The National Science Foundation Funds Multi-Decadal Climate Predictions Without An Ability To Verify Their Skill

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research [UCAR] has released a press statement titled

Climate change: Drought may threaten much of globe within decades [h/t to Marcel Crok]

The press release starts with the text [highlight added]

The United States and many other heavily populated countries face a growing threat of severe and prolonged drought in coming decades, according to a new study by National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) scientist Aiguo Dai. The detailed analysis concludes that warming temperatures associated with climate change will likely create increasingly dry conditions across much of the globe in the next 30 years, possibly reaching a scale in some regions by the end of the century that has rarely, if ever, been observed in modern times.

Using an ensemble of 22 computer climate models and a comprehensive index of drought conditions, as well as analyses of previously published studies, the paper finds most of the Western Hemisphere, along with large parts of Eurasia, Africa, and Australia, may be at threat of extreme drought this century.

In contrast, higher-latitude regions from Alaska to Scandinavia are likely to become more moist.

Dai cautioned that the findings are based on the best current projections of greenhouse gas emissions. What actually happens in coming decades will depend on many factors, including actual future emissions of greenhouse gases as well as natural climate cycles such as El Niño.

The new findings appear this week as part of a longer review article in Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change. The study was supported by the National Science Foundation, NCAR’s sponsor.

The press release is based on the paper

Aiguo Dai, 2010: Drought under global warming: a review. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change. DOI: 10.1002/wcc.81

with the abstract [highlight added]

“This article reviews recent literature on drought of the last millennium, followed by an update on global aridity changes from 1950 to 2008. Projected future aridity is presented based on recent studies and our analysis of model simulations. Dry periods lasting for years to decades have occurred many times during the last millennium over, for example, North America, West Africa, and East Asia. These droughts were likely triggered by anomalous tropical sea surface temperatures (SSTs), with La Niña-like SST anomalies leading to drought in North America, and El-Niño-like SSTs causing drought in East China. Over Africa, the southward shift of the warmest SSTs in the Atlantic and warming in the Indian Ocean are responsible for the recent Sahel droughts. Local feedbacks may enhance and prolong drought. Global aridity has increased substantially since the 1970s due to recent drying over Africa, southern Europe, East and South Asia, and eastern Australia. Although El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), tropical Atlantic SSTs, and Asian monsoons have played a large role in the recent drying, recent warming has increased atmospheric moisture demand and likely altered atmospheric circulation patterns, both contributing to the drying. Climate models project increased aridity in the 21st century over most of Africa, southern Europe and the Middle East, most of the Americas, Australia, and Southeast Asia. Regions like the United States have avoided prolonged droughts during the last 50 years due to natural climate variations, but might see persistent droughts in the next 20–50 years. Future efforts to predict drought will depend on models’ ability to predict tropical SSTs.”

This UCAR press release and the article itself are not scientifically robust. Buried within this material are the significant cavaets:

1.  “Dai cautioned that the findings are based on the best current projections of greenhouse gas emissions. What actually happens in coming decades will depend on many factors, including actual future emissions of greenhouse gases as well as natural climate cycles such as El Niño.”

2. “Future efforts to predict drought will depend on models’ ability to predict tropical SSTs.”

In other words, there is NO way to assess the skill of these models are predicting drought as they have not yet shown any skill in SST predictions on time scales longer than a season, nor natural climate cycles such as El Niño [or the PDO, the NAO, ect].

Funding of multi-decadal regional climate predictions by the National Science Foundation which cannot be verified in terms of accuracy is not only a poor use of tax payer funds, but is misleading policymakers and others on the actual skill that exists in predicting changes in the frequency of drought in the future.

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