Professor Pierre Friedlingstein

Published on: 19 September 2014

Professor Friedlingstein is a leading researcher in the modelling of climate systems.

Leading climate scientist Professor Pierre Friedlingstein is Chair in Mathematical Modelling of Climate Systems; he helps make predictions about the future of climate change, by using climate models to look at the interactions between climate and biogeochemical cycles.

Professor Friedlingstein has been appointed to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Strategic Planning Advisory Group (SPAG), whose aim is to generate priorities for future research funding, through engagement with the NERC community. He recently secured a prestigious Royal Society Wolfson Merit Award.

He has worked on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports since 1994 (the IPCC assesses the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant for the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change) and was a lead author for the 2014’s Fifth Assessment Report; he was also part of the ‘Frontiers of climate change research’ panel for the Transformational Climate Science conference.

We spoke to him about his recent achievements.

Congratulations on your Wolfson Merit Award; how did it feel to find out that you were to receive this?

It was wonderful news, I wasn’t really sure that I was going to get it. The award encourages you do a specific research project - it helps to secure the best researchers to the UK by rewarding the work they do.

You aren’t the first University of Exeter academic to have received this award, what do you think makes us a hotbed for high quality researchers?

The University has invested in certain fields – the environment is one of them. Exeter is attracting lots of high level academics; in my field many have joined within the last five years. This helps making Exeter attractive to more scientists - it’s a positive feedback!

What is your research about?

I’m working on the topic of climate change and the effect of carbon emissions on the climate systems. I’m interested in what might happen to the Arctic’s permafrost – soil currently ‘permanently’ frozen; will they melt in the future and what might happen if they melt?

We think that if they melt, they will release more greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane) into the atmosphere, which will increase the warming. We’re asking a similar question about fires: in the future the Earth’s surface will be warmer but will it be wetter or drier and if its drier will there be more forest or savannah fires occurring, again releasing greenhouse gases and aerosols into the atmosphere?

These systems – the atmospheric system, the climate system, land systems and biogeochemistry systems – are all interconnected and they all have an impact on the climate system; my research looks at how they fit together.

What impact will your research have for the public?

I think that the public understand more and more about the impact of climate change; the subject is in the media and people understand the potential risk. I would like my research to show people that the climate system is complex and that, for example, if the permafrost melt or forest fires become more regular there might be additional risks coming into play, such as more warming, or loss of ecosystems.

How did it feel to be appointed to the SPAG group and what will the group be doing?

It’s great; only a dozen of scientists across the country were selected to be part of the committee so it’s fantastic to be one of them. The idea behind SPAG is to produce key recommendations for what topics of strategic research NERC should fund which is exciting and challenging at the same time.

It is a new group so there’s no history of what we should be doing; the general idea is to engage with the community to build new ideas for NERC funded research. We will be looking at these ideas to see what research topics are feasible.

We think that if the permafrosts melt, they will release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which will increase the warming.

Professor Pierre Friedlingstein, Chair in Mathematical modelling of climate systems

What was your involvement in the IPCC report?

I was part of Working Group One (WG1), which is the working group assessing the Physical science. We were reading, assessing and summarising the observations of climate change, their attribution to human activities and the projections about how Earth’s systems will change in the future.

We can observe changes in the atmosphere, on the land, in the sea and in the ice, so we’re looking at these observations and trying to understand what has caused the changes. We have developed models of the climate systems to simulate and understand past climates and make predictions about what might happen in the future. More related to my area of research, we also assessed the past and future changes in the global carbon cycle, vegetation, and permafrost and how they may feedback on the climate system.

Can you tell us more about the Transformational Climate Science conference?

I found the experience really exciting. To be honest, at the beginning I thought the conference was a bit too ambitious because we wanted to have the co-chairs of the three IPCC Working Groups and I didn’t think the three of them would come to Exeter; but they all agreed to speak and they all came! It was a very exciting conference, lots of interaction and discussion with scientists, policymakers and the general public.

What is your background and how has that influenced your research?

At some point I decided that I wanted to be a climate scientist but I don’t know what the trigger was.

I did my degree in engineering in Brussels but from there to what I’m doing now with climate science is a long history and I got here mainly through trial and error.

After a couple of years into my degree I thought ‘I don’t see myself in a factory, so what can I do with an Engineering degree?’ - I went into mining and geology, which still uses quite a lot of engineering, but I couldn’t see myself in a mine either – so from there I moved into Earth sciences for my Masters project then climate sciences for my PhD.

How is your research helped by the climate modelling taking place at the Met Office?

Together with the Met Office, we are developing the UK Earth System Model, that the latest climate model also including new components such as vegetation, carbon cycle, wetlands, atmospheric chemistry, etc.

A lot of the developments we are working on with them will be used in the next IPCC report.

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