Professor Tim Palmer

Professor Palmer awarded IOP honorary fellowship

Climate physics
Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics

Professor Tim Palmer has been awarded honorary fellowship of the Institute of Physics in recognition of his long and remarkable career during which he has pioneered the application of nonlinear dynamical thinking to improve our understanding of the climate system which has had a profound influence on our ability to predict weather and climate. Honorary fellowship is the highest accolade presented by the IOP it reflects an individual’s exceptional services to physics.

Professor Palmer’s most important contribution has been in the development of the probabilistic ensemble prediction system. Prior to this, weather forecasting was considered a deterministic process, where best-guess models were run from best-guess initial conditions. But chaos theory, as advocated by Ed Lorenz, demonstrates that predictability of the atmosphere (and oceans) is far from deterministic. Professor Palmer was among the first to recognise the fundamental importance of chaos theory in weather and climate prediction.

The development of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts’ (ECWMF) ensemble prediction system, pioneered by Professor Palmer and implemented in 1992, was ground-breaking. In the subsequent years, Professor Palmer developed novel techniques to represent initial condition as well as model uncertainties, which ensured that the ensemble probabilities were statistically reliable. Ensemble predictions systems are now used universally in national meteorological services around the world for forecasting on all timescales from hours to decades. Based on probability thresholds, ensembles now form the basis for decisions on when to take anticipatory action eg by disaster relief agencies ahead of severe weather events.

Professor Palmer has also had a significant influence on our understanding of the non-linearity of stochastic processes and scale interactions in weather and climate systems. He has shown how stochasticity in climate models can help reduce their systematic deficiencies, and he has been a powerful voice in the arguments for much higher resolution climate models that can represent non-linear scale interactions. He has pioneered the concept of a ‘CERN’ for climate change where human and computational resources are pooled to develop climate models of unprecedented resolution, and hence accuracy and skill. This concept is starting to take shape through the EU’s billion-euro ‘Destination Earth’ programme.

Professor Palmer is an outstanding physicist whose influence on the science of weather forecasting and climate prediction has been profound and for which he is widely recognised internationally as a pioneer in his field

‘I am delighted and honoured to receive this award,’ comments Professor Palmer. ‘Oxford is one of the few places in the world where research on basic climate science is performed in a physics department – indeed, basic climate science is part of physics. The award of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Physics and to a lesser extent this award, recognises Oxford’s seminal insight!’

‘Tim is a remarkable scientist and his climate prediction work plays an essential role in informing global policy on climate change,’ comments Professor Ian Shipsey, head of the Department of Physics. ‘Honorary fellowship of the IOP is richly deserved; he is an outstanding leader in his field.’

Congratulating this year’s new Honorary Fellows, IOP President, Professor Sheila Rowan, said: ‘Our Honorary Fellows represent an extraordinary group of physicists who have individually and collectively advanced our field. Each of them has made a significant positive difference to our understanding of, and pursuit of progress in, physics, and represents an example of what we as a community can achieve. On behalf of the Institute of Physics, I warmly congratulate all of them.’