Friday, July 15, 2011

Looking ahead to local climate models

Valene Marshall in PhysOrg: ...According to [Jim] Kinter, [a professor of climate dynamics at George Mason University and director of the Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies (COLA)], today many of us are familiar with climate change and its causes. In fact, he adds, we've known for well over a hundred years that human influences that increase carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere affect the global average climate. One look at the increased occurrence of floods, drought and extreme weather across the Earth, and it's easy to conclude that something is up. "What we are having a harder time being able to pin down," says Kinter, "is what's going to happen at the local scale or the regional scale, where decisions are made."

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), NOAA and NASA, scientists at COLA are working to provide the world with more accurate climate predictions--with longer leads--of where climate changes will occur and what the impacts will be on human societies and ecosystems.

"If people want to know where to build the clean energy solutions, where to put up the wind farms, where is the right place to invest in solar energy," says Kinter, "that all depends on the climate and, importantly, it depends on the variability and the change that we expect."

...Climate-related predictions coming out of COLA and other organizations are already improving the way decisions are being made, according to Kinter and others.

...Supercomputers are helping researchers learn more about the complex interactions that influence climate change. "We use the supercomputers to solve the equations that govern the Earth's atmosphere, the global ocean and the land surface, and we do that in a fully coupled mode," explains Kinter. "We let the simulated atmosphere, the simulated ocean and the simulated land surface interact with each other inside the computer, so it's really very exciting to watch these simulations."

Although the simulations have come a long way in providing high quality regional information, Kinter finds there is room for improvement. "Convective clouds--the thunder storm clouds--turn out to be very poorly represented in the models that we're using for climate simulation today," he says. "But if we could get to a model that can resolve the clouds, then we think we will actually have a breakthrough."...

A mammoth cumulonimbus cloud in Africa, viewed from space. Either from NASA, or from the Underwriters Laboratories Unsafe Ladder archive

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