Chair in Biosphere and Climate Impacts

Colin prentice

Nationality British

Year of selection 2012

Institution Imperial College London

Country United Kingdom

Risk Environment


6 years

1000000 €

The new Climate Change Science: ending the Tale of Two Cities

Climate change is everywhere and it permeates everything from the media to academic research, not to mention politics and regulations. More often than not, we are drowned under the stream of information and “groundbreaking” news. Yet when you take a closer look, how many of us can actually say “Yes, climate change affects my daily life”? Where is the central and consensual scenario, the staunch footing to every environmental policy? The need for reliable information, based on fundamental research on the consequences of climate change, is already great and is set only to grow as an urgent, practical matter. Our societies are now at a tipping point: the nature of climate change is such that we are currently (mainly) anticipating it, whereas in 20-30 years’ time we will be experiencing it, and evaluating its consequences – and necessary adaptations to avert the worst of these. This AXA Chair in Biosphere [1] and Climate Impacts at Imperial College London, is thus a true embodiment of evidence-based, basic science with a strong focus on societal impact and policy-making.

Its scientific program advocates for a cross boundary and integrative approach to global climate change science, one which bridges a persistent rift between chemical, physical climate science[2] and biological science. Indeed, most of the current climate models focus on the chemical and physical processes and often neglect the biological processes because there is limited and fragmented understanding of the latter and how the latter interacts with the former two types. Even though some important economic consequences of climate change follow directly from physical aspects of climate (e.g. heating and cooling requirements, health impacts of heat waves, storm damage risks, drought and flood risks), other much-discussed major impacts related to land biosphere and carbon cycle modeling (e.g. risks to agricultural and forest production, potential biodiversity losses, wildfire risks) depend on biological and biophysical processes that are far less well characterized. Warming, for example, increases the land emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide by accelerating soil microbial processes, but there is no agreement as to how much for no robust quantitative knowledge of plants and their physiology has so far been embedded in climate models.
As a result, many realistic processes that can modify the earth system are often ignored or incorrectly represented in existing models, despite the capacity of nowadays computers to include those biological processes. However, how they are to be incorporated is largely unknown.
Therefore the Chair’s objective is to develop and apply robust, quantitative knowledge about the impacts and risks of climate variability and change on terrestrial ecosystems – including the use of land for food, fibre and (increasingly) energy production - their function, biodiversity, and interactions with climate. It represents an ambitious bid to place this area of science on a more rigorous basis, so as to provide sound and relevant information for many stakeholders in society and the scientific community.
Thanks to its integrative approach, combining theory, diverse biological and geophysical observations, and experimental findings from ecophysiology and plant science, the program’s methods will be applied with contemporary climate data and state-of-the-art climate projections for decade to century time scales, to develop new models. These will be able to describe and forecast worldwide consequences for land ecosystems, risks and opportunities for forestry, arable crops and bioenergy production, changes in carbon, water and nutrient cycles, sources and sinks of trace gases and aerosols, and feedbacks to atmospheric composition. In contrast with much of the climate change impacts literature, the model applications will be focused on quantifying risks and tradeoffs with a view to identifying opportunities as well as vulnerabilities, and thereby contributing to sustainable adaptation.

Prof. Colin Prentice, the Chair Holder, is an internationally-renowned researcher with an impressive track record and a world leader of this discipline (land-biosphere studies in relation with climate evolution) for about 20 years. He has led the development and applications of land biosphere models at an international level from the late 1980s through to the present and developed an interdisciplinary approach through long-term collaborations with leading scientists and institutions around the world. In 2002, he was awarded the Milankovitch medal from the European Geophysical Society for his outstanding contributions in modeling the terrestrial biosphere as an interactive component of our Earth system. He has long experience and appreciation of the process of engagement with stakeholders, and a deep understanding of the debates surrounding climate change: a major contributor to the IPCC, he was responsible for the information used by governments concerning the relation between CO2 emissions and concentrations and the processes responsible for CO2 uptake by the oceans and land.
This AXA Chair is unique in the world in its ambition to fuse new biology with geophysical measurements and, thereby, to develop terrestrial biosphere modeling to a new level of usefulness, two domains where Imperial College has particular research strengths. Hosted by the Division of Ecology and Evolution in partnership with the Grantham Institute, this research program, based in one of the most renowned institutions worldwide, truly embodies the latter’s longstanding commitment to carrying out research with high technological and economic relevance for society and decision makers, especially with regards to the impacts of climate change.

[1] the part of the earth's environment where life exists
[2] part of the human environment that includes purely physical factors (as soil, climate, water supply)

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