TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCEMENT FOR REGIONAL CLIMATE MODELLING: WE NEED IT FAST, WE NEED IT NOW.

Date: 23 February 2018

The human progress towards technological advancement is usually controlled by several factors — the most important being public demand. For that reason, we need to demand for more in climate science technology where the current pace of development cannot keep up with the emerging challenges of global climate change. It would be ridiculously unreasonable for us to expect science and technology to deliver on precise needs at the preferred moment. However, technological progress for regional climate simulations is something that is within reasonable technological reach. With proper concentration of resources and time in such undertaking, it wouldn’t take long before whack into the workings of our climatic systems at local scale.
With the hope of making a meaningful quest for advancement in regional climate simulations, I would like to share a few facts about climate models. Today, two types of climate models exist; the large, planetary-scale simulations that run on supercomputers, and the higher-resolution models that utilizes input from the general circulation models to inform projections at regional scales. The first category of climate models is more precise for long-term, global climate projections, including the amount of global warming that will result from doubling pre-industrial era atmospheric carbon levels. On the other hand, the high-resolution models are used to analyse the likely impacts of climate change at regional levels. It is this latter category that we need to stop stalling on and encourage its rapid advancement. To that end, here's a brief on the current state of progress in high-resolution climate modelling.
Projecting what the climate might look like half a century from now at a regional scale has long presented a huge challenge to climate scientists. Nevertheless, their persistent effort to unlock the puzzles in climate science and enhance scientific understanding of climate system and its natural and anthropogenic variations and impacts have gained some traction. Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) is among the research institutes that are resolutely expanding the knowledge on regional scale climate processes. The GFDL’s development pathway towards enhanced high-resolution climate modelling has involved improvement on their climate models from CM version 2.1 to CM2.5 and its variants FLOR, HiFLOR and CM2.6.
Climate change research at regional scale is very important since we need to understand how rapidly the climate is changing, its impacts and the mechanisms involved at regional scale. Indeed, we are aware that while global warming is going on, local changes are likely to diverge from one region to another. Let’s take as an example, Lake Victoria, a fresh-water lake that serves as key natural resource for fishing, agriculture, and transport in the region. If regional climate models could predict with precision the anticipated fluctuations in inflows into and discharge from the lake due to climate change, the information could be very useful to the local natural resource stakeholders in many ways.
First, climate change has been long associated with psychological distancing. Research reveals many people view climate change as something that is likely to occur in the future and to ‘others’ who are probably far away and detached from them. This is likely to change when the results of regional climate models are fed into impact models that can project how the quality of life is likely to change due to the impacts of local climate change. Armed with such information, people are more likely to be confident about their ability to do their part in climate change mitigation and adaptation. It wouldn’t be a surprise to find local stakeholders gracefully assuming their roles as valuable change agents in addressing the impacts of climate change, fighting scepticism and other obstacles in their path towards adaptation-“It matters most when it is a close shave”.
Secondly, localized results on the anticipated climate change threats can be useful to policymakers in building a strategy for socioeconomic resilience in the face of local environmental changes. As mentioned before, variations in climate change impacts will force regions to adopt resilience mechanisms that fit their circumstances. Policymakers in New York, for instance, might be forced to prepare for climate change impacts that are totally different from those in Nairobi. This sort of adaptation strategy will, therefore, highly depend on accurate climate simulation results that reflect anticipated local impacts.
We are in 2018 and the statements made above, however appealing to our progress in climate science, are pretty locked in wishful thinking. We still haven't got a clue as to how we can build more powerful and more precise computer models to capture regional effects of climate change with certainty. This is a very disturbing realization given the sorry state of our environment and the ever increasing negative impacts of climate change. All in all, in an effort to make climate models more useful, atmospheric physicists have worked hard to enhance their spatial resolution in order to give better projections at regional scale. However, some obstacles are slowing this noble endeavour. According to GFDL’s Director, V. Ramaswamy, “balancing an uncertain budget with important and necessary scientific pursuits is the most challenging aspect of climate science research”. This is true because high resolution modelling required for regional scale projections comes at a cost. An increase in resolution demands for a decrease in grid cell sizes. When the sizes of grid cells are reduced, more are required. The computational costs of a model, therefore, go through the roof with even a slight increase in the number of grid cells.
All right, so we now have a sense for what it cost to increase the technological advancement for regional climate models, the existing gaps and what they can achieve. Where do we go from here? In 2015, US spent 250 million dollars on fossils fuel research. Greater amounts are spent by G20 governments on supporting oil, gas, and coal companies to the tune of $444 billion per year. According to a 2015 research by CAFOD and ODI, UK spent 23% more on fossil fuels compared to renewable energy development in developing countries. Why are our priorities so wrong?
We will only tackle the impacts of climate change collectively as a human race. This means we have to recognize the role that high-resolution regional climate simulations play in communicating the urgency required to tackle climate change at local scale. However, this does not imply that we need to wait until the climate scientists tell us exactly what’s going to happen. We can’t afford that. As we seek to demand for an increase in climate science research funding, we must adopt a precautionary approach before the catastrophic effects of climate change destroy our planet completely.