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Stickiness and Climate Models: Open Climate Models (2)

By: Dr. Ricky Rood , 5:04 AM GMT on November 30, 2010

Stickiness and Climate Models: Open Climate Models (2)

In the previous entry I motivated the need for communities other than scientists to have access not just to the results from climate models, but to the ability to configure climate models for possible changes to the Earth’s surface and to investigate the impact of those changes. An example I used was the possibility of a project to irrigate the Sahara – a project where it was reasonable to ask how both weather and climate might be modified.

We don’t have to imagine futuristic projects like this to make the argument that more access to configurable, evaluated climate models is needed. Some might recall an entry where I was writing about managing aerosols and greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide to control warming in the near-term. That entry had been motivated by an outstanding presentation by Professor V. Ramanathan from the University of California San Diego. (I recommend specifically this part of Ram’s web page.) He was talking about an experiment where he was going to investigate whether or not changing cook stoves in India could reduce black carbon in the atmosphere, leading to reduced warming of the planet. While Professor Ramanathan has access to climate models and access to experts to design model experiments, he is not the only interested party in the execution and the results of the model experiments. It is easy to see that all of the regional governments would be interested in their own evaluations; many non-governmental organizations would be interested, as well as corporations and citizens.

In order to get buy in from all of these entities, people will want to be able to evaluate the information and its quality. They are likely going to want to pose their own questions. If such an undertaking was to proceed under the auspices of a treaty, then it is easy to imagine a country wanting to, say, develop its own climate modeling capabilities. And, of course, we will want to evaluate whether or not any action has had the predicted effect. Finally, remember that a scientific evaluation would require that independent researchers verify the information from other researchers.

My argument, suggested in a couple of earlier entries, is that community approaches are called for because of the complexity and ultimate scale that is involved (Using Projections, Downscaling). This stands in contrast to other ways to approach this problem, for example, users forming collaborations with scientists at universities and laboratories, or a new breed of climate consultancy with the needed expertise. No doubt, these other forms of developing climate information will occur and grow; it is the way that weather information is obtained. Restating, I don’t think that the simple extension of the way we provide weather services provides what is needed for climate services.

I want to state, explicitly, that I am in no way making the statement that the community of climate scientists and the availability of climate data and climate information are, fundamentally, closed. In fact, I have argued the contrary - that by the standards of any large, complex knowledge base that I can think of - the data, the analysis, and the deliberations of the climate community are free and available (for example Trust, but Verify, Strength in Many Peers). And without exaggeration, historian Paul Edwards has studied both weather and climate science as pioneering examples of the development of data and information sharing communities - A Vast Machine). That the climate community is excessively closed is part of the political argument. If any readers are aware of good studies about openness of research communities, then please send me (directly) references. My argument is that the requirement to extend the use of climate information to uncountable application communities challenges the current notions of community.

The provision of climate models that are configurable by non-scientists, presumably non-expert communities, is difficult and controversial. I recently gave a talk on this subject at Supercomputing 2010, and the slides of my presentation are linked here. In the next few articles in this series I want to explore some of the challenges that need to be overcome if there were to be open innovation and development of climate models, some ideas on how address the challenges, and some strategies on how to think about uncertainty in climate projections.

Developing Climate Models: Some basic problems

A climate model is built from component models that represent the atmosphere, the oceans, the land surface and the Earth’s ice – the cryosphere. Each of these models is composed of sub-component models, for example, cumulus cloud models. If you were to look around at the clouds, sky, the plants, the people, the landscape, the streams, and ask the question – how do I represent these things as numbers? How do I represent how these things will change? How do I represent how these things interact with each other? If you ask these questions, then you start to appreciate what needs to be included in a climate model. The answers to these questions get written up as narratives and computer codes that in some approximate way represents both the observed behavior and how that behavior changes. This leads to hundreds of thousands lines of computer code, which represent the knowledge of hundreds of types of researchers. To bring all of this together is a big management problem. To make sure that all the pieces work together is not straightforward; there is no single prescription; it is, sometimes, arcane and artistic.

Figure 1. Components of a model of the Earth’s Climate.

Add on top of this inherent tangle of ideas and codes our history, and it only makes the problem harder. We build on existing models, which requires us to use what exists. In some cases it is safe to say that there is computer code 30 years old, written in languages that are no longer taught. It’s a little like trying to keep ancient stone buildings from falling down. This heritage code provides a stubborn inertia that inhibits change and modernization.

Then to this heritage code add to the mix the nature of the computational problem. For as long as I have been a scientist, say 30 years, weather and climate models require the largest computers available, and these supercomputers are not programmed like your Apple or your PC. I know people Putman at NASA today who are trying to scale climate models to run on more than 100,000 processors. To be clear, that is a single model requiring 100,000 processors to run in concert with each other, which is far different than having 100,000 little models running independently. (Weather fans should remember L. F. Richardson). And we cannot stop the weather forecasts and the climate assessments to build something fundamentally new; our mission requires us to keep working along with what we have.

The take away message from this little exposé is that we have a highly specialized problem, with potentially overwhelming complexity, and a long history of how we have managed to get things done. “Managed to get things done” is at the core. All of the scientists and the codes are spread all over. They are not in any formal sense, managed, and we have had to develop management strategies to help control the complexity. We have this tension between management and community and creativity.

I have managed large weather and climate modeling activities when I was at NASA. On a good day, I maintain that I managed this successfully. When I was a manager I sought control, and I grimaced at some naïve ideas of community. My experience tells me that we need to investigate new ways of model development and model use. This need arises because the complexity is too large to control, and this is especially true as we extend the need to use climate models to investigate energy policy decisions and, especially, adaptation to climate change.

In the past decade we have seen the emergence of community approaches to complex problem solving. Within these communities we see the convergence of creativity and the emergence of solution paths. We see self-organizing and self-correcting processes evolve. Counter intuitively, perhaps, we see not anarchy, but the emergence of governance in these open communities. The next entry in the series will focus more on describing open communities.


Pakistani Flood Relief Links

Doctors Without Borders

The International Red Cross

MERLIN medical relief charity

U.S. State Department Recommended Charities

The mobile giving service mGive allows one to text the word "SWAT" to 50555. The text will result in a $10 donation to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Pakistan Flood Relief Effort.

Portlight Disaster Relief at Wunderground.com

An impressive list of organizations

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Reader Comments

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It gets even better, we have now a record cold that goes back 450 years.
How could that be when we burned all
that oil in the gulf this summer.
Tell you what it is not, Hot.
Time to get a clue. Enjoy.


It's been one of the coldest starts to winter ever recorded (based on Central England Temperature (CET) records which started in 1659), with numerous local records broken.

Such has been the intensity of the cold, rivers across Yorkshire have begun to freeze over, a rare phenomenon in itself, but virtually unheard of so early in the winter season.

After that there is an unusual level of agreement for so far ahead, between most models, that a very cold and potentially snowy pattern will become established.

North or Northeast winds will dominate the UK by the end of next week and into next weekend, with atmospheric weather patterns well blocked across higher latitudes.

Blocking patterns are very difficult to break down, suggesting a wintry scenario in the lead up to christmas.

If this is the case, then December could challenge 1981 for its severity, itself the coldest and snowiest December of the last century.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Should airline passengers pay a small tax to help out? How about global money dealers? Or perhaps governments should take what they spend subsidizing gasoline prices and put it toward the climate cause.
Delegates to the U.N. climate conference hope to agree in its final days on setting up a new "green fund" to help poorer countries grapple with global warming. Then the real arguments will begin - over where the cash will come from.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stepped into the middle of the debate this year by enlisting a high-level group of international political and financial leaders to offer advice. On Wednesday, the U.N. chief presented their ideas to the conference, including airline and foreign-exchange levies, as he led a discussion with key figures on the panel.
It will be "challenging but feasible and doable even in the context of the ongoing economic crisis" to raise $100 billion a year by 2020, as promised by richer nations at last year's climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, Ban said.
Adequate financial support would build trust between the developing and developed world, needed to forge an eventual umbrella agreement among all nations to fight climate change, he said.
Besides the green fund, the annual two-week meeting of parties to the 193-nation U.N. climate treaty may also agree on ways to make it easier for poorer nations to obtain patented green technology, and may pin down further elements of a plan to compensate developing nations for protecting their climate-friendly forests.
But once more, as at the Copenhagen summit, negotiators won't produce a sweeping deal to succeed the relatively modest Kyoto Protocol after 2012, one that would slash greenhouse gases to curb climate change.
The United States has long refused to join Kyoto, which requires limited emissions reductions by richer nations, and whose commitments expire in 2012. The United States complained the accord would hurt its economy and should have mandated actions as well by such emerging economies as China and India.
Washington's climate envoy, Todd Stern, repeated that position in Cancun on Wednesday, saying the United States won't sign up to any legally binding climate pact unless it applies to "all the major countries," including China and India.

Maybe Obama should lead by example,
I'm sure his core support will remain true
under the additional error load

Meanwhile, carbon dioxide and other global warming emissions from industry, vehicles and agriculture continue to accumulate in the atmosphere.

That's why it is so cold!

The green fund would be considered a key success for Cancun, but many details would remain to be worked out later.
The financing would help developing nations buy advanced clean-energy technology to reduce their own emissions, and to adapt to climate change, such as building seawalls against rising seas and upgrading farming practices to compensate for shifting rain patterns.
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updated Thu Dec 9, 2010 8:11am AEDT
Cars come to a standstill at Saint-Arnoult-en-Yvelines toll near Paris.

Cars come to a standstill at Saint-Arnoult-en-Yvelines toll near Paris. (Reuters: Mal Langsdon)

Related Story: Europe cold snap continues to kill
Related Story: 13 die as cold grips Europe
Related Story: Frustration and laughs as Britain gets snowed in
Related Story: Pub-goers snowed in for eight days

Heavy snow blanketed Paris on Wednesday, forcing the closure of the Eiffel Tower and briefly shutting its main airport as sub-zero temperatures turned Scottish roads into deadly ice sheets and Spain and Portugal cleared up after flooding and tornado-like winds.

Road, rail and air travellers faced fresh disruption following last week's transport shutdown, with Paris's Charles de Gaulle-Roissy airport closed for an hour-and-a-half and the mercury plummeting as low as minus 18.3 degrees Celsius at Tyndrum in the Scottish Highlands.

In Portugal, high winds carried off cars, uprooted trees, tore off roofs and blew over electricity poles on Tuesday, leaving around 30 people injured. A second body was recovered in Spain on Wednesday following flooding.

France's meteorological service, France Meteo, said 11 centimetres of snow fell in central Paris, the heaviest snowfall since 1987.




Records are records, exceeding the norm as per unit of time.


Pole shift is an established fact,
what effect it has is unclear.
Sometimes the field completely flips. The north and the south poles swap places. Such reversals, recorded in the magnetism of ancient rocks, are unpredictable. They come at irregular intervals averaging about 300,000 years; the last one was 780,000 years ago. Are we overdue for another? No one knows.

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Quoting DoverWxwatchter:
Has anyone done a study on what effects higher CO2 levels have on nitrogen-fixing bacteria atmoaggie?
Like you guys, that's far enough out of my expertise that I am limited to what can be found...very, very little.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
Quoting MichaelSTL:
Of course, that can also include CO2 and water, not just soil nutrients, but it is often the latter two that limit current crop productivity, unless you grow plants in a controlled environment, like a greenhouse, then more CO2 is beneficial; but note that some plants become more toxic (cassava, already able to cause cyanide poisoning yet widely eaten in tropical regions) or less nutritious (many others, unless you want to eat soybeans).
You guys seem stuck on crops.

A number of studies have actually emitted CO2 in part of fields, sections of forests, etc. and found CO2 being THE limiting factor.

I hadn't shown any links, as my (little bit) of knowledge on the matter was from presentations at a conference...I might have to spend a little time finding those. (Not brand new, that conference was 6 years ago).

I think they were DOE researchers.....maybe.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
Quoting DoverWxwatchter:
CO2 in the past several hundred thousand years has varied between 180 ppm and 300 ppm until the industrial revolution.  Which means plant life is adapted for those levels---I don't believe CO2 is a restraint on plant growth at current levels.  After all, forests and grasslands were doing just fine 18,000 years ago in places where the climate was warm enough to support them--even though CO2 was 180 ppm.

High CO2 levels might have one benefit for plant growth in an indirect way.  Plants will need fewer openings in their leaves to exchange gases (stomata).  Stomata let water vapor out from leaves.  So if leaves develop fewer stomata to get the CO2 they need, plants will lose less water and be more drought-tolerant. 

But with CO2 already so much higher than plants have evolved to need, and rising far beyond today's levels as the century goes on, I think that CO2 is no longer a constraint on plant growth, if it ever was.  Nutrients from the ground---minerals that plants need and nitrogen in the soil will be the constraints on plant growth, not CO2.

It would be very interesting to see what effects higher CO2 levels have on nitrogen-fixing bacteria.  I don't know if studies have been done on that.
Ummm, a number of studies have compared plant growth with a control group and a higher CO2 group, all else being equal, and have measured growth rates showing that CO2 is the limiting factor.

In pre-historical times of less CO2 ppm, yeah, they survived. Did they grow as fast? Of course not.

And, the discussion of extremes is a little silly. *Some* plant matter will survive anything and after a major event, then available resources just help the surviving plants come back quickly. After a forest fire, flood, drought, plants come back, and fast. Down here, in Katrina's flood zone, everyone can tell you that a lot of plant matter initially died from flood and saltwater, but a year later, lots of overgrown areas where the plants came back faster than the humans. Only the bad erosion areas lost in any permanent way.
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Quoting misanthrope:

Hey Aggie - wondering if you've ever posted anything here that you didn't find on Watts Up With That?

Just saying, you know.

Hmmm, I think everyone is still missing the point. *sigh*

Is it there? I subscribe to a EurekAlert list and is in my.yahoo.

Let's go see if Watts has anything substantive to say about it...
Nope. Just the press release. Exactly the same thing as everywhere else, but tainted, somehow, because of the URL, I guess. Whatever.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
Quoting atmoaggie:
Interesting...and, clearly, we are still learning how it works. (Who knows. One day, maybe, we'll actually have a coherent understanding.)

'Greener' climate prediction shows plants slow warming

GREENBELT, Md. -- A new NASA computer modeling effort has found that additional growth of plants and trees in a world with doubled atmospheric carbon dioxide levels would create a new negative feedback – a cooling effect – in the Earth's climate system that could work to reduce future global warming.

The cooling effect would be -0.3 degrees Celsius (C) (-0.5 Fahrenheit (F)) globally and -0.6 degrees C (-1.1 F) over land, compared to simulations where the feedback was not included, said Lahouari Bounoua, of Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Bounoua is lead author on a paper detailing the results that will be published Dec. 7 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

I see responses concerning "planting" or geoengineering or only 0.3 C...

This isn't about planting, it is about a response from all plants.

And, I didn't post it concerning a number. My point is that we know so very little and are constantly coming up with new and different model results, not to mention actual measurement.

But no one had any comment about that part. They must know all there is to know about climate already and I bored them with the notion otherwise.
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Dr. Ricky Rood's Climate Change Blog

About RickyRood

I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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