and NCAS-funded projects to participate in their sixth assessment report, which helps to update and inform the Paris Agreement.