Prof Stephen Belcher

Practical science

28 March 2012

On 1 January 2012, the Met Office Hadley Centre — a world-leading centre for climate science research — welcomed Professor Stephen Belcher as its new Head. Here, the award-winning scientist talks about what first drew him to meteorology, his plans for the climate programme and how he sees the Met Office Hadley Centre evolving, in a constantly changing environment.

Professor Stephen Belcher has always been fascinated by the idea that maths relates to the real world. "The fact that maths can predict what an experiment can produce is a pretty mind-boggling concept," he enthuses. It was this fascination that led him from a Bachelors and PhD in Applied Mathematics at Cambridge, to his current role as Head of the Met Office Hadley Centre.

"...when the position came up at Hadley it was a fantastic opportunity. And of course the Met Office Hadley Centre is a world-leader in climate research. So to be related to it in any way is the most fantastic privilege. To be its Head is the most immense honour."

Throughout his career Professor Belcher has held key research posts at Cambridge, Stanford in the US and, most recently, the University of Reading, where he was both Head of Department and Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences. His research at Reading encompassed a range of meteorological phenomena including atmospheric and oceanic turbulence, boundary layer meteorology, urban meteorology and the impact of climate change on urban areas, and the role of oceans in climate. His research into these last two subjects will continue at Reading, alongside his new role as Head of the Met Office Hadley Centre.

Adding to an already illustrious list of titles, Professor Belcher was also the Joint Met Office Chair in Weather Systems for the University of Reading through the Met Office's Academic Partnership with the universities of Exeter, Leeds and Reading that launched in 2010. Although he had worked with Met Office scientists for some time, it was through the Joint Met Office Chair role that he was able to get a closer look.

"I thought that John Hirst, the Chief Executive, and Professor Julia Slingo, the Chief Scientist, were taking the Met Office to interesting places," he says, "so when the position came up at Hadley it was a fantastic opportunity. And of course the Met Office Hadley Centre is a world-leader in climate research. So to be related to it in any way is the most fantastic privilege. To be its Head is the most immense honour."

Leading Met Office Hadley Centre

Now there is persuasive evidence that human activity is changing the earth's climate (demonstrated by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC)) Professor Belcher sees the Met Office Hadley Centre's role as helping society adapt to these changes by using cutting-edge science. But, for him, this raises more questions than the original matter of humanity's impact. "This is what the Met Office Hadley Centre has to tackle head on," says Professor Belcher.

And as the Met Office enters a new three year contract with the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Professor Belcher feels the emphasis of the Met Office Hadley Centre's Climate Programme is shifting into three areas: detection and attribution, seasonal to decadal forecasting, and developing the next generation of climate models. All of these will enable the Met Office to establish the causal relationship between a climate event and human activity, produce more accurate forecasts looking between three months to 30 years in the future, and understand how the various elements that create our climate work together.

This last area goes under the "glorious name," as Professor Belcher affectionately calls it, of HadGEM3-ES. But putting together the next generation climate model is a huge endeavour that requires multi-party cooperation with the UK academic community.

The reason for this? "The complexity of these climate models continues to increase enormously," explains Professor Belcher. "We're trying to include things like aspects of the terrestrial carbon cycle (plants on land-surfaces), the ocean's biogeochemical cycles, and even the effects of wetlands on the climate." If the Academic Partnership achieves what it sets out to, "the next logical step," says Professor Belcher, "would be to seek out European academic partnerships".

Creative science

Professor Belcher set out to apply his maths skills to the real world - and he's certainly achieved this. The work he'll be doing as the new Head of the Met Office Hadley Centre will help DECC and Defra, other government agencies and wider industries plan for the future. "Part of our core mission is to provide quantitative estimates of climate change and its impact on different sectors," says Professor Belcher.

What's more, he sees the potential for the technologies developed at the Met Office Hadley Centre to create new climate services. "This is using the output from our climate simulations and tailoring them as products in creative ways for a type of real-time decision management," he comments. One thing is for certain, science couldn't get more practical than this.

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