What Are Climate Models? What Do They Do?

Climate models are comprised of fundamental concepts and parameterizations of physical, biological, and chemical components of the climate system, expressed as mathematical formulations, and then averaged over grid volumes. These formulations are then converted to a programming language so that they can be solved on a computer and integrated forward in discrete time steps over the chosen model domain. A global climate model needs to include component models to represent the oceans, atmosphere, land, and continental ice and the interfacial fluxes between each other. Weather models are clearly a subset of a climate model (a discussion of mesoscale weather models is given in Pielke, R.A., Sr., 2002: Mesoscale meteorological modeling. 2nd Edition, Academic Press, San Diego, CA, 676 pp), where the basic framework of all scales of weather models is presented). On the global scale, it is very important to distinguish global atmospheric-ocean circulation models (AOGCMs) from global climate models. Global climate models need to include all important components of the climate system as discussed in a 2005 National Research Council report, while AOGCMs up the present have not.

There are three types of applications of these models: for process studies, for diagnosis and for forecasting.

Process studies: The application of climate models to improve our understanding of how the system works is a valuable application of these tools. In an essay, I used the term sensitivity study to characterize a process study. In a sensitivity study, a subset of the forcings and/or feedback of the climate system may be perturbed to examine its response. The model of the climate system might be incomplete and not include each of the important feedbacks and forcings.

Diagnosis: The application of climate models, in which observed data is assimilated into the model, to produce an observational analysis that is consistent with our best understanding of the climate system as represented by the manner in which the fundamental concepts and parameterizations are represented. Although not yet applied to climate models, this procedure is used for weather reanalyses (see the NCEP/NCAR 40-Year Reanalysis Project).

Forecasting: The application of climate models to predict the future state of the climate system. Forecasts can be made from a single realization, or from an ensemble of forecasts which are produced by slightly perturbing the initial conditions and/or other aspects of the model. Mike MacCracken, in his very informative response to my Climatic Change essay seeks to differentiate between a prediction and a projection.

With these definitions, the question is where does the IPCC and US National Assessment Models fit? Since the General Circulation Models do not contain all of the important climate forcings and feedbacks (as given in the aforementioned 2005 NRC report) the models results must not be interpreted as forecasts. Since they have been applied to project the decadal-averaged weather conditions in the next 50-100 years and more, they cannot be considered as diagnostic models since we do not yet have the observed data to insert into the models. The term projection needs to be reserved for forecasts, as recommended in Figure 6 in R-225.

Therefore, the IPCC and US National Assessments appropriately should be communicated as process studies in the context that they are sensitivity studies. It is a very convoluted argument to state that a projection is not a prediction. The specification to periods of time in the future (e.g., 2050-2059) and the communication in this format is very misleading to the users of this information. This is a very important distinction which has been missed by impact scientists who study climate impacts using the output from these models and by policymakers.

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