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Prestigious climate prize winners announced

Centre news

Two up and coming researchers have been named as the winners of the Piers Sellers Prize 2024.

Dr Carol Zavaleta Cortijo, whose work focuses on climate change and the health of Indigenous peoples, and Dr Leonie Wenz, who explores the economic impacts of climate change, have both been recognised for their world leading contribution to climate solutions.

The award is bestowed annually in the name of Piers Sellers, the former astronaut, climate scientist and Leeds alumnus, by the Priestley Centre for Climate Futures at the University of Leeds.

Dr Zavaleta, from the Cayetano Heredia University, is the first medical researcher in Peru to study the impacts of climate change on the nutrition of remote Indigenous populations.

Originally trained as a medical doctor, Dr Zavaleta now leads initiatives to recognise and promote the use of Indigenous knowledge in the Peruvian health system. She contributes her expertise to global committees focused on both sustainable healthcare and Indigenous and local knowledge.

Dr Wenz is the deputy head of Complexity Science at Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, where her work combines both economics and physical climate science. Dr Wenz’s research draws attention to the cost of climate change impacts such as extreme weather. It has been picked up widely by international media and has informed decision makers across the world, from Germany to Europe and the US.

Both researchers were announced as prize winners at the Priestley Centre launch celebration on 20 June. This event also saw the presentation of the Piers Sellers Prize for exceptional PhD research and, new for 2024, the Priestley Centre prize for impactful collaboration.

I am deeply honoured and proud of my work, as it highlights the importance of valuing diverse knowledge systems

Dr Carol Zavaleta Cortijo

On learning of her win, Dr Zavaleta said: “It is encouraging and motivating that institutions like the University of Leeds recognise that research leadership in the Global South, including from Indigenous scientists like myself, is crucial for finding solutions to the climate change crises facing humanity and our planet.

“I am deeply honoured and proud of my work, as it highlights the importance of valuing diverse knowledge systems in addressing current planetary health crises.”

Dr Wenz said: “I’m very honoured to receive the Piers Sellers Prize. It emphasises the importance of research on the economic and societal costs of climate change. My research shows that these costs are massive and highly unequally distributed.

“We urgently need more adaptation and mitigation efforts to reduce them – protecting our climate means protecting ourselves.”

Dr Zavaleta and Dr Wenz have been invited to visit Leeds later in 2024, where they will present their work. Details of these presentations will be promoted through the Priestley Centre website.

PhD Prize

Postgraduate researcher Benjamin Wallis has been named winners of the Piers Sellers prize for exceptional PhD research.

Ben’s research uses satellite data to explore the speed of ice flow and rate of ice loss in Antarctica.

He was nominated for the Piers Sellers PhD prize by his supervisors Professor Anna Hogg from the School of Earth and Environment, and Professor David Hogg from the School of Computing.

Ben’s work focuses on the Antarctic Peninsula: a frontier of climate change, but a particularly challenging region to study.

Using Artificial Intelligence, Ben has shown that a hydrological process, previously not thought to apply to Antarctica, may in fact contribute to the acceleration of glacier flow in the region.

The shrinking of ice sheets contributes to rising sea levels, so gathering data to build a clearer picture of ice loss across the Antarctic Peninsula is crucial for understanding the impacts of climate change.

Ben’s work has not only led to new understandings of glacier behaviour in the Antarctic Peninsula and the rate at which ice is being lost, but also provided an extensive set of data for the science community to use.

Professor Hogg said: “His work has given us new perspectives on the sensitivity of Antarctic glaciers to climate on short timescales and highlights previously unconsidered or unknown processes which will be important to the future of the Antarctic Ice Sheet under climate change.”

Ben said: “I’m thrilled and honoured to receive the Piers Sellers prize, particularly because I have great admiration for the work of previous winners. I’d like to thank my supervisors for nominating me.

“Ice mass loss from Antarctica is a significant contributor to global sea-level rise and a major source of uncertainty in future sea-level projections. I hope that my work will help the science community to better understand the processes that influence Antarctic glacier behaviour in a warming climate and that this prize will help me to pursue my ambition of becoming established as an independent researcher.”

Celebrating collaboration

To mark the launch of the Priestley Centre for Climate Futures, a new prize for 2024 celebrates impactful climate collaborations.

The prize, which is designed to recognise and celebrate collaborations between University of Leeds researchers and partners outside of the University, has been awarded to the Yorkshire & Humber Climate Commission.

Established in 2021, the Commission is an independent advisory body that encourages and advises ambitious climate action across the region.

It brings together a wide range of organisations from sectors including energy, education, transport, and housing, alongside voices speaking on behalf of faiths, small businesses, unions and environmental campaigns.

The University of Leeds hosts and part funds the Commission’s staff team as part of its Climate Plan.

With the support of all councils across the region, the Commission has delivered activities to help equip organisations with the knowledge, skills and connections they need to reduce their carbon emissions and cope with the growing impacts of climate change, while placing equal emphasis on restoring nature and ensuring that the transition to a net zero future is fair for all.

Over eighty organisations have taken the Yorkshire & Humber Climate Pledge, and hundreds of local authority employees and local councillors have participated in events to further climate action across the region.

Rosa Foster, Director of Yorkshire & Humber Climate Commission, said: “I am delighted the work of the Commission has been presented this award. Impactful collaborations are at the heart of how we work. Climate action must be a collective effort – indeed we couldn’t function any other way, given the size and scale of our region.

“This award is important recognition of all the work that our members are doing across the region to mobilise, inform, and deliver effective climate action.”

Former winners of the Piers Sellers Prize are Joyeeta Gupta (2022), Dr Katharine Mach (2020), Professor Petra Tschakert (2019), Professor Mark New (2018), Professor Felix Creutzig (2017) and Dr Joeri Rogelj (2016). The PhD prize has been awarded to Adele Dixon and Angus Naylor (2022), Oliver Grasham and Harriet Thew (2020), Tom Slater (2019), Kate Palmer and Jesus Vergara Temprado (2018), Ross Gillard (2017) and Kate Scott (2016).