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Since the human species’ existence began, the climate of the Earth has evolved in an unprecedented way. It is impossible for us to be able to observe solely past climatic conditions and make inferences about the future. Therefore, the only tool that the scientific community can use today to predict future changes on the Earth is climate models. A climate prediction models is a complex software programs. Its aim is to produce, as faithfully as possible, the real future climate system. Climate models analyze weather conditions over long timespans, typically more than 30 years. They predict how weather conditions will change in a particular region over the coming years.
Climate models analyze atmospheric, oceanic, and land processes. Scientists construct models from mathematical equations that use thousands of data points. These data points simulate the transfer of water and energy taking place in a climate system.
Climate change vulnerability. Credit: Wesleyan University and Columbia University
Scientists use climate prediction models to help them better understand complex Earth processes. Climate prediction models allow scientists to test hypotheses and draw inferences and conclusions about past and future climatic conditions. The models help them determine whether extreme weather events like storms, floods, droughts, and heatwaves result from changes in the climate or are just a part of the normal climatic variations. For example, when predicting storms during cyclone or hurricane season, scientists use climate prediction models to determine the number of storms, their intensities, and the regions they might impact.
The most important advantage of using a model to predict future climatic changes is that we can easily add a perturbation that evolves with time. For example, the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Many climate models are currently in use today. However, the models do not take the same things into account.
While creating climate prediction models, scientists typically use one of the following three types of simple climate models:
1. Energy balance models
Energy balance models forecast and predict climate changes as a result of Earth’s energy budget. This means that the model considers surface temperatures from solar energy, Earth’s natural cooling emitting heat back out into space, and albedo or reflectivity. To predict the climate using this model, scientists develop an equation representing the amount of energy coming in versus going out. They then take the equation and plug it into boxes in software that represents a square grid of land within a three-dimensional space.
2. Intermediate complexity models
Intermediate complexity models are similar to energy balance models. However, unlike energy balance models, they include and combine various geographical structures such as land, ice, and oceans. These features allow the model to simulate large-scale climate changes such as glacial ice fluctuations, shifts in ocean currents, and changes in atmospheric circulation patterns over long timescales. Scientists use intermediate complexity models to determine large-scale variations in the Earth’s climate system.
3. General circulation models
General circulation models are the most complex models. But, they precisely predict climate change. These models have been fed information about land types, atmospheric chemistry, ocean circulation, carbon cycle, and glacial makeup. This model uses a 3D grid. Each square represents an area of about 100 sq. km. General circulation models are more sophisticated than energy balance and intermediate complexity models. However, the model requires quite an extensive computing time. A simulation of the model could take several weeks to run.
The world cannot afford to wait for decades to find out if climate models are truly accurate. Therefore, scientists use past events to measure a model’s accuracy. If the model succeeds in predicting past events that truly happened, we know that it can predict the future pretty well too. The model’s accuracy increases with our understanding of past and future events.
The Earth’s atmosphere contains elements constantly in movement. If our atmosphere were similar to that of the moon, predicting climate change would be very easy since the moon barely has an atmosphere. On Earth, we have temperature fluctuations, ocean currents, wind and air circulation patterns, land surface characteristics, etc., that climate scientists must account for. Because of our dynamic planet, climate models always contain some level of uncertainty and error. However, models that measure changes within smaller areas with high resolution produce more accurate results. Even with a small amount of uncertainty, we consider climate models of the 21st century to be pretty accurate. These models have been based on well-founded physical processes of Earth systems.
All climatic models arrive at the same conclusion; humans have and continue to modify the climate system and raise average near-ground temperatures. Human activities have completely altered the climate system. Additionally, these models also show that humans will continue to have an impact on global circulation patterns if current greenhouse gas trends go on. Even an increase of one degree in Earth’s average surface temperature can impact life in many ways.
Nearly every model has shown that the Earth’s climate is changing. Our increased greenhouse gas emissions are resulting in positive feedback systems in our climate system. These positive feedbacks result in disastrous events like rising ocean temperatures, melting glacial ice, increasing events of floods and drought, and rising surface temperatures.
According to climate prediction models, if we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this century will witness only about a degree of warming. But, if we fail to cut down on our emissions, the Earth will warm up by several degrees.
It is vital to our survival that we continue to collect data about the climate and improve models. It refines our knowledge of the Earth’s climate and weather. We must recognize the importance of climate prediction models in influencing how communities and policy-makers plan for the future. Climate models can even influence and advance how we plan business opportunities, cities, and even our daily activities. These models give us the best chance of finding and discovering ways to combat the devastating effects of climate change.