University of East Anglia celebrates centenary of climate pioneer

A celebration of the pioneering climate scientist Hubert Lamb, who founded the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, takes place today.

It is now widely accepted that climate change is happening. But there was a time not so long ago when few would have even considered this idea, let alone the possibility that it could be attributed to human activity.

The ‘Hubert Lamb Centenary Meeting’ will see eminent meteorologists and climatologists from around Europe present a day of talks which highlight his ground-breaking early work and show how climate science has progressed.

The event includes an exhibition of posters relating to the research of Hubert Lamb and previously unseen archive material – much of which focuses on the impact of historical meteorological events in Norfolk.

Topics of the talks will include Lamb’s ‘treasure trove’ of ships’ logbooks – a rich source of information on past climates, and how researchers including Lamb have pieced together climate records for the Middle Ages from documents written at the time. Attendees will also hear about how the climate of Iceland and Greenland has been reconstructed using documentary sources such as the Icelandic sagas.

Dr Richard Cornes from UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences will talk about early instrumental data and North Sea Storms and Prof Giles Foden from the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing will give a lecture on the links between second world war meteorology and literature. 

Climatic Research Unit (CRU) director Prof Phil Jones said: “Hubert Lamb did more than any other scientist of his generation to make the academic community aware of climate change and variability. He was the founding director of CRU back in 1972 – at a time when the study of climate change was still in its infancy.

“At that time very little was known about climate change. Hubert believed the world was gradually cooling - but building on his pioneering work we now know the opposite is true, and that between 1880 and now the world has warmed significantly.

“We are very much looking forward to this celebration of what would be Hubert’s 100th birthday.”

The event has been organised by the Royal Meteorological Society in conjunction with UEA and CRU, and supported by the Norwich Millennium Library.

The exhibition of posters and archive material will be moved to the Millennium Library at the Forum in Norwich for public display from September 17 – 25.

Biography:

Hubert Lamb was born on September 22, 1913. In his autobiography ‘Through all the Changing Scenes of Life’ he recalls the ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ attitudes that prevailed both at home and at his public school Oundle, and declares that this strict upbringing made him sceptical of most authorities.

He gained an early interest in polar exploration and meteorology and rejected mathematics favoured by his father to read natural sciences and later geography at Trinity College, Cambridge.

He went on to work at the Met Office where he used historical data to reconstruct monthly barometric pressure maps for the North Atlantic and Europe back as far as 1750. It was here that he noticed changes in the atmospheric pressure and wind patterns that would be significant not just geologically, but at timescales important to humankind.

In the 1960s, he went on to draw attention to a warm period from 900 to 1200 and a "Little Ice Age" between 1550 and 1850.

In 1972, Lamb became founding director of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) within UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences. He understood that the climate had varied in the past, but was still to be convinced humans were now playing a role.

But CRU’s work in compiling global temperature records was beginning to convince scientists that increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases must be driving the change.

After Lamb’s retirement in 1979, researchers at the unit continued his quest to understand climate change. Their findings have become central to what is now known – including the extent to which it is attributable to humans and its impact on extreme weather events.

By the time of his death in 1997, Lamb had done more than any other scientist of his generation to make the academic community aware of climate change. In 2006, a EurekaUK report cited his work as among the 100 world-changing discoveries to come out of the UK in the last 50 years.