climate modeling

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NAS Study Calls for ‘Next Generation’ of Climate Models

Report reflects shift in climate research toward news you can use

National Center for Atmospheric Research

A new study from the National Academy of Sciences advocates for more detailed and interconnected climate models.

In the effort to better understand the dynamics of the Earth’s changing climate, a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences calls for scientists to collaborate on a “new generation” of highly detailed and integrated climate change models.

According to the NAS release:

With changes in climate and weather . . . past weather data are no longer adequate predictors of future extremes. Advanced modeling capabilities could potentially provide useful predictions and projections of extreme environments.

Those “useful predictions and projections,” according to the report, could come in various forms — supplying farmers with better information about what to plant, year-to-year, say, or giving local officials greater insights into future flood risk, or providing climatologists with better information about specific parts of the country most susceptible to extreme heat. Continue reading

California’s Rangeland Could Take a Hit from Climate Change

Craig Miller / KQED

A bull stares down the photographer in California's Panoche Valley.

California’s ranchers could face a tougher economic future under climate change. The grasslands they depend on to feed their cattle could shrink by almost 40% by the end of the century, according to a study from Duke University and the Environmental Defense Fund.

The researchers modeled two different climate futures for California: a warmer, wetter scenario and a warmer, drier one. The study showed that by the end of the century, California’s shrublands could increase as much as 70% under the worst-case dry scenario, taking over historic grasslands and other ecosystems. Continue reading

The Heat is On for Napa Valley Wines

Temperatures are rising for Napa Valley grapes. (Photo: KQED Quest.)

California’s prime wine producing areas could shrink dramatically over the next three decades of climate change. That’s according to a study released this week by scientists at Stanford University.

Author Noah Diffenbaugh and colleagues looked at how Napa and Santa Barbara counties could be affected by a one-degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) rise in average global temperature. They found that the land suitable for growing premium wine grapes could be reduced 30-50% by 2040. Continue reading

A Climate Reporter’s Candy Store

I’m spending the week in Boulder, CO, attending a series of lectures and discussions at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The center is a hub for climate modeling using some of the world’s most advanced computers–but scientists here are working on a dizzying array of projects, from “wind prospecting” models for siting utility-scale wind farms in Colorado, to tracking the ozone drift from California wildfires, to studying the relationship between weather and meningitis in Sub-Saharan Africa.

With the Flatiron Mountains as a backdrop, architect I. M. Pei used the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings as inspiration for the NCAR headquarters building, in Boulder. Photo: Craig Miller

With the Flatiron Mountains as a backdrop, architect I. M. Pei used the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings as inspiration for the NCAR headquarters building, in Boulder. Photo: Craig Miller

While NCAR works closely with NOAA (which also has a major research center in town), it is not part of it. NCAR is funded by the National Science Foundation and managed by something called the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a consortium of about 75 North American universities, as well as major institutions abroad.

About 400 scientists work under the NCAR umbrella, including Kevin Trenberth, a leading authority on the link between El Nino and global climate. Right before hopping a plane for Australia this week, Trenberth, head of NCAR’s Climate Analysis Section, reaffirmed what NOAA and others have been saying; that we may be in for a significant El Nino event this fall and winter.

“There are good signs below the surface of the ocean in the tropical Pacific that this is the real deal,” said Trenberth. He echoed some of the optimism expressed by many Californians that the result could be an overdue dousing after three years of accumulating drought conditions. “The odds are, if it’s a good El Nino,” said Trenberth, “that there is more likelihood of a southerly storm track that’ll bring a lot of weather systems into southern California in particular. It’s not always clear what happens in northern California but the odds are that there’s a much more active southern storm track right across the U.S. and in particular in California.”

The IBM Bluefire 76-teraflop computer, centerpiece of NCAR's supercomputing center. Photo: Craig Miller

The IBM Bluefire 76-teraflop computer, centerpiece of NCAR's supercomputing center. Photo: Craig Miller

NCAR scientists continue to refine their climate models, which have been downloaded by more than 10,000 scientists around the world. UCAR invests $20-to-$30 million every four years in it’s Computational & Information Systems Lab (CISL), to maintain it’s state-of-the-art status. CISL chief Rich Loft says it’s probably the most advanced supercomputing center devoted largely to climate analysis.

Even so, NCAR is busy building a bigger, faster one–but not here. The new supercomputer, which may be ready by 2012, will be sited near Cheyenne, Wyoming, mostly to take advantage of the cheap, abundant electric power in that area. Loft and NCAR Director Eric Barron both concede the paradox that the most advanced computer assault on global warming is itself a huge gobbler of electricity, much of which comes from coal-fired power plants. The Wyoming facility will suck down 4.5 megawatts of power. Barron says at least there’s a major wind farm “right next door.”

The center’s carbon footprint is probably also swollen slightly by its own air force. NCAR operates two aircraft packed with advanced instrumentation; a hulking C-130 Hercules and a sleek, high-altitude Gulfstream V. Sadly, no rides were offered this week.