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What 2021 meant for atmospheric science

In a year where people came together to offer remedies for the Earth’s environmental crisis, we’ve taken time to think about how atmospheric science has been involved. 

To mark the end of 2021, we’re looking back at our landmark achievements over the past year, and moments that our science community can take pride in. 

From engaging young people with stories of clean air, to significant investment in research facilities, our news round up reveals the stories that defined our year.


In January, we started the year by celebrating results of the Natural Environment Research Council’s independent review of UK research centres. The evaluation, spanning the last six years, showed that the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) delivers excellent quality research of an international standard.

The World Meteorological Organization announced that 2020 concluded earth’s warmest 10-year period on record. 2020 was also the first year that the World Meteorological Organisation used the new HadCRUT5 dataset of global temperature – which is produced by the NCAS, the Met Office and University of East Anglia.


In February, a UK insect study began to link existing wildlife data with analysis from the NCAS weather radar and machine learning, to provide detailed answers on insect decline across the country. The NCAS radar is used to measure the volume of insects flying through the air across the UK every few minutes.

NCAS joined the UK Centre for Greening Finance and Investment to help financial institutions access the latest science on hazardous weather. NCAS climate research is used to provide tools that measure storm, flood and drought risk facing properties or the pollution created by companies and the liabilities that result.


In March, we thought about what it looks like to work in science. NCAS joined the British Science Association’s #SmashingStereotypes campaign, and collected 10 individual stories to challenge the norm, and change perceptions of scientists.


In April, NCAS researchers found that consumer aerosol products, like spray deodorant, release more volatile organic compound pollution than all cars in the UK. NCAS atmospheric chemists continue to monitor the effects of Covid-19 restrictions on UK air pollution. 

During the winter lockdown, air pollution levels fell across the country, but not as much as they did during the first lockdown in spring 2020. This was due to increased household heating emissions as people continued to work at home, and higher exhaust emissions from cars running in the cold.

Weather forecasts started to be used to predict the location and scale of impending meningitis outbreaks in sub-Saharan Africa. NCAS researchers, working as part of the African SWIFT team, help to provide weather data that gives up to two weeks’ advanced warning of conditions ‘likely’ or ‘highly likely’ to trigger a meningitis outbreak.


An inspirational online children’s story for 7-11 year olds, titled Grandma’s Footsteps, was commissioned by NCAS and published in May ahead of Clean Air Day. The story encourages readers to explore why air pollution is changing in different ways and different places, and how it affects people.

NCAS climate scientists called for public and private sectors to support technologies that develop the next generation of climate models. A Royal Society briefing note states how a step change in climate modelling capabilities, like a “CERN for Climate Change”, can support greater ambition in mitigation and adaptation.


In June, an intensive six-week measurement programme started at air quality supersites across the UK. NCAS scientists will use the data collected to pinpoint new and emerging pollution trends, and quantify urban pollution sources such as tyre and brake emissions, wood-burning, and cooking emissions.

Investment from UK Research and Innovation will produce a future-proofing transformative change for the FAAM Airborne Laboratory. Key areas for development include improving the capability and sustainability of the aircraft, installing new instruments, instrument miniaturisation, and automatic or autonomous operation.


In July, NCAS research warned that we must expect extreme weather records to be broken, and that 2020 ranked in the top ten warmest, wettest and sunniest years on record for the UK. In the next three decades, record-shattering heatwaves could become two to seven times more frequent across the world than in the last 30 years. 2020 was the third warmest, fifth wettest and eighth sunniest year for the UK – since records began in 1884.


NCAS embarked on a £5 million research programme, called Climate Services for a Net Zero World, to help the UK manage the risks associated with climate change and develop policies that support a greener, lower carbon future.


In September, the FAAM Airborne Laboratory teamed up with the Scottish Association for Marine Science to trial new fieldwork instrumentation over Loch Linnhe on Scotland’s west coast. The aircraft team tested a new temperature sensor and a greenhouse gas analyser, by flying between 100ft and 10,000ft above the water, and provided data for new research into how our oceans and climate interact.

NCAS joined a unique series of street-based art installations in September. Turn the Tide – a collaboration between NCAS, visual artist Alison Smith, and composers at Leeds Conservatoire, saw an interactive sculpture about climate change accompanied by several new pieces of music.


Taking inspiration from Professor Ed Hawkins’ viral warming stripes, Climate Canopy was exhibited for the first time at Leeds Light Night, before installation at the COP26. Climate Canopy is a suspended sculpture that uses light and recycled materials to display the story of global warming through colour and touch. Watch a video of Climate Canopy.


In November, NCAS joined forces with other leading UK climate science organisations to develop a new national alliance focused on climate solutions for society. The UK National Climate Science Partnership (UKNCSP) will embed climate science in the government’s mitigation and adaptation plans, and support industry to be more climate resilient.

The 2021 Global Carbon Budget report, using NCAS climate modelling insights, shows that global carbon emissions in 2021 are set to rebound close to pre-Covid levels. Fossil fuel carbon emissions dropped by 5.4% in 2020 during worldwide Covid-19 lockdowns, but scientists predict an increase of 4.9% this year (4.1% to 5.7%) to 36.4 billion tonnes.


In December, the NCAS-managed Centre for Environmental Data Analysis received £1.9 million to provide a clear route to net zero computing. This work will help UK Research and Innovation to meet their 2040 aim of carbon neutral research infrastructure.

NCAS published our Research and Innovation Strategy. It lays out, for the next five years, how we will address urgent challenges and work with others to inform and influence solutions.