Professor Dame Julia Slingo: Climate research for the 21st century


The achievements and future directions of the World Climate Research Programme are outlined in a Nature Climate Change interview with Professor Dame Julia Slingo, who led a comprehensive review of the WMO co-sponsored programme.

She talks about the history and strengths of WCRP, explaining that it "plays a unique role in facilitating and integrating climate research where international coordination enables scientific advances that would not happen otherwise."

1st World Climate Conference February 1979

The First World Climate Conference in February 1979, which was convened to assess the state of knowledge of climate and to consider the effects of climate variability and change on human society, led to the establishment of the WCRP in 1980. It was set up under the joint sponsorship of the International Council for Science (now the International Science Council) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). In 1993, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO also became a sponsor.

Since its inception, WCRP has focused on cutting-edge physical climate science, with its mission to determine (i) to what extent climate can be predicted, and (ii) the extent of human influence on climate. As it approaches its 40th anniversary, the sponsors of WCRP commissioned a major review of the programme to ascertain its effectiveness in addressing 21st century demands for climate information on all timescales from months to centuries and on all space scales from the global to the local.

Earth system processes

“Since WCRP was created, climate science has evolved substantially. Advances in fundamental science, in observing the climate system and in complex simulations, combined with the exploitation of cutting-edge technologies, such as satellites and supercomputers, have revolutionised our understanding of the weather and climate we experience, and have enabled us to forecast its future behaviour with ever-increasing skill.  Climate science now engages many different disciplines beyond meteorology to oceanography, chemistry and biology. Climate models no longer consider just the physical climate system but increasingly include Earth system processes such as the carbon cycle,” says Dame Slingo, the former chief scientists of the UK’s Met Office.

“At the same time, the need for climate information on all space and time scales has led to the recognition that weather science is fundamental to climate science, that the same fundamental meteorology underpins them both, and that more seamless thinking across weather forecasting and climate prediction will be increasingly important. After all, we know that the biggest impacts of climate change will be felt through high impact weather, such as floods, storm surges and heatwaves, and so a much closer cooperation is needed between the two communities, with greater alignment of their fundamental research, model development and prediction activities.”

WCRP does not fund research directly, but plays a unique role in facilitating and integrating climate research where international coordination enables scientific advances that would not happen otherwise

Community engagement in WCRP is broad and strong, and the WCRP is recognised and valued for providing opportunities to work collaboratively to the greater benefit of the science. The statistics are staggering. For the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report, the WCRP community generated 2 petabytes of climate simulation data and over 850 scientists from 55 countries reviewed more than 9,200 published papers. It was on the basis of this evidence that countries signed up to the Paris Agreement on climate change to limit global warming to 2°C and, if possible, 1.5°C.

Dame Julia Slingo interview in Nature Climate Change on WCRP

“With the Paris Agreement, it might be tempting to conclude that climate research has provided the answers – the world is warming and that it is due to us – and that all is needed now are the technological advances to deal with the sources and effects of that warming.  On the contrary, the review argues that core, underpinning climate science, which WCRP helps to deliver, is needed more than ever before, as society seeks solutions to the impacts of climate change (Paris Agreement), to resilience to disasters (Sendai Agreement), and to sustainable development for the planet (UN Sustainable Development Goals),” says Dame Slingo in the Nature Climate Change interview.

What does the future look like for WCRP

“Recalling the two principle aims of the WCRP, which are to determine “To what extent climate can be predicted, and the extent of man’s influence on climate,” these should be the two core pillars for the future. These pillars will need to take a holistic view of the climate system – bringing together the separate components, and considering the synergistic relationship between weather, climate variability and climate change. …. In achieving these two core aims, WCRP will need to ensure that they are underpinned by a third pillar on fundamental research on Earth system processes across timescales _ for example from the fast scales of organized cumulus convection to the slow scales of dynamic vegetation and melting ice-sheets,” according to Dame Slingo.

“These three enduring core pillars are designed to nurture long-term expertise and capabilities. At the same time, it will be essential that WCRP addresses key scientific problems with explicit societal relevance, which need to be addressed urgently, though international cooperation, for specific impact and policy drivers,” she says.

“To this end, WCRP will support a set of high-profile but time-limited crosscutting research projects such as regional sea-level rise, coastal Impacts and cities; weather and climate extremes, now and in the future; water cycle and the food baskets of the world; and the fate of the Antarctic and Greenland Ice sheets. These will enable WCRP to maintain a vibrant research portfolio, to engage with a broader cohort of scientists, and to enthuse and foster the next generation of science leaders.”

“Acting as the recognized, international and collective voice for climate science, WCRP must continue to play a critical advocacy role, interacting strategically with research funders and governments to ensure that society has access to the best possible scientific evidence. With the emergence of holistic Earth system modelling of seamless weather and climate science, of the increasing skill and reliability of climate prediction, and the growing requirement for an increasing range of climate projections, from the global to the local, to guide resilience, adaptation and mitigation actions, WCRP is needed now more than ever before,” says Dame Slingo.

Source: WMO

Editor Hao Jing