Near-term climate prediction coming of age, study shows

January 22, 2019, University of Exeter
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

The quest for climate scientists to be able to bridge the gap between shorter-term seasonal forecasts and long-term climate projections is coming of age, a study shows.

A new review paper by a team of international experts, including Professor Adam Scaife from the University of Exeter, has shown the true capabilities of near-term climate predictions, out to just a few years ahead

These improved predictions are increasingly valuable for policymakers, governments and international aid agencies to provide increased resilience to flood and drought management, as well as international disaster risk reduction.

The study is published in leading research journal Nature Climate Change on Monday, January 21 2019.

Professor Adam Scaife, jointly from the University of Exeter and Met Office and a lead author on the study said: "There is a lot of work still to do, but just as weather forecasts became a regular operational activity in the 20th century, we are now approaching a similar point for near term climate predictions and these are now being made at a number of scientific institutes worldwide."

The new study highlights the prospects for skilful near-term climate predictions, when climate models are started from real-time observations of both the ocean and the atmosphere.

Crucially, these enhanced ocean-atmosphere also feature the effects of man-made greenhouse gases and natural effects, such as solar variability on climate.

Yochanan Kushnir of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Colombia University, and joint lead author of the study added: "Our paper promotes the move of near-term climate from the experimental state to the practical application for the 21st century decision makers.

"We are convinced that with proper delivery and couching, users of the operational product will be able to utilize this information effectively for long-term planning in a broad range of economic sectors and – importantly—for increasing society's resilience to climate variability and change."

Developing countries, for example in sub-Saharan Africa, are expected to benefit increasingly from the boost in near-term climate prediction.

Near-term climate prediction is listed as one of the Grand Challenges of the World Climate Research Programme, an international programme helping to co-ordinate global climate research.

Pavel Kabat, the World Meteorological Organization's Chief Scientist and Director of Research, said: "Climate predictions at decadal time scales are produced routinely now to international standards, allowing this nascent field to develop further and to adapt to society's needs. This achievement is an outstanding example of long-standing science investment and ongoing collaboration between entities such as the World Climate Research Programme and international partners in research and national prediction centers."

The authors' study shows prospects for skilful near-term prediction when coupled climate model simulations – including those representing both the atmosphere and the oceans – are initialised using observations from the current climate.

These are further improved when incorporating the influences from human-induced climate change and natural drivers, such as solar radiation.

Professor Scaife added: "An exciting prospect is that the skill of these predictions a few years ahead is similar to the skill of seasonal predictions a few months ahead, which are already widely used for planning aid and disaster risk reduction".

Explore further: Climate model uncertainties ripe to be squeezed

More information: Yochanan Kushnir et al. Towards operational predictions of the near-term climate, Nature Climate Change (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41558-018-0359-7

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