The National Centre for Atmospheric Science was established in 2002 to coordinate atmospheric research for the United Kingdom.
This was the UK’s first concerted effort to bring together the various strands of atmospheric science under one organisation.
By the end of the twentieth century, atmospheric science in the UK was at a high-level internationally. However, it was being driven forward by university based research programmes. These scattered programmes offered little long-term stability for the research community, and made it difficult for scientists to collaborate and share resources.
Atmospheric science received funding on a theme-by-theme basis, which did not look the same as the funding being provided to other environmental sciences. This was because the development of atmospheric science was relatively modern.
For most of the twentieth century, the study of the atmosphere had been considered synonymous with the study of weather. “The goal of meteorology is to portray everything atmospheric” exclaimed John Bellamy and Harry Wexler in 1960, shortly after the launch of TIROS 1, the world’s first weather satellite.
But the fast-changing backdrop of aviation, communications, computer modelling and satellites opened up new horizons for atmospheric science, and by the end of the twentieth century atmospheric researchers were tackling issues as far reaching as climate change and air composition.
In 2001, the atmospheric science community called for change
The NERC Atmospheric Science and Technology Board, who were responsible for developing funding strategy, proposed a significant restructure in 2001.
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 a relatively young scientific discipline, who felt responsible for securing the long-term health of UK atmospheric science.
They argued that a central organisation could provide long-term stability for atmospheric science, especially since atmospheric research was now reliant on underpinning infrastructure that could only be provided at a national scale.
In response, the Natural Environment Research Council provided a significant investment for a central organisation that could provide national leadership in atmospheric science.
At first, the new organisation was proposed as the Natural Environment Research Council Centres for Atmospheric Science, but would later become the National Centre for Atmospheric Science to further simplify the structure.
A new age in scientific capabilities
Today, the remit of atmospheric science would have been beyond the imagination of the early pioneers of the subject.
Atmospheric science now relies on the large-scale observational and data facilities that only a national centre can provide. And, collaboration between the different strands of atmospheric science – climate, chemistry, and weather – is essential.
Over time, the National Centre for Atmospheric Science has increased its visibility and reputation within the global science community.
We have formed key research partnerships with leading organisations 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.
We are closely tied to the U.S National Centre for Atmospheric Research, especially in regards to climate models. In Africa, we are involved with pioneering weather research. And in Europe, we have formed partnerships with leading atmospheric research centres and were responsible for leading the scientific investigation into the Icelandic Eyjafjallajokull volcanic eruption, a major global incident.
We contribute to international efforts to solve the climate crisis. This includes participating in the sixth assessment report by the International Panel for Climate Change, which helps to inform the Paris Agreement.
Our role is to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of atmospheric science.