Dr Peter Stott, Scientific Strategic Head for Climate Monitoring and Attribution
13 November 2012
Take a heatwave, drought, flood or other extreme weather event. Are they caused by man-made climate change or are they simply part of natural fluctuations? These are the kinds of questions that Peter Stott tries to answer.
After studying at Durham and Cambridge, Peter completed a PhD at Imperial College on the environmental consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear incident - then went on to post-doctoral research on stratospheric ozone depletion at Edinburgh University.
Since then he has focused his efforts on investigating how and why the climate varies. This is the science of climate monitoring and attribution. At its heart is the development of a comprehensive set of observations on a wide range of elements and the use of climate models to understand the changes that have been observed. Knowing more about every element of the atmosphere and oceans is important if we are to build a complete picture of our climate.
A great deal has been achieved already. Peter has played an instrumental role in the development of such ideas through major contributions to the processes of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change and become one of the world's most widely respected climate attribution scientists. Ultimately his work has led to the publication of the first ever attribution report in the 2011 State of the Climate report in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. Peter was a co-editor of this report aiming to establish whether extreme weather across the globe in 2011 was connected to changing climate conditions.
Herein lays the problem because not all extreme weather can be blamed on human activity. Firstly the climate varies naturally - weather is typically chaotic - and secondly there may be other reasons for natural disasters. The floods in Thailand last year were found to be due to factors unrelated to climate change including changes in the management of local river systems.
It's an especially tricky science. "The difficulty comes from trying to separate the causes of specific events, from the 'background noise' - the variability in the earth's climate systems," explains Peter. To help them find and isolate the causes, Peter and his team are developing datasets, which collect information both nationally and globally. These include temperature readings from the land's surface, the atmosphere and the oceans - which help them monitor what's happening on a monthly and yearly basis.
Peter's aspiration is to develop systems that will enable them to attribute the causes of extreme weather events in near real time - and then be able to relate recent events to the odds of such events occurring in the future as well as calculating the likelihood of wetter, drier, warmer or colder seasons. He believes they're about three years from creating this system "Initiatives like case studies of recent extreme weather and the establishment of an international group of scientists to advance attribution science are a great step along that path", he says.
It's this real-world aspect of the role that Peter loves. "We're not just asking abstract questions. It's about why things are happening the way they are. The work we're doing can help policymakers and communities plan and better cope with the weather."