The environment is fundamental not just to our quality of life but to the whole future of life on Earth. Only by grasping its extraordinary complexities and understanding how it’s shaped by natural processes and human activities will it be possible to meet the colossal challenge of managing and mitigating environmental change – one of the 21st century’s most pressing priorities.
With the other Research Councils, we are part of the Living with Environmental Change programme (LWEC Partnership), bringing together all the relevant scientific disciplines to tackle one of the greatest challenges of our time.
Success requires top-quality expertise and high-grade experimental and computational facilities. Further pre-requisites in a sphere as immense and intricate as environmental research are a collaborative and multi-disciplinary approach embracing everything from chemistry to computational science.
Our unique position in the science and technology landscape equips us to make a telling contribution, through the research at our facilities by academics and industry and the fundamental data collected about our planet by space satellites and ground based monitoring.
This contribution has three complementary strands:
We’re constantly assisting the expansion of crucial stores of knowledge about climate change and other key environmental phenomena. For example:
- Earth Observation: From sea surface temperatures to greenhouse gas concentrations and the movement of volcanic ash, the world-leading expertise and facilities at RAL Space are at the vanguard of UK and international initiatives using increasingly sophisticated satellite technology to gather long and short-term data from land, sea and air. As the Centre for Environmental Data Analysis (CEDA) we are using state-of-the-art computing and storage technologies (the JASMIN e-infrastructure) to maintain an archive which can make huge datasets easily available for academia, government and business. Our Energy Research Unit is working with the wind energy industry to develop improved ways of forecasting the power output of operational wind farms, and also help design the latest generation of offshore wind turbines
- Pollutant Sensors: We’re aiding the development of ever more sensitive technologies capable of detecting and quantifying even the smallest concentrations of chemical, radioactive and other types of environmental contamination present in air, soil and water
- Weather Patterns: The unique suite of facilities at Chilbolton Observatory continues to generate detailed and revealing data about storms, clouds, weather fronts, atmospheric ‘billows’ and a whole host of other meteorological phenomena
By exploring and explaining how the environment works, we reinforce the fundamental knowledge essential to tackling major challenges like climate change. For example:
- Improved Modelling: Our Scientific Computing Department is aiding the development of ever more reliable computer models for weather forecasting and climate research, while The Hartree Centre is working with the Met Office and NERC to build a next generation weather and climate model. In another project we are modelling the progress of earthquakes through the earth’s crust; this can inform policy makers of safer places to build schools, hospitals and nuclear power plants
- Atmospheric Chemistry: Our Central Laser Facility is at the forefront of innovative efforts to reveal the complex chemistry underpinning climate change. Breakthroughs include the development of pioneering ‘tweezers’ made from laser light which can hold micro-droplets identical to those in clouds and enable their behaviour to be studied in the laboratory. The ISIS neutron facility was used to augment these results, and also for an independent study of chemicals found in polar clouds. These results will help improve models of the polar atmosphere, an important factor in our understanding of climate change.
- Geological Processes: Our neutron-scattering facilities at ISIS shed unique light on processes occurring in the Earth’s mantle and right at its core, delivering fresh and important insights in the fields of petrophysics, mineral physics and reservoir engineering.
We’re committed to delivering answers to the most urgent environmental questions facing the planet. For example:
- Reducing Pollution: Our Central Laser Facility is harnessing its leading-edge laser techniques to identify and study micro-organisms capable of selectively eating land or sea-borne (not air) pollutants
- Carbon Storage: Our skills and facilities are aiding the development of technologies that could enable the safe, long-term underground storage of carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels, potentially a key component in the drive to reduce the environmental impact of fossil fuel power stations
- Future Crops: Helping pave the way to disease-resistant, drought-tolerant crops vital to meeting future global food demand, our Central Laser Facility has achieved dramatic insights into the behaviour of proteins in plant cells.
Strengthening our work in these and other areas, our Environment Futures Programme is building powerful partnerships, forging effective collaborations and providing researchers from academia and industry with access to our state-of-the-art facilities – adding real momentum to cutting-edge environmental research across the UK.
The programme has made funding available to create new multidisciplinary research communities by supporting interactions between STFC-funded researchers and appropriate science, technology and industry groups via the Global Challenge Networks, including one for Environment.