PURE: uncertainty and risk for natural hazards

Managed by the Smith Institute, NERC’s £7m Probability, Uncertainty & Risk in the Environment (PURE) Research Programme and Network was established in 2012 and designed to help the UK government and industries as diverse as finance, energy and aviation, to be better prepared for natural hazards.


The number of major disasters resulting from natural hazards has risen dramatically since the 1970s, and is still increasing. From floods and ash clouds, to droughts and earthquakes, natural hazard events claim thousands of lives every year, and financial losses amount to billions of dollars. The Great Tohoku Earthquake (2011) alone left almost 19,000 people dead or missing, and hundreds of thousands homeless as it wiped out entire towns. The World Bank’s estimated economic impact was $235 billion, making it the costliest natural disaster in world history.

While events such as these are often confined to hazard prone areas of the world, the UK is not immune to the impacts of natural hazard events. December 2015 was an extraordinary month in both meteorological and hydrological terms, leading to widespread and severe flooding. In early December, Storm Desmond brought severe gales to the UK and localised flooding to the north west of England. An estimated 5,200 homes were affected by flooding, while in the town of Lancaster, 55,000 people were left without power for several days when an electricity substation was flooded.

About NERC

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is the leading funder of independent research, training and innovation in environmental science in the UK. It invests public money into world-leading science, designed to help sustain and benefit from natural resources, predict and respond to natural hazards, and understand environmental change. Working closely with academics, policy makers, businesses and the third sector, NERC supports knowledge transfer for sustainable economic growth and wellbeing in the UK and around the world.

NERC’s vision is to place environmental science at the heart of responsible management of our planet. For more information, please visit NERC's website.

PURE achievements

The PURE network was tasked with bringing mathematical and statistical expertise to environmental sciences to increase the impact of the PURE Research Programme. Its role was to ensure that the science arising from the latest academic research could be translated for use by decision makers in industry, business, government and the third sector. Over a five year period, the network's achievements included:

  • Organising events where professionals dealing with risk and uncertainty in different sectors came together to learn from each other. One of these events looked at how risk and uncertainty are managed in the medical sector and what environmental scientists can learn from medics;
  • Designing networking and brokerage events to create a community of multidisciplinary researchers from industry and academia, who are well placed to solve complex scientific and industrial problems related to decision-making under uncertainty;
  • Increasing the impact of research by setting up collaborative projects (PURE Associatesthat placed a scientist at the heart of a user organisation, to implement the latest scientific thinking in order to solve real business and policy problems faced by that organisation;
  • Organising the PURE final showcase event which took place at the Natural History Museum in London in September 2016. The opening address was delivered by HM Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Mark Walport and a full day of networking and presentations followed.
  • Key highlights of the Programme can be found in the PURE brochure

PURE has provided a great opportunity to combine expertise in different aspects of environmental physics with expertise in statistics. From our point of view in the combining of understanding of atmospheric physics, volcanology, satellite retrieval algorithms and statistical emulators has been particularly valuable in making progress on the problem of volcanic ash prediction.

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