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The Carbon Brief Interview: Prof Dame Julia Slingo OBE

Posted on 1 June 2015 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Carbon Brief by Leo Hickman

Prof Dame Julia Slingo has been the chief scientist at the Met Office since February 2009. Before joining the Met Office, she was the director of climate research in NERC's National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading. In 2008, she became the first female president of the Royal Meteorological Society. Earlier this month, she was made a fellow of the Royal Society.

On the 2013/14 winter flooding in the UK: "I can't give a definitive answer, but all the evidence points to the potential for climate change to have played a role."

The Met Office's new supercomputer: "It gives me more confidence in the advice we give to government, to businesses, to public on what climate change might look like."

On adaptation: "There's no point putting in flood defences that respond to mean climate change if you haven't thought of what a one-in-a-hundred-year event will look like in a warmer world."

On overinterpreting short-term temperature trends: "There are real issues with looking at too short a time period to define what we believe is climate sensitivity."

On the reliability of climate models: "Do I think our models run too warm? No, I don't."

The impact of privatising the Met Office on science: "Oh, it would fundamentally change it … We would not be able to access the observations we need for weather forecasting, let alone climate."

On transparency and open access to data: "Let's be clear, everything that's paid for by the public purse is freely and openly available."

On whether we can expect an El Niño this year: "It's very early days. We're right at the period where there's a lot of uncertainty, and we're watching it with great interest."

On whether Arctic ice melt is influencing northern hemisphere weather: "We have done a lot of research here to try and nail this question … and it's very hard to find any clear evidence yet."

On why surface temperature rise has slowed recently: "Well, I think I'm fairly convinced … there has been heat sequestered into the deeper ocean."

On dealing with personal attacks: "The way to avoid it, of course, is not to say anything. But that's not the right thing to do." 

CB: A year on from the flooding episode in the UK, what would you say the Met Office learned from the media scrutiny over the way you and your scientists discussed attribution to human-induced climate change? What, if anything, would the Met Office do differently now? 

JS: We wouldn't do anything differently now. What we knew then - and I'm absolutely sure is still the case - is that it's really important to put the depth of the science and the scientific arguments, the breadth of the scientific arguments, out there alongside any statement that we might wish to make about whether there was a role for climate change in the severity of the event. We did that. We did it very well. There are those who were not pleased with what I personally said. But, actually, I wrote the paper that contained all the scientific evidence and that evidence is still as strong as it was a year ago. And I did challenge them at the time to come out with a counter-argument based on fundamental science and they didn't. So, for me, I put the science out there, I put all the evidence in the peer-reviewed literature on the theory of climate change, on the theory of how the atmosphere and the Earth's climate works, and that still holds. I think we used language very carefully. And the other thing to say is that right through my time as chief scientist I've been absolutely clear that the language has to reflect the degree of confidence that we have in the scientific evidence. So, I was very clear that, no, I can't give a definitive answer, but all the evidence points to the potential for climate change to have played a role in the severe weather.

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CB: What would you say if you could write a letter to the Julia Slingo leaving Imperial College in her early 20s and heading to the Met Office to take her first job. What advice would you give her?

JS: Well, first of all I wasn't at Imperial College. So, I wasn't leaving Imperial College, I was leaving Bristol University to join the Met Office.

CB: OK, sorry, that was poor research on my behalf. But the principle being, what advice would you give your young self, as a young scientist, looking back at all that you've learnt in your career?

JS: I don't think I would have changed the way that I've always approached my science, which is out of deep curiosity to understand whatever it is I'm working on in greater detail.  To try and do the most rigorous, the best science, to write really clear papers for publication, to describe the research I've done and always to strive to solve the next problem. I've never been one that does science because somebody else is presenting me with either a political agenda or a business agenda. I've always been curiosity-driven and it's always given me enormous pleasure. So that's why I came into meteorology, because I could see physics working outside. Looking through the window, you can see physics in action. And that hasn't fundamentally changed for me. I still love to find out new things, learn new things.

CB: As a scientist, what areas of discovery and challenge most excite you?

JS: I still think it's the relationship between weather and climate. The relationship between the fundamental phenomena in the atmosphere, which are our weather systems - and equally in the oceans, the fundamental systems in the ocean, the ocean circulation and, if you like, the ocean weather, the eddies and so forth - and how much they act, and they do act, to drive the mean climate that we experience. And it's the relationship between the two that I'm still deeply interested in. So, how does natural climate variability affect weather patterns? And how does that predispose us to more extreme weather or less extreme weather? And how climate change alters the nature of those patterns and those types of climate variability. And what the weather will be like. So, that's what's always interested me.

CB: How are you directing the science being conducted here [at the Met Office], in terms of solving some of those challenges?

JS: I'm in a very privileged position and I'm enormously grateful to being appointed the chief scientist because, actually, I oversee the science of everything from forecasting local weather for the next hour or two, right out to long-term climate change for the whole earth system. And there aren't any other jobs like that, I think, really, anywhere else in the world.  So, it is a great privilege. And what I did when I came here as chief scientist was say that the science is actually common across all these things; the climate is just the statistics of the weather. So, if you're going to do climate, you've got to be able to understand and model the weather. Therefore, let's bring all the science together and allow it to feed off each other. And that's been enormously successful and, actually, it's really enriched the science that we do here. For example, we know the oceans play an absolutely critical role in the climate system. But, actually, the research that I'd done before I came here had also shown me that the ocean plays quite an interesting role in determining weather patterns on timescales of a few days and a few weeks. So, here we are putting an interactive ocean into our weather forecasting model, something that perhaps you would not have thought was necessary. But, actually, the fundamental science is the same. The weather is what you need to understand and be able to simulate if you're actually going to talk about long-term climate, long-term climate change. It's one and the same physics.

CB: I understand that you've got a new supercomputer. How will you make best use of that? And what will be your priorities with that in the months and years ahead?

JS: Yes, so this was a fantastic investment by UK government, in some respects a recognition of the science and services that the Met Office provides. A lot of it will be used to improve local weather forecasting, particularly high-impact weather, and really advancing this idea of taking a risk-based, early-warning approach to high-impact weather. But, of course, it will allow us also to make some major advances in climate science, and that's not just for climate change, but, actually, it's as much about climate prediction for the next season ahead, maybe the next few years ahead. And it will allow us, actually, to get the level of granularity into our climate models that takes us much, much closer to our weather forecasting models. And, therefore, here we are again being able to simulate the weather, and indeed the ocean currents, with much greater fidelity because we've got more computer power. It gives me more confidence in the advice we give to government, to businesses, to the public on what climate change might look like for you where you live and the way you want to live your life.  So, that's what I'm looking for with this. 

CB: Can you give a sense of what that increased resolution or fidelity will give the policymaker or the member of the public?

JS: Yes. So, I think the policymakers are now... It's not just about mitigation, it's not just about staying within a 2C global mean temperature increase. It's going to be about how do I adapt to inevitable climate change, because there is some inevitable climate change. If you want to talk about adaptation, you've got to know something about the regional climate. But, more than that, you have to know something about the frequency [and] severity of severe weather. There's no point putting in flood defences that respond to mean climate change if you haven't thought of what a one-in-a-hundred-year event will look like in a warmer world. That's what we've got to be able to tell policymakers and that's actually what everybody really wants to know. They don't want to know what the climate will be like, they want to know what the weather will be like in 20, 30, 50 years time.

CB: Can you give an indication of what step up or gear change [the higher modelling resolution] will give you in terms of what you currently do?

JS: We know that the generation of climate models we're now working with are much higher resolution and, therefore, computationally far more expensive. They are getting to the stage now where they can simulate really important weather systems that actually define whether you have a heatwave in summer, or whether you have very heavy rain in winter, and all those sorts of things. I think the models that have, up to now, traditionally been in [the] IPCC [reports] haven't really been able to do that. Their resolution [or] granularity is not high enough to be able to capture the atmospheric processes in the detail they need to be to give us that information on the local regional changes in our weather, which is, ultimately, what we actually feel and what we need to know about. The granularity we're now running our climate models at is pretty close to what we were running weather forecast models only a few years ago, so this is real progress and I know that the characteristics of the climate variability, of the weather and the mean climate, are much more robust as we go to that high resolution.  

CB: Some critics of those models have said that they're running too warm, or that they don't match current observations. How do you respond to that, and how will the new computer potentially resolve that?

JS: It's certainly true that over the last decade, fifteen years or so, the planet hasn't warmed at the rate one would expect simply from the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere. We've made no bones about that, we've been very clear about that and we're beginning to understand why that is. And I think, again, three papers that we put out ahead of the fifth assessment report discuss all of that in great detail and look at how the models are doing, why you wouldn't expect the models necessarily to have captured that slowdown in global warming at the particular time that it's happened. There are real issues with looking at too short a time period to define what we believe is climate sensitivity. And, therefore, some of the statements by people who work on those problems using approaches that are different from ours... they need to be very careful about the length of the record that they use to define that. It's also clear - and I think there needs to be some honesty here - that when people talk about climate sensitivity from observations, observed climate sensitivity, it's not observed. It relies on some models, and the models that are used are in many respects inferior to the models that we would use to assess climate sensitivity. So, I think there needs to be a degree of honesty across the board on what we think is going on here. Do I think our models run too warm? No, I don't. I think we have, going back now over several decades, thought that the climate sensitivity lay within 1.5 to 4.5 degrees. Can we narrow that? Well, potentially, yes, as we go forward with model development. Will it change much with the new supercomputer? It may do. I'm not going to put my hand on heart and say it will. There are many feedbacks going on in the climate system that we probably don't yet fully understand, I'm sure we don't yet fully understand. One of the important things about climate models is that those that say they run too warm will say that they're wrong and I will always say climate models are not wrong; they're incomplete because our knowledge of the climate system is incomplete. We don't fully understand yet how clouds work, how cloud microphysics works. All science's knowledge is incomplete and climate science is no different. Our knowledge is incomplete and our ability to represent the knowledge we have in our climate models is constrained by the computer power we have. I can run models at a kilometre scale, I can run them at a few hundred metres with the same codes that I'm running for climate. I don't have the computer power to do it. So, this is a journey we're all on. It's a journey of increasing our knowledge using theory, observations, models. And it's about driving forward the fidelity of our climate models by seeking more and more computer power to do so, getting them to higher and higher levels of granularity. It's a journey I've been on for 40 years.

CB: In terms of that journey, is there a point when we've got enough science to make some informed policy decisions, or do you think we do need to keep laying on more and more evidence and information in that pursuit for more knowledge around how the climate system works?

JS: We've certainly got enough scientific evidence to make some policy decisions. I have no doubt about that, and the IPCC is very clear on that. Will we have a step change? No, I don't think so. From what I've seen though my career, as it is in many branches of very complex science, it's an evolutionary process. We are so far on from where we were when I first started working in climate science. To be able to talk about attribution of extreme weather events is something, it's really quite extraordinary, and to be able to start giving information on the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events in 50 years time, so that we can plan our adaptation appropriately, it's an amazing achievement. But it needs to go on because even now, there are aspects of the weather and the climate that I know for sure we don't capture in our current climate models, because of constraints of computing power... 

CB: Such as?

JS: Well, I know that because we're running weather forecast models here every day at these much much finer scales. I know what a frontal weather system looks like in a kilometre-scale model and I know what it looks like in a model with a granularity of 50 kilometres. And, you know, if I have my choice I'd choose the one-kilometre model. But we have to work with where we are and use our scientific judgment, which is what we always do here, which is to say, there is information even at the core scales which is really useful to a decision maker. It's not complete, but actually we all live in an uncertain world. There are things one can say that allows a policymaker to make a decision in one direction rather than another. And the really important thing for my job is to make sure the policymaker is as well informed as possible on the fundamental scientific basis of what I'm saying, but also that they understand the incompleteness still of the science story. It goes back to last winter's floods and what I said about climate change. There were things in there that, to some extent, couldn't be disputed. But there were other aspects that were still to be...more research needs to be done and we probably need a longer record of observations and we need to run the models a bit more in different scenarios to look at some aspects of it. It's a judgement all the time of not undermining the certainty, but actually being clear where they will have to take a risk assessment to decide what risk they're prepared to take.

CB: In terms of instructing and helping policymakers looking ahead, will there be a new iteration of the UK climate projections from 2009 [UKCP09]. If so, what will these look like? Will they be probabilistic?

JS: We're looking to update CP09 in the next few years as part of our work for DECC and DEFRA. They'll be very similar in the sense that they'll be probabilistic. There'll be a bit more information on the volatility or variability, if you like, of weather and climate from year to year, rather than just looking at 30-year mean trends and progress through this century. So, there'll be a richer level of information for users to work with, which I think will be incredibly helpful. Because it gets back again to this issue of it's not the mean change that necessarily we're concerned about - it's also the volatility of the weather and the climate around that mean change that we're interested in.

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CB:  You mentioned already about the climate services. Ed Davey's been talking recently about the UK's world-leading climate services and almost suggesting it's part of our offering to the world in the run up to the Paris talks. Can you explain a little bit more what that means?

JS: Well, we've been doing climate services for about 25 years, ever since the Hadley Centre was established in 1990, in the sense that our policy advice to government is a climate service. It's what we give to government to allow them to do what they need to do. So, we don't just do science, we've always done science for something. Now climate services covers a much broader school of things that people need to know about - what will the climate be like this summer? what will the climate be like in five years time? - and that's linking up to natural climate variability, as well as what will climate change look like in 2050 or 2100. So, when we think about climate services, in fact, a lot of what's required of us now is seasonal forecasting, not particularly for the UK, but for the developing world, where it has real, real applications, serious applications. So, the World Meteorological Organisation set up the global framework for climate services a couple of years ago. We were heavily involved in designing that, and it is about pushing climate information, climate predictions, projections, climate monitoring, observations out, so that everybody in the world who has a need for that information can access it. And [it] often means packaging up our climate predictions and projections in ways that are relevant to the customer, and the customer could be the government, of course, policy decision makers, but it could be energy companies on how they should plan their energy supplies in the future, what will the risks be from climate change? It could be the retail sector who want to know what the next growing season will be like around the world and where they should source their coffee or their cocoa. There's a whole raft of things that now fall under climate services, where the use of the intelligence that we hold as climate scientists through our prediction systems can be used to shape decision-making across a whole range of businesses, NGOs, aid agencies, governments around the world. And I think you know, we have a service ethos here from having delivered weather services for decades to an increasingly broad range of customers, not just in government and the public but business that can be also applied to climate information. So, that's where we're going. Are we ahead of the pack here? Well, probably we are because we're unique in the world in having weather and climate in the same organisation, built on the same science, but also pervaded by this service ethos which is what the Met Office is always all about.

CB: What can we done to better protect and archive temperature records and observations around the world? Should more focus and money be spent on this than, say, I don't know, putting satellites into space?

JS: Well, of course, again, I don't think it's an either/or. Earth observation through satellites has transformed weather and climate science in the last 40 years and increasingly tells us so many more things about the earth system, not just the weather and the climate. So, you can't, you wouldn't want to do without those. In terms of the surface-based records, of course, a lot of those are weather stations, so they're organised through the World Meteorological Organisation. And there is a protocol there for the free exchange of data and data standards, and we do that very well through our operational weather services. And those form the basis, actually, of something we call reanalysis, which is our reconstruction of the three dimensional structure of the atmosphere and, hence, the weather over time using these past observations. Are there more data around? Of course, we know, yes, there are and, actually, we have a very active programme here working internationally to retrieve historical data from places that are not always just associated with the National Meteorological Service, they might be historical records that somebody else has. I think it's important because I think we do need to be able to reach back as far as we can, and be able to reconstruct the weather and climate of the past because we know that the current instrumental record, in the grand scheme of things, is very short. That does hold us back in some respects in understanding really how the climate system works. So, I see observations actually as fundamentally as important as building models. If models aren't rooted and evaluated strongly against observations then they're not really worth anything. So, that's always been a fundamental part of the way I've done my science and how we do the science here. 

CB: Every now and again it's mooted that the Met Office might be privatised by X, Y or Z government that might come in. How would that, in theory, affect the science?

JS: Oh, it would fundamentally change it. Not least because meteorology applies to weather and climate science. Meteorology exists on [the] free exchange of observations of information of science, though the World Meteorological Organisation, and that requires us to be a public body. We would not be able to access the observations we need for weather forecasting let alone climate if we were privatised. And it would fundamentally change the relationships we have with scientists around the UK and the wider world. We have a fantastic programme now of partnership with the Natural Environment Research Council, with leading universities in this country, with leading research and service institutions around the world and that would undoubtedly change fundamentally if we were privatised.

CB: Obviously, you have relationships with DECC and DEFRA, in terms of funding. But also you have private clients, so you have feet in two camps in a way. You talk about data being freely available etc, but some of the data here presumably is on a paid-for basis for certain clients. How do you straddle those two worlds as scientists?

JS: Well, the Met Office has been established by government as a trading fund, so part of our function is to commercialise services. But let's be clear, everything that's paid for by the public purse is freely and openly available. So, everything that is done through government, our public weather service task and though the Hadley Centre, is publicly funded and, therefore, publicly available - it's open data. When we commercialise or provide commercial services, we have to buy the data as if we were a private sector company from the Met Office and what is done there is to add value to the data, to customise it for what the client wants. If, out of that, there are additional data that have been paid for entirely by the client then of course that - just as in any private sector company - would be specific to the client. But everything that's paid for by the public purse is openly available and has to be. 

CB: On a topical subject, what will happen with El Niño this year?

JS: Interesting question. Well, we thought we might get one last year and again, [a] nice example of some in-depth science. So, we put out a research paper, I think in June, saying probably not actually, it's not really quite shaping up that way. This year, it's interesting. I think we might have some sort of El Niño event, but not what we would think of as a classic East Pacific warming event. I think it's much more likely to be a mid-Pacific El Niño event, which has different influences around the world. But it's very early days. We're right at the period where there's a lot of uncertainty, and we're watching it with great interest. [Slingo gave this comment on 24 March. See note at end of the article.]

CB: What's the point in the year when you might be able to call it with more certainty?

JS: Well, I think the early summer. We get this thing called the spring predictability barrier which is where we're at at the moment. And we've had some interesting weather patterns in the tropics that often act to trigger an El Niño event, and they're active this year. As I say, I think like last year there was a lot of warm water in the West Pacific, which stifled the El Niñolast year and it will potentially change the structure this year. So, we'll have, I think, by June a pretty good idea of where we're heading.

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CB: And another area of scientific enquiry is Arctic amplification. What's your current thinking on what may or may not be happening in terms of the influence of melting summer sea ice and the possible rippling impact it might be having on the wider climate system?

JS: Yes, interesting question. I mean, the Arctic is changing quite rapidly. We have done a lot of research here to try and nail this question of, 'is the warming Arctic affecting our weather patterns?' And it's very hard to find any clear evidence yet. There's some suggestion [that] in winter, it's changing our weather patterns slightly. But we're not seeing yet any evidence to support the work of people like Jennifer Francis, who argue that it's leading to amplification, larger wave structures in the atmosphere and more stationary wave structures. We just can't find that yet.

CB: So, it's not that you disagree, it's just that you don't find any evidence to support that?

JS: We don't necessarily disagree. No, that's right. But I think a lot more research needs to be done, a lot more understanding about what's going on, not just in the atmosphere actually, but how the warming Arctic ocean is affecting the Atlantic and all those sorts of things. It's not a closed system, so we need to be again clear about what we're confident in and clear where there are still some major research gaps. And there's a lot more work to do, I think.

CB: You talked earlier about the crucial role of the oceans. There's a lot of various theories about what the oceans are doing in terms of drawing down the surface temperature. What's your current thinking or focus of research in that area?

JS: Well, I think I'm fairly convinced - as we've said in the papers we've put out on the slowdown in global warming - there has been heat sequestered into the deeper ocean. There's no reason why it shouldn't be. The ocean functions in that way, and we wouldn't expect the heat to always be trapped in the upper layers in a very systematic linear fashion, if you like. And there is really strong evidence there have been changes in the Pacific ocean, potentially also the Atlantic and, of course, the southern oceans - hugely important regions. We're so limited in our observations of the deep ocean and we have such a short record, even from theARGO floats, of where the heat is, at least in the top kilometre or so, that we are still really at the very beginning, I think, of understanding how the ocean works on these slower interannual decadal timescales and the way they take heat from the surface and move it round within the body of the ocean, and when that heat will re-emerge. We have to be honest about that. But I think, actually, again, there is enough evidence from the observations, from theory, and from models to tell us that, actually, it's perfectly possible that the current slowdown is just because the ocean is moving in a different way and taking heat down into depths. 

CB: And what's your latest view on how long this sort of slowdown period could continue for?

JS: Well, we published something recently that certainly said that another five years is possible and, actually, becomes more likely the longer the slowdown progresses. Again, can we make a prediction with any confidence? I'm not sure. Because, again, how far back do we have observations of what the oceans have done in the past on these sorts of time scales? Very, very limited. So, am I confident in the models? As much as I have observations and theory to underpin what they're doing. And they tell us quite a bit, which, you know, we might be looking at an end of it in five years. This is absolutely at the leading edge of climate science, and we will get better understanding as we get more observations and as the models grow in granularity it will allow us to be more confident in how the oceans do move heat around, the role of the ocean eddies and so forth.

CB: Did you, when you took on this role, anticipate that you'd be put in such a personal spotlight? You've had, famously, [Lord] Lawson described you as " that Slingo woman" - a very personal remark. Did you anticipate that you'd be in that level of personalised focus, spotlight and attack sometimes?

JS: Yes, of course. And the way to avoid it, of course, is not to say anything. But that's not the right thing to do. I mean, if the science is providing you with evidence, I think it's my duty, actually, as a scientist, to communicate what the science is saying. That's all I've ever done. And I've been very clear about that. But I knew then, and I've experienced it since, that sometimes that's unpalatable to people. And, yes, you learn to have sloping shoulders. It doesn't mean it doesn't hurt. Because it is very unpleasant and it makes you cross and it's very unfair, and some people have said some extremely unpleasant things about me and denigrated me as a scientist. But I can't let that stop me doing what I believe is my job and what a scientist should do, which is communicate what they know about any branch of science.

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CB: What would you say to an undergraduate physicist today thinking about entering a particular branch of science? Would you recommend to go into climate science? Or would you say it can be partisan, it can be politicised, you can be attacked. Or would you recommend it as a fabulous area of scientific research and enquiry?

JS: It is a fantastic area of science. You have to be a polymath to do it, but it's of such importance to the world to start with - it's fantastic science in itself. It's full of surprises - the climate system surprises you every year with what it does. So, it's very invigorating as a scientist to be in a field like that. You don't have to be political. I spent 30 years of my career not being in the limelight, just doing some good science and enjoying the recognition of my peers and being able to go to conferences and exchange ideas and work on a whole range of different interesting things. It's a choice you make as to whether you want to be in the political arena or not. I made that choice when I became chief scientist because I felt that we do need to stand up and be counted as scientists. I was prepared to do that at the end of my career, if you like. So, I would encourage anyone coming out of university, or thinking about what subject to do at university, to think seriously about climate or wider environmental science. It's so absolutely fascinating.

CB: Okay, brilliant, thank you very much.


Due to time constraints, Carbon Brief followed up this interview with three additional questions, to which Dame Julia responded by email:

1) A paper by Cowtan & Way came up with a solution for filling in the well-known gaps in HadCrut4, particularly in the Arctic. Will the Met Office be implementing the same approach?

We are currently assessing appropriate techniques, including methods closely related to those used by Cowtan and Way. We are also interested in estimating the uncertainty in reconstructions of global temperatures as well as regions such as the Arctic, and regions that were sparsely observed early in the historical record. As well as exploring statistical techniques, we also continue to focus on gathering actual data from poorly observed regions and understanding the uncertainties of the diverse measurements that constitute HadCRUT4. Of particular interest, are those associated with changes in the way that measurements have been made over time, which are important for the assessment of decadal to centennial changes in the climate.

2) Do you think there is enough funding for climate science in the UK? What areas do you think should have priority?

It's hard to say what 'enough' funding is, as there is always more we can do. But it's important to recognise the UK is currently right at the forefront of weather and climate science. Research enables the UK to plan ahead, reducing future risk and allowing us to capitalise on potential opportunities. If you look at big infrastructure projects, for example, making sure they are resilient to future climate so they will still be fit for purpose in 10, 20 or even 50 years time is vital, and will save money in the long-run. Future research will give us ever greater detail about those regional impacts for the UK which will be so important as we go forward.

3) The IPCC has decided that there will be an AR6. What do you think, in your view, it should look like? What do you think the format or focus should be?

Each successive IPCC report has provided ever greater detail, and more certainty in key areas of the science around climate change based on contributions from hundreds of scientists. The next generation of models will enable us to look in more detail at regional impacts - so we should be able to say with greater certainty than ever before how things like weather extremes and rainfall patterns will change as temperatures rise. This is really important because it will enable people to better understand how climate change will affect them and their daily lives where they are in the world. The newest models have more integrated earth-system feedbacks and better resolution, so will help us to look in more depth at some of the remaining areas of uncertainty. The IPCC process is crucially important because the implications of climate change are so profound that it's right that we have the broadest and most complete statement of what the latest science is telling us.

(The interview was conducted by Leo Hickman and took place on 24 March 2015 at the Met Office in Exeter. Publication of the interview was embargoed until after the election due to the purdah rules governing civil servants.)

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Comments 1 to 6:

  1. In her answer to the opening question regarding any linkage between climate change and the extensive flooding in the UK during 2014, Prof Slingo rather diplomatically stated that...

    " ... There are those who were not pleased with what I personally said. But, actually, I wrote the paper that contained all the scientific evidence and that evidence is still as strong as it was a year ago. And I did challenge them at the time to come out with a counter-argument based on fundamental science and they didn't. ..."

    I suspect that was, at least partially, aimed at Nigel Lawson of the GWPF in light of his scurrilously off-hand dismissal of her opinions. One needs to be imbuded with a really astonishing level of smug, self-aggrandizing arrogance to come out with...

    "... It is just this Julia Slingo woman, who made this absurd statement ..."

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  2. Professor Slingo speaks with the characteristic voice of responsible scientific expertise. Understated, careful, soundly based, courteous. The contrast with the language used by Nigel Lawson and the other entrenched deniers is stark, and often grotesque.

    Objective observers need look no further in deciding which voices to trust.

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  3. This retired physical research scientist admires Professor Slingo for her balanced comments on a very complex issue and how it should be tackled. I did mathematical modelling of the performance of gas turbine engines decades ago so I have some understanding of the nature of climate modelling. I wonder, however, how  they take into account the impact of friction on the motions as it cannot, in my experience, be treated by mathematics so it has to be accounted for by approximations. Professor Slingo discussed how super computers would enable better models and so improve the forecasting. But the models do not take into account the decisions that people will make in the future. The declining supply of many natural resources, including oil, will have an unpredictable impact on those decisions. For example, the inevitable decine in the supply of electricity will have an impact on the use of super computers. The declining supply of jet fuel (from oil) will reduce airline flying for such purposes as conferences.

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  4. denisaf,

    Please explain what you mean by "the inevitable desline in supply of electricity".

    I understand that there will be a decline in the supply of electricity form burning fossil fuels, but that decline needed to have happened long ago and really is not "the supply of electricity". Fossil fuels also do not need to be the fuel for air travel.

    In fact everything we use fossil fuels for can be done in less damaging truly sustainable ways. The only barrier to the development of those ways of doing things was the permission granted to the pursuit of profit from the cheaper damaging unsustainable burning of fossil fuels, something that is clearly understood to only benefit a few people for a short period of time in the grand scheme of things.

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  5. @ denisaf

    "I wonder, however, how they take into account the impact of friction"

    To the best of my extremely limited knowledge, all GCMs use the Navier-Stkes equations when describing the motion of fluids, such as the oceans and the atmosphere. As I'm sure you know, these are used in the description of viscous flows.

    Physical behavioural aspects that cannot be adequately modelled are handled by a process known as parameterisation. (Please note that the term may well be used with a somewhat different meaning from that  which you may be familiar with when employed in turbine design.) If you are uncertain of the usage of the term in conjunction with GCMs, you could have a quick look at this page from the World Meteorological Organisation, and scroll down to the section dealing with parameterisation. 

    "...the models do not take into account the decisions that people will make in the future..."

    Not true. Model runs are set up under a variety of future emission scenarios. Skeptical Science already has a Beginner's Guide to Representative Concentration Pathways, and I would suggest you perhaps have a look at that.

    cheers  Bill F

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  6. Sorry, got distracted by the men's QFs at Roland Garros.

    I should also have added the following...

    A typical (if that adjective can even be applied in this context) IBM Supercomputer can run at about 10 MegaWatts, but the UK Met Office model runs at about one quarter that figure. A typical UK nuclear power station might run somewhere in the very low GigaWatt range. The 3-Gorges station can crank out about 22 GW. (Apparently, last year's aggregated output was almost 100 TWhours.)

    If we ever get to the state hypothesised in your penultimate sentence - that we may lack the energy supply to run supercomputers - then, by that time, human society will be well and truly fu**ed.

    If you are interested in some more info about the Met Office Supercomputer, have a look here or here.

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