The Scepticism of Hubert Horace Lamb Part II


Lamb’s Skepticism: Cleansing the MemoryBefore the Warming Boom

SourceBookDiscussion on Bishop Hill


Doing Climatology before the Warming Boom

Hubert Lamb was never formally trained as a meteorologist. Nor did he train as a climatologist. His entry into that field was something of a trick of fate.

Joining the Meteorological Office as a cadet weather forecaster, Lamb’s formal training was forever postponed. Instead, Lamb learned on the job while taking up posts in Scotland, Ireland, on a whaling ship in the south ocean, in Malta and in Germany. In 1954 he found himself back in the England, a permanent employee without a position. At the age of 40, with nowhere else to go, he was placed temporarily in the climatology department. The limited tenure with climatology was soon forgotten and he remained there until 1971, during which time the bulk of his research was completed.

'Why Britian's weather seems to be getting worse' by H H Lamb, The London Times, 30Aug66

Lamb on climatic change in The London Times, 30Aug66

The timing of Lamb’s entry into climatology was fortuitous. Expensive new primary research (geological, oceanographic and cryogenic) initiated in the International Geophysical Year (1957-8) was pointing toward climatic variability during very recent geological time. These findings, linked with all sorts of speculation about extreme weather events during the 1960s, provoked interest in climatic change. Upon this interest rode Lamb’s notoriety. He found himself increasingly in demand, and soon the volume of inquiries by post and telephone, and the requests for lectures and articles, began to restrict the time available to progress his research. Nonetheless, under the directorship of Graham Sutton, Lamb’s attempts to reconstruct past climates were valued, supported and encouraged. When Lamb finally published the first hefty volume of his magnum opus, Sutton would write a glowing forward.

…climatology is more than a branch of physics and it is in the wider aspects of its study that the unique nature of this book lies…This is the book that I always hoped Mr Lamb would write….I know of no other work in this field that approaches it in scope and reliability. I have no doubt that what I have been reading are the proofsheets of a classic of meteorology, and that here, if anywhere, climatology really enters into its own.
[1972, Foreword]

Such sentiments were not shared by many of Lamb’s colleagues and certainly not by the new director of the Met Office, B J Mason, appointed after Sutton retired in 1965. The new director was a vocal skeptic of cyclic natural climatic change across historical time, the nature of which Lamb was intent on establishing. Mason preferred to explain recent changes as evidence of only random fluctuations on different time scales [1, 2]. He made it clear that he did not value Lamb’s work and expressed concerns about Mr Lamb’s lack of qualifications as a climatologist. But there was more behind Mason’s dim view of Lambs efforts to glean climate data from historical archives.

In the late 1960s Lamb found himself the unwitting victim of the aspirations of meteorology to the status of an exact physical science. In these aspirations there was little toleration for historical methodology. Lamb was convinced that it is deep in the archives and libraries where many of the answers lie obscured in unlikely places, thinly spread, but only awaiting patient investigation. Yet he recalls at this time how he ‘resigned from the Royal Meteorological Society’s library committee in protest at a decision of the Council of the Society virtually to abolish its library.’ Virtual abolition for Lamb was the reduction of the library to ‘a limited selection of the latest theoretical and interpretive texts and journals‘ while the rest was be removed off-site. But for him this decision was symbolic of the general attitude to historical research on weather and climate [1997, p198 & p200 & Note 2].

The hostility of the meteorological establishment to Lamb’s historical work was in contrast to the growing interest generated by his published findings. By the late 1960s, this interest was developing not only among an international cross-disciplinary community of researchers, but also increasingly through the media and from the public. With inquires increasing and requests for supporting staff forever declined, Lamb started to look towards the university sector for a more favorable research environment.

His old friend Gordon Manley was about to retire and he suggested that Lamb should succeed him as professor of Environmental Sciences at Lancaster University. Lamb eventually rejected this idea due to concerns about again moving his young family, and about moving them into the bleak climate of North West. (In his memoir, weather and climate dominates the narrative of his personal life!) But he also knew that teaching and administrative duties would soon distract from his research. In the end, only a few years after abandoning him at the Met Office, Graham Sutton came riding back to the rescue.

Sutton had since taken charge of the Natural Environment Research Council, and he used his connections to obtain private funding for a climatic research group. The initial seed funds were secured from the big oil company, Shell. More money was soon obtained from a private trust fund and later from other business sources including British Petroleum. In the late 1960s agreement was reached that the ‘Climatic Research Unit’ would become part of the new school of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia.

With the move to Norwich, it seems that Lamb thought that he could now finally get together a team of researchers to complete the program of work that he considered necessary and long overdue. This was not to be. He recalls in his memoir:

I was severely shocked to discover that our efforts still had not brought in enough funds to employ any staff besides myself for a contract lasting more than three years. This made us almost entirely dependent in those initial stages on whatever research on any topic might be commissioned by outside funding agencies.
[1997, p203]

To those familiar with the university funding environment, Lamb’s shock might read as naive. Perhaps only now could he appreciate how good he had it under Sutton, where he could all but direct research as he chose. But Lamb saw more to those tough first few years, especially in his failure, time and again, to win research grants from British government agencies. He continues:

It soon turned out to be very difficult to attract the money needed for a programme of systematically establishing the past record. We are living in a time when the glamour of the much more expensive work of the mathematical modelling laboratories, and the tempting prospect of their theoretical predictions, are stealing the limelight…. It does not seem to have been widely recognised that the theoreticians’ work was proceeding without adequate prior study (or any sure understanding) of the sometimes drastic swings of climate that have occurred over periods from a few years or decades to some centuries, often setting in abruptly and some of them still unexplained.

The Climate research unit may have to close,The Guardian 18Apr74

The Guardian 18Apr74

Remember that Lamb’s struggle for funding was playing out in the early 1970s, when global environmentalism first came into its own. The very first year of CRU, 1972, was when the UN Environment Program was born at a ground breaking conference in Stockholm. It was also in that year that the suffering due to the extended drought in the African Sahel hit the TV news around the world. This, along with extreme weather events in Britain and Europe drew unprecedented popular attention to climate. Could it be changing? Climatology was attracting steady interest in the science press and also the British dailies. Reading through the newspaper articles, there is no surprise when headlines sometimes simplified and amplify findings (An Ice Age is Coming!) and when the conflict between expert opinion is a little over played. Nonetheless, some of these pieces are surprisingly well informed.

Climatology had become fashionable right at the time when Lamb cut loose from the meteorological office. But this had turned out to be something of a curse. One journalist was much more explicit than Lamb about why CRU could not win government grants. He describes how in Britain ‘attempts to turn climatology into a fashionable discipline have so far been baulked by the opposition of the meteorological establishment—in particular the Met Office.’ This baulking is evident not only in how they denounce ‘with more than necessary vehemence’ the cooling scaremongering by Nigel Calder and others (The Weather Machine, 1974), but also where…

…attempts to raise money to support the countries only climatic research unit ran into well-placed roadblocks.

These dark days ended with a stroke of good fortune.

Lamb's unit to the slaughter, Allan Piper, Nature 248, 5Apr74

Variations of climate cannot be prevented but they can be predicted…’ and that is why CRU should be saved. So read the campaign message that echoed though the corridors of Washington in the spring of 1974. (Nature, Vol 248, 5Apr74)

Whether Lamb was himself attempting to make climatology fashionable, he seemed comfortable with press attention and sometimes accepted the invitation to publish his own plain-language piece. In 1974 this played in his favor when he leapt over the establishment barricades and went straight to the press. Lamb let it be known that CRU was becoming seriously starved of funds and that it may have to close the following year if substantial new funding could not soon be found. This plea achieved good press coverage in Britain and resulted in a strongly worded editor in Nature. The story from there, as Lamb was told, is that a copy of this Nature editorial was passed around government offices in Washington clipped to a hand-written note asking ‘What can we do about this?’ What was soon done about it was that the Rockefeller Foundation chipped in with a huge contribution. The Wolfson Foundation soon followed with a series of grants that included one for the construction of the build that now bares Lamb’s name. And thus CRU was saved, surviving thoughout Lamb’s directorship mostly on private funding.

The Rockefeller grant was the most exciting for Lamb because it was approved for the project that he considered fundamental to understanding the patterns and causes of climatic variability. This was to use documentary and proxy sources to reconstruct past seasonal weather and climate patterns. Starting with Europe, for which the greatest wealth of descriptive accounts are available, the idea was to produce maps of the prevailing seasonal weather patterns back 1000 years and more. Lamb had already completed and published some of this work, but for him this was little more than a pilot for the grand project now about to begin.

Alas, despite finally achieving generous funding support, this project never even got off the ground. As Lamb politely puts it, the project…

…came to grief over an understandable difference of scientific judgement between me and the scientist, Dr Tom Wigley, whom we appointed to take charge of the research. In retrospect, this difficulty could have been avoided if Dr Wigley had been consulted at a much earlier stage on the design of the research.
[1997 p204]

Indeed, given Tom Wigley’s subsequent stellar career at CRU using models of anthropogenic climate change to search for the human fingerprint in the atmosphere, he hardly seems a match for the job of pouring over obscure ancient manuscripts. And luckily, there were no repercussions from the donors when the project fell away. Thus, it seems that while Lamb continued the historical research tenured through to his retirement in 1977, it was a different story for Wigley, Briffa, Jones and the new generation of scientists living year-to-year on project grants. Thus so, before Lamb departed—and long before the massive injection of climatic research funding that came after Thatcher took up the warming scare—‘soft money’ was already driving CRU away from Lamb’s original vision and towards the research for which the Unit is now renowned [see CRU history].

Lamb died during the build-up to the climate talks in Kyoto. By that time, in the Second Assessment of the IPCC, natural climatic change was all but reduced to the random background noise in the mathematical models simulating the human influence on global climate. Empirical climatology would make a comeback the following year when Lamb’s former colleagues at CRU (Briffa and Jones), and another (Mann), published the tree-ring based northern hemisphere temperature reconstructions [see here]. Two of these looked decidedly uninteresting and drew little attention. As for the other, when the IPCC finally overcome it’s scepticism of tree-rings temperature proxies with its Third Assessment, the so-called hockey stick, more than anything else, would smooth over all the difficulties that Lamb’s research had laid in the path of those wishing to declare the human attribution of recent climate change.




1. See ‘Weather watchers,’ Henry Lansford, Nature, Vol 256 28Aug75, p 688-690.

2. ‘When summer snow doth make sage weathermen dispute,’ Nigel Hawkes, The Observer, 8Jun75



Thanks to Alan Overton and Richard Cornes of CRU for providing a copy of Lamb’s memoirs.
Thanks to Rosa Serratore of the BoM Library for her special effort in providing an article from an obscure journal.



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