5 ingenious ways Norfolk scientists are tackling climate change 

Norwich PhD student Emma Langden

Norwich PhD student Emma Langden - Credit: Earlham Institute

The last year has been defined by Covid-19 and it’s been easy to lose sight of the other big issues facing the world. It’s still as important as ever though that we do everything we can to protect the planet from climate change.  

In six months, the UK will host the United Nations Climate Change Conference or COP26. The conference will put Britain centre stage, showcasing some of the most exciting work being done across the world to turn the tide on global warming.

There’s also a good chance it will feature a lot of familiar faces, because Norfolk is leading the UK’s mission to protect our planet. With this in mind, we decided to look at some of the most exciting recent wins against climate change to come out of our area. 

1. Underwater robots that look after our oceans 

A lot of us are still reeling from the incredible scenes that Sir David Attenborough presented to us in the BBC’s Blue Planet 2. While this motivated millions to start thinking more carefully about how we look after our oceans, the nitty gritty of how to do this remains a huge challenge. One solution has come from oceanographers at the University of East Anglia. They own and operate a silent fleet of underwater robots that are slowly revealing the oceans' secrets hundreds of metres below the surface. These ‘SeaGlider’ undersea devices monitor fundamental marine processes so we can keep a close eye on the interaction between the sea and the atmosphere that determines the climate around the world. With help from the Natural Environment research Council they are exploring hidden mysteries of the Thwaites Ice Shelf in, the Maritime Continent, and the Antarctic Peninsula. 

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2. Helping our farmers meet the demands of a changing climate 

The team at the John Innes Centre in Norwich and the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have come up with a whole host of ways to help our farmers. One of their experiments demonstrated a sunnier side of climate change by showing that some crops in East Anglia, like oilseed rape, may actually perform better thanks to the warmer autumn temperatures. They’ve also identified a gene in wheat plants that could be responsible for the ability to tolerate extreme temperatures during reproduction – opening up exciting possibilities for new, heat tolerant crops.  

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3. Scouring the South Pole for arctic algae  

Arctic algae produce a significant proportion of the earth’s oxygen and carries carbon in its cells, removing it from the carbon cycle and reducing the progress of climate change in the process. Climate change is likely to have a big impact on arctic algae and so scientists travel back and forth to the South Pole to collect and study algae samples. The British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre have several research ships which carry scientists from many countries and institutions in the UK to the Southern Ocean. The RRS Discovery transports 50 scientists and crew and has lots of lab spaces, a bar (one unit of alcohol allowed per day, beer, wine and cider only), a TV room, and a gym. Earlham Institute and University of East Anglia PhD student Emma Langan said of her expeditions “sometimes it was easy to forget you were on a ship, until the waves picked up! Everything has to be secured if you don’t want to find it on the floor, including your cup of tea, laptop, and lunch!”. 

4. Listening to climate change  

With help from the Norfolk Coast Partnership and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Professor George Revill from the Open University and his team recently embarked on a project that used sound and music to explore how climate change is affecting Norfolk’s coast. Sounding Coastal Change focussed on the vulnerable coastal marshes of Blakeney Point and enlisted residents, school children, community groups and visitors to create an audio art piece made up of ‘sonic postcards’ that you can now explore online. The project aims to help people understand how Norfolk’s natural environment is changing by appreciating how the sound of its coast has evolved over time. A follow-on project, Sounding Wells is involving local people from Wells-Next-the-Sea to make more sonic postcards. Already in the making, one postcard explores the tension between dog walkers, dogs and beach nesting little terns, and another records local people’s views on sand dunes and the multiple, contested values of dunes. These sonic postcards will go on permanent display in the Wells Maltings.  

5. Tracking global warming in Norwich with a game-changing app 

A joint effort by EarthSystemData Ltd with the University of East Anglia (UEA) recently produced a mobile app that allows people to explore how global warming will affect the future climate of their towns and cities. The free to download ‘ESD Research’ app enables anyone to access the latest temperature and rainfall projections for their area. It also shows the projected climate outcome of achieving the 2015 UN Paris Agreement ‘low CO2 emissions’ target of limiting global warming to below 2C by 2100. 

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