NERC National Capability Science Single Centre awards

12 October 2018

NERC has funded five world-leading programmes of research as part of its National Capability Science Single Centre (NC SSC) awards.

Worth more than £72 million, these awards enable more ambitious, large-scale science than is possible through other funding streams. The research will pursue science that is decadal in scale and focus on the disciplinary science carried out by the NERC research centres. This programme of awards starts in 2018 and runs for five years.

NERC Executive Chair Professor Duncan Wingham said:

From unique Antarctic research capabilities to understanding the complex interactions between earth, air and water, these awards support excellent long-term research that provides ongoing scientific understanding to support environmental decision-making at the highest levels.

The programmes will span the entire NERC national capability portfolio, as follows:

The National Centre for Earth Observation is awarded £7·5 million to develop cutting-edge Earth observation data sets from the latest satellite instruments and to pioneer new techniques for merging these data with models of land, atmosphere and ocean in order to deepen our understanding of changes in the Earth system.

The National Centre for Atmospheric Science is awarded £10·3 million to deliver long-term activities, platforms and technical capability in support of long-term scientific research in atmospheric science.

The British Antarctic Survey is awarded £4·1 million for research including sustained observation focused on crucial Earth system indicators in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, and to ensure the availability of four key capabilities that are unique to BAS: ice-core acquisition and analysis; sub-glacial access and sampling; airborne geophysics; and the airborne meteorological and atmospheric instrument suite.

The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) is awarded £27·8 million for the programme UK Status Change & Projections of the Environment (UK-SCAPE). This programme of integrated, landscape-scale research will help tackle significant challenges caused by mounting pressure on air and soil quality, water and food security, and biodiversity. UK-SCAPE will provide multiple benefits for researchers, the economy, the environment and people.

£22·6 million is awarded for the Climate Linked Atlantic Sector Science (CLASS) research programme, delivered through the National Oceanography Centre by national marine partners, to use a range of internationally coordinated observations and world-class numerical models to assess the current status and future evolution of the role Atlantic Ocean systems play in regulating key aspects of ocean services.

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Full details of the awards


National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO) research in this programme will make use of the latest, most interesting information from satellite data in combination with state-of-the-art NERC-supported global models of principally the land, atmosphere and ocean. NCEO staff have internationally recognised skills in analysing satellite data, evaluating models and merging the data into models (data assimilation) which will enable researchers to take major steps forward in identifying and understanding change and variability in the Earth system and feedbacks between the component domains (air, water, land and ice) within it.

A primary underpinning NCEO activity is to produce high quality data sets from the latest satellite observations. NCEO scientists will use innovative algorithms to generate state-of-the-art Earth observation (EO) data, with uncertainties, using observations from European Space Agency Earth Explorers, EUMETSAT operational weather satellites, Copernicus Sentinels, NASA-NOAA research and operational missions and JAXA satellites. These data describe the processes that drive variations in vegetation, including fire, and subsequent changes in biomass; atmospheric trace gases including air quality gases and greenhouse gases, and particulate matter; clouds and precipitation; top-of-the-atmosphere radiation fluxes; and changes in land and sea surface temperatures.

These data sets are most powerful when combined with models using advanced mathematics. NCEO's second underpinning activity will provide a flexible community data assimilation tool for scientists to trial different methods to combine EO data with important community models. Uncertainties are critical to the performance of assimilation systems and NCEO scientists will characterise these for key models and data sets, allowing a better picture of the current planet Earth state.

NCEO's assimilation methods and EO data will be employed in their three strategic programme science areas: global and regional carbon cycle; large-scale coupling of the biosphere-atmosphere during the Anthropocene; and diagnosis of energy and water exchanges in the Earth system.

The global carbon cycle plays a central role in the Earth system, as is clear from current Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) climate assessment reports, but a comprehensive understanding of its current state, main drivers and sensitivities remains a key challenge for understanding detailed carbon pathways in the next decades. NERC funding will enable NCEO scientists to provide diagnostics for global carbon cycle variability and change, integrating land, oceans and atmosphere information. In particular, NCEO staff will advance understanding of dynamic carbon pools in ocean and land ecosystems, exchanges of carbon between the surface and atmosphere, regional carbon budgets, and integrated carbon observing systems.

The Anthropocene, our current era, is characterised by the many couplings between dynamic natural land surface processes, atmospheric composition and humans. It brings new challenges for understanding the environment where we live. NCEO staff will examine how we can quantify over the long term the links between the surface fluxes driving atmospheric composition, including the interactions between human-driven and natural emissions, and assess large-scale consequences for variations and trends.

Energy flows between the Earth's surface and its global atmosphere and cold, dark space play a fundamental role in establishing the large-scale circulation that drives our weather and climate, being intrinsically coupled to the water cycle via the exchange of latent heat. However, understanding how clouds, precipitation and the land surface respond to, and themselves modify, changes to the circulation is a major challenge.

NCEO staff will undertake an ambitious project which will develop the first global observational framework linking the large-scale circulation, convection and land surface processes in a consistent manner. The approach will enable the global community to address the challenge, with important implications for improvements in weather forecasting, climate change prediction and application of physical environmental factors to improve understanding of food security.


The National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) is NERC's research centre for atmospheric science, providing national capability in atmospheric science and also conducting pure and applied research.

This proposal sets out the NCAS plans for its NC SSC programme and activities, for the period April 2018 to March 2023. Within this proposal, a set of underpinning activities are described and the case for funding made. The activities are set in the context of wider NCAS and external activities, including NCAS research programmes. No funding is requested for long-term science research programmes under this call, since the entire NCAS NC SSC budget is proposed to be dedicated to NC SSC underpinning activities.

The particular activities for which funding is sought are ones which NERC classifies as 'underpinning' long term science. These are long-term activities, platforms and technical capability in support of long-term scientific research in atmospheric science. Specifically, NCAS proposes underpinning activities in the following areas:

  1. Long-term measurements
  2. Physical science
  3. Numerical modelling and evaluation
  4. Modelling support
  5. Education and training

National capability - Polar expertise supporting UK science

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is NERC's world-leading hub for polar science, addressing issues of key global importance and helping society adapt to a changing world. Using funding from a variety of sources, BAS delivers science programmes across a range of disciplines, always focusing on globally significant questions, and always on solutions. BAS science looks to the polar regions and beyond to understand the Earth system, in the past, present and in the future, and the influence of and impact on society.

Under NC SSC funding, BAS will deliver a portfolio of underpinning activities that will provide a backbone for UK environmental science. This will include four portfolios of sustained observation focused on crucial Earth system indicators in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. It will also ensure the availability of four key capabilities (instruments, facilities and expertise) that are unique to BAS, and are of prime underpinning importance to the future success of UK science.

Sustained observations (SO):

  • SO1 - Rothera Time Series (RaTS): An integrated suite of oceanographic and biochemistry variables (for example, temperature, salinity, macronutrients, chlorophyll) collected at a key site of rapid climate warming and high inter-annual variability on the Antarctic Peninsula. These data sustain a wide range of research by UK and international collaborators.

  • SO2 - Scotia Sea Open-Ocean Biological laboratories (SCOOBIES): Measurements of the uptake and sequestration carbon dioxide by the ocean within the largest hotspot of primary productivity in the Southern Ocean. These data provide key information on the potential for the ocean to absorb and lock up human emissions of carbon dioxide, and will inform major NERC and international programmes on biogeochemical cycles, climate change, ocean acidification and microplastics transport.

  • SO3 - Ocean Forcing of Ice-sheet Change (OFIC): In situ measurement of ocean-heat delivery to the most rapidly retreating parts of the Antarctic ice sheet using oceanographic moorings and bespoke radar systems. This unique data set records changes in the major driver of Antarctic ice-loss, informing ice-sheet and global sea-level projections.

  • SO4 - Space Weather Observatory (SWO): Year-round observation of space weather events acquired at key sites (for example, Halley VI Research Station) improve our understanding of the complex chain of Sun-to-Earth processes. They underpin assessment of the likely impact of severe space weather events and the design of mitigation guidelines.

Key capabilities (KC):

  • KC1 - Ice-core acquisition and analysis: The unique resources provided by BAS provide UK researchers, and their international collaborators, with the ability to recover and analyse ice cores (up to 1,000m). We will provide ice core drills for deployment around the world, and state-of-the-art laboratories in Cambridge capable of a wide range of climatologically and environmentally-relevant chemical, gas and stable isotope analyses.

  • KC2 - Sub-glacial access and sampling: BAS leads the world in hot-water drilling through ice. We will provide the hardware and expertise to access subglacial environments around the world, and the ocean cavity and seabed beneath ice shelves in the polar regions. In addition, we provide a suite of borehole sensors and cameras, water-sampling and down-hole sediment corers.

  • KC3 - Airborne geophysics: BAS will deliver an airborne geophysical capability deployed on low-cost piloted and autonomous aircraft. This instrument suite includes gravimeter, magnetometers and ice-penetrating radar, which can be flown with lidar in support.

  • KC4 - Airborne meteorological and atmospheric instrument suite (MASIN): BAS will deliver an instrumented aircraft with suite of atmospheric instruments and scientific expertise ready to support grants, collaborations, and strategic programmes.

CEH: UK Status, Change & Projections of the Environment (UK-SCAPE)

The UK faces significant challenges in the twenty-first century due to mounting pressure on air and soil quality, water, energy and food security, and biodiversity. To provide effective solutions to these problems, we need to see a paradigm shift that moves the current focus from isolated issues on single sites towards a holistic, integrated approach looking at the wider landscape, in order to provide multiple benefits for people, the economy and the environment.

UK-SCAPE will provide a national resource for the research community, with the objective of improving understanding of environmental processes and enabling increased environmental and societal resilience of UK landscapes to future change. Outputs will be spatially explicit time series of environmental data and metrics, both historical and future projections. Access to data and models will be provided through portals and virtual data lab facilities. This will be achieved by building on NERC (and other) investment in:

  1. existing long-term data sets
  2. existing capability in environmental and data sciences
  3. the NERC Environmental Data Centre
  4. the NERC data labs' initiative.

The core underpinning part of the programme is directed at collecting national-scale data sets, enabling researchers to answer high-level research questions around the status and trends of environmental resources, such as:

  • Land: What are the main pressures driving land use change and how do they interact, historically and into the future?
  • Biodiversity: What are the relationships between biodiversity changes and the effect on functioning ecosystems?
  • Soil: How do multiple pressures interact to change soil condition and function?
  • Air: What drives the fluxes of pollutants and greenhouse gases?
  • Water: What are the environmental determinants of water flows and soil moisture?

Together, these national-scale data sets provide the capacity to answer cross-cutting questions. These data are also critical for model parameterisation and development across the national capability portfolio and by the wider research community.

Another central element of this programme is a data science framework that will clean, scale and harmonise data from CEH and partner monitoring (and modelling) activities. This will enable regional and national-scale assessments of the state of the environment and further our understanding of the drivers of change. The harmonised regional and national-scale data sets will be used in modelling activities and will also service the data portals through which a range of data products will be supplied.

Within the data science framework, two initial case studies have been selected to demonstrate the concept and opportunities available to the wider community. The case studies extend CEH's underpinning activity to develop modelling capabilities, building on the recent NERC-funded Data Labs project and drawing on models and data developed by CEH.

  • Air: This case study will explore combining large-scale observational data (for example, land cover map and national vegetation survey) with multi-scale atmospheric modelling. The aim is to set parameters and model vegetation / atmospheric relations and, in so doing, create new air quality predication capabilities.
    Data products: Projections at fine resolution of air quality under different vegetation regimes.

  • Water: This case study will enable access to new national-scale hydrological modelling and data products (incorporating new UK climate change scenarios at fine-scale resolution) for assessment of future water resources and quality at UK scale.
    Data products: Spatially explicit projections of change in water quantity and quality (including uncertainty) until 2100.

In addition to these core, underpinning capabilities, CEH will also undertake two research programmes addressing defined knowledge gaps:

  1. Spatially-explicit Projections of Environmental Drivers (SPEED): The UK lacks coordinated projections of environmental drivers that are linked to ongoing international research. CEH will provide spatially explicit projections of climate change, land use change and pollutant pressures that are derived from the Shared Socio-economic Pathways developed under the IPCC. This will provide the research community and other users with a coherent framework for assessing environmental change impacts.

  2. Soil Organic Carbon Dynamics: Recent research initiatives have concluded that biological and structural factors, over chemical factors, influence the dynamics of soil organic carbon (SOC) more than previously thought. This new understanding will be explored experimentally and captured in a new process-based SOC model, which will be open access.

Marine NC SSC: Climate Linked Atlantic Sector Science (CLASS)

The ocean plays a vital role in sustaining life on planet Earth, both providing us with living resources and regulating our climate. The trajectory of current and future anthropogenically driven climate change will be very substantially controlled by the ability of the ocean to continue absorbing the 93% of excess heat and 30% of anthropogenic carbon entering the atmosphere that it currently takes up.

The Atlantic Ocean is particularly important, as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) transports heat northwards, keeping north-west Europe 3 degrees warmer than comparable latitudes in North America and Asia. The heat loss associated with the AMOC facilitates intense solubility-driven uptake of both natural and anthropogenic carbon. The Atlantic also supports spatially and temporally diverse biological communities in the water column and at the seafloor which constitute biodiversity reservoirs, act to store carbon in the oceans, and underpin the marine food web; in essence the ocean's natural capital.

We now have abundant evidence that many features of the Atlantic Ocean and its marginal seas are changing, including the strength of the thermohaline and wind-driven circulation, sea surface and interior temperature and salinity distributions, air-sea carbon dioxide fluxes, primary production and nutrient fields. These changes may constitute significant threats, by driving fundamental, but poorly understood, changes in the benefits we derive from the Atlantic Ocean.

In an era of rapid planetary change, expanding global population and intense resource exploitation, it is vital that we have internationally coordinated observing and prediction systems so policymakers can make sound evidence-based decisions about the ocean. CLASS - external link - will take the powerful synergistic approach of using a range of internationally coordinated observations and world-class numerical models to assess the current status and future evolution of the role Atlantic Ocean systems play in regulating key aspects of ocean services. It will support the UK element of international ocean observing and modelling programmes, prioritising the use of autonomous vehicles and new sensors to improve efficiency, and increase the spatial and temporal coverage of our ocean observations, while reducing dependence on expensive research ships.

These underpinning activities will provide a platform for future funding investments for the academic community and contribute key data sets and model outputs that can be used across the UK and by the global community to address important marine policy relevant questions. Finally, we will create effective engagement activities ensuring academic partners have transparent access to NERC marine science capability through graduate training partnerships and access to shipborne, lab-based and autonomous facilities, and modelling capabilities.