Lamb, Hubert Horace
LAMB, HUBERT HORACE
(b. Bedford, United Kingdom, 22 September 1913; d. Holt, Norfolk, United Kingdom, 27 June 1997),
synoptic meteorology, historical climatology, paleoclimatology, climatic change.
Through his wide knowledge and deep understanding of climatology Lamb was universally regarded as one of the leading scientists working in the field during the late twentieth century. His research principally brought to light the constantly changing nature of climate and its effect on both the planet and human beings. In 1971, after a long and distinguished career in the U.K. Meteorological Office, Lamb founded and became the first director of the Climatic Research Unit in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, England.
Family Background . Lamb came from a strict Anglican and highly talented Stockport (Manchester) family. His grandfather was the mathematical physicist, Sir Horace Lamb, whose book, Hydrodynamics, became a classic text for students of meteorology; his father, Ernest, was a professor of engineering and his mother was Lilian (née Brier-ley). An aunt was a tutor in charge of one of the halls at Newnham College, Cambridge; another was a leading archaeologist; while Lamb’s uncle, Henry Lamb, was an accomplished painter.
When, in 1914, Lamb’s father took up a professorship in the East London College (now Queen Mary College), the family moved from Bedford to Hampstead Garden Suburb. Only 5 miles from central London, this was a pleasantly situated suburb with then open country nearby; it was also an interesting political community with leading members of all the three main parties, Conservative, Labour, and Liberal, living close by the Lamb household.
School and University . In his early school years, Lamb’s best friend was Trevor Huddleston, who later, as an Anglican priest, became a staunch supporter of civil rights; as adults they always kept in touch. Lamb was also at school with Olaf, the eldest son of Lewis Fry Richardson, pioneer of numerical weather forecasting. Lamb and Olaf also became good friends and between the ages of eight and twelve Lamb often visited the Richardson household. Although Lamb did not come into contact with Olaf’s father in the field of meteorology, the elder Richardson’s Quakerism and his interpretation of Christianity influenced Lamb in later life.
Lamb’s secondary schooling was at Oundle, a school in Rutland, which had a strong influence upon him. Lamb later expressed disapproval of boarding schools, except when they were absolutely necessary, and thought children should live at home, as he had done, up to the age of thirteen. Because the discipline of Oundle was more congenial than that imposed by his father, Lamb had two conflicting authorities in his life at that time. For instance, on returning to school after a summer holiday, the fifteen-year-old found that he had been transferred, without warning or explanation, to the science side. Although pleased to study science, Lamb resented having to abandon history and languages. Earlier, through an adopted aunt who was Danish, together with the Norwegian folktales that his father’s generation had been brought up on, Lamb had become interested in Denmark and Norway and was keen to learn Scandinavian languages. A bonus from his school transfer was a German lesson once a week reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
As a teenager Lamb was concerned about living up to family expectations. He went up to Cambridge to study natural sciences. Having won mathematics prizes at Oundle he was expected to read the subject at the university. However, after two years a further crisis arose because he wanted, again against his father’s wishes, to abandon natural sciences and enter the geography school. Nevertheless, Lamb completed the two-year geography course in one year and graduated with an MA in the first parts of both the natural science and geography courses. The broad interdisciplinary platform for his career began to take shape.
Early Career . After leaving Cambridge, Lamb applied to join the U.K. Meteorological Office. He was interviewed by the director, Sir George Simpson, and sent for training, under Sidney P. Peters, to Croydon Airport, the main London airport of the 1930s. After Croydon, Lamb was posted to Montrose, which suited him admirably, since, when off duty, he was able to enjoy exploring the Scottish mountains and hills. Lamb had developed an early love for hill walking and claimed that observing the variations of weather in upland areas had triggered his interest in meteorology. He also spent a holiday sailing around Iceland and during this period published his first paper, “Climate and Legend in Norway.”
In 1939, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society and became a regular contributor to its publications, the Quarterly Journal and Weather. Later Lamb served on its council (1956–1959) and as vice president (1975–1977); he was elected honorary member in 1985 and two years later awarded the Symons Gold Medal.
During the late 1930s Lamb, with his views as a conscientious objector, became concerned about the increasing threat of war. This situation came to a head in July 1939 when he received notice to take part in a poison-gas spraying exercise. As he refused, the Meteorological Office demanded that he should immediately resign. Nevertheless, he was later asked to reconsider his position and was offered a posting, under secondment (a temporary transfer), to the Meteorological Service of neutral Ireland to work at Foynes, a flying-boat base on the Shannon estuary. Here he was appointed instructor of a forecasting course for Irish graduates who had been expecting to complete their training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; he also undertook the training of the first intake of Irish meteorological assistants in weather observing duties.
From 1941 to 1945 Lamb was in charge of the Meteorological Office at Foynes preparing forecasts for transatlantic flights; he also developed analysis and prediction techniques for these very long-range missions. This transatlantic service provided a vital wartime link for the Allies; many VIPs, including Anthony Eden, traveled to and from America via Foynes. In 1942 Lamb himself took a flight on this route when he attended meetings in Toronto and New York.
In 1946, following his return to the U.K. Meteorological Office, Lamb showed his enterprising spirit by volunteering to be the meteorologist on an expedition to the Antarctic. This was undertaken in the whaling ship Balaena, accompanied by two amphibious aircraft for making sorties to spot bad weather and ice. Lamb obtained valuable firsthand experience of weather types and circulation patterns in the Southern Hemisphere from this voyage.
Climatic Research . On his return to the United Kingdom Lamb joined the Long-Range Forecasting Research Division of the Meteorological Office, where he carried out research on subjects such as natural seasons, persistent weather spells, and recurrent episodes or singularities. After overseas forecasting duties in Germany and the Mediterranean, Lamb was posted to the Climatological Division of the Meteorological Office in the United Kingdom, where he discovered an immense archive of virtually untapped historical weather data. By processing and analyzing this material into a systematic framework during the 1950s and 1960s he found that it was possible to reconstruct meaningful circulation patterns for past climatic periods. This work stimulated further studies that opened up new avenues and was the beginning of the period when Lamb became seriously involved in climatic research.
By defining timescales of past climatic periods and reconstructing circulation patterns, Lamb discovered that change, sometimes occurring quite rapidly, was the norm. This challenged received opinion, which up to the mid-twentieth century had generally postulated that the present climate was more or less stable and that events such as ice ages and the melting of polar ice caps were matters of the distant past or future.
Once he had established firm evidence of variations in climate, Lamb’s central concern lay in developing a rigorous methodology that would provide a better understanding of climatic history, for this, he argued, would also illuminate trends visible in recent records. Through his all-embracing study of climatic change, Lamb came to realize that before future climate could be predicted, there was a need to understand the behavior of past and present climate.
Lamb recognized that large-scale spatial and long-term temporal atmospheric variations that characterize climatic change must be as deeply rooted in physics as the short-term transient and dynamic weather systems studied by meteorologists. Though his awareness of the huge energy budgets of climatic systems made him cautious about assigning human agency a major role in the precipitation of change, his research ultimately focused on the consequences of both natural and human-driven changes.
This work revealed his remarkable gift for identifying and extracting trends and new significance from what otherwise had been regarded as routine climatic data. It was mainly in recognition of this pioneering research that in 1963 Lamb was awarded a special merit promotion within the Meteorological Office to senior principal scientific officer. This prestigious position in the scientific civil service is equivalent to that of a university research professorship and, in a similar way to academic life, provides release from routine duties to allow full-time concentration on a specialized area of research.
Such a promotion embodied an implicit guarantee of research assistance and adequate administrative support. Had this been forthcoming after the retirement of Lamb’s supportive leader, Sir Graham Sutton (a highly respected and perceptive postwar director-general), the U.K. Meteorological Office would have established itself a decade or so earlier as one of the world leaders in the study of climatic change.
In the 1970s Lamb calculated that by 2000, atmospheric changes resulting from human activities would begin to affect the course of natural climatic changes and later stated that, whatever its cause, climatic change has an enormous impact on human affairs. In this sense Lamb was a visionary, although he was far too modest to see himself in this light.
Sadly, Lamb’s appeals for assistance with his research were repeatedly ignored. Although many contacts with scientists outside the Meteorological Office confirmed the value of his research, the situation within the organization was very different. While financial resources were generally available, it was decided that they should be mostly channelled into installing powerful new computers for short-term forecasting.
Academic Career . Stymied by the organization he had served for over thirty years, Lamb, despite being at an age when most people are thinking of retirement, sought outside help during the late 1960s to continue his research. Although this exercise took one or two years, with the timely founding of the School of Environmental Sciences under Professor Keith Clayton at the University of East Anglia, and financial backing from the Nuffield Foundation and North Sea oil companies, Lamb resurfaced in 1971 as professor and founding director of the Climatic Research Unit in Norwich.
This was a courageous and risky academic venture. The unit had no secure core funding, salaries were uncertain, and cynics expected the whole venture to collapse within a decade. However, Lamb’s enterprising personality was a source of inspiration both to colleagues and students and after only six years, when Lamb retired, the Climatic Research Unit was enjoying a prestigious reputation as one of the world’s leading centers in the field. Lamb undoubtedly achieved a great and lasting success with this venture.
As a man, Lamb was respected for his kindness and loyalty, and professionally for his vision and ability to synthesize a mass of diverse material into a meaningful whole, as best exemplified by his monumental two-volume work, Climate: Present, Past and Future. With undiminished energies in retirement, Lamb still found time to keep in contact with the Climatic Research Unit and produce a steady stream of notable publications as well as becoming president of the North Norfolk Liberal Democrats. After his death, Lamb left a widow, Moira, and three grown-up children, Kirsten, Catherine, and Norman; the last following in his father’s footsteps politically, is the Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for North Norfolk.
The Lamb papers are held in subject-listed boxes and files at the Climatic Research Unit Library. A complete list of Lamb’s publications is given on the Climatic Research Unit Web site: http://www.cru.uea.ac.uk
WORKS BY LAMB
“Climate andLegend in Norway.” Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society 65 (1939): 510.
“Types and Spells of Weather around the Year in the British Isles: Annual Trends, Seasonal Structure of the Year, Singularities.” Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society 76 (1950): 393–438.
With A. I. Johnson. Secular Variations of the Circulation since 1750. Geophysical Memoirs (Great Britain. Meteorological Office), 14, no. 110. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office for Meteorological Office, 1966.
“Volcanic Dust in the Atmosphere; with a Chronology and Assessment of Its Meteorological Significance.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, series A, 266 (1970): 425–533.
British Isles Weather Types and a Register of the Daily Sequence of
Circulation Patterns 1861–1971. Geophysical Memoirs (Great Britain. Meteorological Office), 16, no. 116. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office for Meteorological Office, 1972.
Climate: Present, Past and Future. Vol. 1, Fundamentals and Climate Now. London: Methuen, 1972.
Climate: Present, Past and Future. Vol. 2, Climatic History and the Future. London: Methuen, 1977.
Climate, History and the Modern World. London: Methuen, 1982. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1995.
Weather, Climate and Human Affairs. London: Routledge, 1988.
Through All the Changing Scenes of Life: A Meteorologist’s Tale. East Harling, U.K.: Taverner Publications, 1997. Lamb’s autobiography.
Hulme, Mike, and Elaine Barrow, eds. Climates of the British Isles: Present, Past and Future. London: Routledge, 1997. Dedicated to Lamb.
John A. Kington
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Lamb, Hubert Horace
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