By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation
Scientists have developed a revolutionary new approach to climate prediction based on a vastly improved—and more realistic—understanding of how clouds behave in the atmosphere.
Researchers at the Center for Multiscale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes at Colorado State University have created what director David A. Randall describes as “a dramatically new way of representing clouds in climate models.”
Clouds are complex, with wide-ranging effects on the weather and long term climate. They influence temperature, precipitation, and the way pollutants are distributed. They reflect sunlight, warm the Earth by blocking infrared radiation to space, move air, and produce rain and snow.
Accurate climate predictions are critically important, given the potential harmful effects of a warming Earth on the environment, global health, international security, agriculture and the economy, as well as on extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes.
“There is absolutely no question in my mind that climate change is quite real,” says Randall, also a professor of atmospheric science. “If we continue for another few decades without taking any action, there will be major changes that people and all the other life on this planet will have to adapt to.”
The new climate modeling approach involves a more accurate way of factoring in the variability of clouds and their significant impact on weather and climate, feedback that has been missing until now.
“It’s a really big change which will allow us to make predictions about climate change between now and the end of the century that we think will be better than has been possible before,” Randall says. “We are working on them now, and expect to do the first such simulation this year.”
The center, which is beginning its sixth year, is one of the National Science Foundation’s seventeen current Science and Technology Centers. NSF supports the center with $37 million in funding spread over ten years.
Colorado State University is the lead institution for the center, which also has research partners at Colorado College, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at San Diego, the University of California at Los Angeles, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the University of Colorado, the University of Utah and the University of Washington.
The center also collaborates with, among others, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
When scientists study and predict weather and climate, they use computer models, or simulations. In these, the world is divided into grid boxes, or “cells,” each one about the size of the state of Delaware. Every cell contains values for such properties as temperature, humidity and wind speed, and computers use mathematical equations to calculate the value of these variables over time. Researchers develop weather forecasts by updating the numbers in the cells for a few days, and climate predictions by doing the same thing over many years.
Clouds are important to the results of these computations, but they are much smaller in size than the grid cells, which makes it very difficult to calculate their effects. Although scientists have developed models that make grid cells small enough to simulate clouds—about the size of a city block—the models are quite slow and only can be used for small areas and over short time periods.
The solution: center scientists have developed a new “middle ground” approach that bridges the gap between the Delaware-sized grids and the city block-sized grids. It involves adding small grid cells to a tiny fraction of each Delaware-sized grid, essentially simulating realistic cloud processes in a representative sample of the grid, rather than everywhere.
Center researchers have compared this approach to conducting a public opinion poll, where researchers extrapolate data using responses from representative random samples, rather than from querying the entire population.
It works, but it’s slow. However, computers are getting faster and more powerful all the time, and center scientists expect the new approach to become routine in the coming years.
At present, “it takes a couple of hundred times longer, but we can do it,” Randall says. “It’s actually possible to do climate change simulations. It’s a new way of coming at the problem that turns out to work better than anything we are using today.”
The center also has an extensive education and outreach program designed, among other things, to train teachers and students through workshops, conferences and classes about climate change and Earth sciences. High school teachers, for example, can take intensive courses on weather and climate, and receive college credit.
Each year, the center also sponsors a climate conference for high school students to encourage them to explore climate science, the regional and global effects of changing climate, and sustainable technologies and lifestyles.
“Education is a key part of the center’s mission,” Randall says. “We are trying to make it easier for people to learn what climate science is all about. We also want to train new young scientists to go out into the world, do the research, and train others.”
For more information, read NSF's special report on clouds.