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Climate Projections and Predictions: Real-world use (1)

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 6:07 AM GMT on October 21, 2010

Climate Projections and Predictions: Real-world use (1)

Regular readers of this blog know that for the past few months, I have taken paths that explore how we respond to the information that we have about climate and climate change. There is, in those articles, my analysis of various issues such as the communication of climate change information, what societal response might mean to the practice of climate science, and strategies for going forward. These are my current interests, and in as much as I contribute to the community of climate science, these are the issues that I put my energy behind. In the past few months I have been involved in many (too many) meetings that have grown out of my climate change problem solving class and these blogs. These meetings have ranged from how cities and water resource managers are developing plans for adapting to climate change to a variety of inquiries on the development of communities to accelerate climate change problem solving. This seemingly growing interest and activity comes at a time when the issue of climate change, at least climate change policy, on national and international levels seems to be caught in political quagmires and wrapped up with issues of energy and economics in an increasingly confused and unproductive way. (It is already time for COP16 in Cancun, Mexico. That will be the subject of the next blog.)

One of the big activities going on right now is the development of climate services. There has recently been the collection of open public comments by the National Academy of Public Administration. NOAA has provided a climate service question and answer. One of the roles I play in this is working with the Climate Program Office to help develop a strategy for delivering climate information, including, climate projections for – for what – stakeholders. (I have written, now, several blogs that address climate services in one way or another and they can, hopefully, be found here.)

I hesitate to say stakeholders because at a recent meeting I saw a picture of a frying pan with a steak in it, and it was identified as a “stakeholder.” This is part of the dialogue. I often say we are providing climate information for applications, then list a set of applications like water resource managers and ski resort designers. Some people think of stakeholders as policy makers. Such discussion of who we might be delivering climate information to is part of problem. Climate and climate change affect everyone, and hence, the potential consumers of climate information form an immense audience.

If you think about that immense audience for a while, and how to organize to provide the needed information, then one way to approach the problem is to look at current users of climate and climate information and to extract some potential organizing principles. For example if you look just at U.S. cities you find that some cities are worried about heat waves and some about flooding. In either case, however, the specifics of the city matter, for example, how are paved areas and park lands distributed? What are the watersheds that feed the rivers? If you examine a city that has a lot of oil refineries close to the ocean, then you are worried about sea level rise and storm surges – this leads to concerns about wetlands and fine details of coastal elevation and land subsiding because of water being pumped out. My point is that when you span across all cities and then span across potential consumers of climate information from brokerage houses to ski resort designers to seed hybridizers that climate information requires tailoring not only to a specific field, but to many specific cases. That said, it is naïve to imagine providing a “climate prediction” in the same way as providing a weather prediction. (see previous blog entries Predictions and Projections and Time for New Community) This tailoring of information is not only the provision of some number for some place at some time, but also the provision of how to interpret and use that number. This sort of advice is currently being called translation, and in the spirit of a climate service, translation services.

Words are important. I have been beating to death the idea that climate change has become in the most public dialogues a political rather than scientific subject. Curiously, in political arguments words are often both important and meaningless because once the word takes hold the political arguments redefine the word in terms of political desires. So, I want to avoid the political argument, and I believe that a National Climate Service will help to de-politicize climate as an issue (see). We have already implied the importance of words in the discussion of “stakeholder” above – it is part of a search for a single word when perhaps a single word is not appropriate. I want to point out that I have carefully used the ideas of both climate and climate-change and talk most often about “climate information.”

I think that it is not controversial that if we could predict the climate with some accuracy, then that would be beneficial for society. The issue of climate change would then be answered by whether or not anthropogenic changes to greenhouse gases and aerosols had to be included to improve the quality of predictions. (That was part of the point of the Bumps and Wiggles series.) Within the past two decades we have developed definitive skill in performing seasonal and El Nino predictions. Not long ago, these types of forecasts were known as climate forecasts – and the use of this terminology and which part of which agency “owns” climate forecasting colors the discussion today. We have been able to show skill in these predictions, but it has been, perhaps, more difficult to figure out how to use these predictions. There is a lot of uncertainty and the need to understand not only probabilities but the ability of someone to use that information. For example whether to hedge one’s risk with changing choice of seeds is a different problem for the market-based farmer in Australia than the subsidence based farmer in Botswana (unabashedly Lemos and Rood (2010)).

There is no doubt that if we focus our resources on the problem, and better include representation of the ocean circulation in climate models, then we will develop skill at decadal prediction. And this climate prediction will be useful to those who know how to use them. It is, therefore, I assert, apolitical to develop predictive models, measure their skill, and perhaps even more challenging to perform the research on how to use these climate projections as they morph into climate predictions. The U.S. Navy thinks this is important enough they even have a Facebook page.

At a recent meeting in Washington of Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments Centers I was delighted to see my thesis advisor in a very active retirement. As some had some fun with a couple of years ago my thesis advisor is Jim O’Brien who is often counted as climate change skeptic. I never speak for Jim (and try not to speak for others in general, but sometimes it’s hard – loved ones sometimes call me an academic), but most of what I hear from Jim are concerns about the attribution of specific events to man-made global warming. In fact, I think that Jim has publically stated that global warming is an important issue, important enough to get right. He is, like me and hundreds of others, actively involved in how to improve climate projections and how to better use climate observations and projections in applications. Therefore, I assert, that developing and using climate information is not only apolitical, but in the interest of economic and national security, as well as competitiveness. I also assert that is the worst intersection of science and politics for politicians to say, OK study climate prediction, but don’t study attribution of climate variability to greenhouse gases.

Words: stakeholders, climate information, climate knowledge, prediction, projection, attribution – words are ultimately important as they help to make more precise what we mean, what we are doing, and what we need to know. In the problems of how to use climate projections words are important to communicate across fields. City utility managers need to know what climate scientists are saying and climate scientists need to know what city utility managers are saying. Translation – that was a word used above. There is translation from one discipline, profession, and application to another.

Why is translation so important in climate services? Is translation less important in weather services? Is the use of weather data that intuitive? There are many places that provide, de facto, commercial translation of weather information. One might argue that is what Wunderground.com does. But you can look around and there are many companies that translate weather (and increasingly climate) data. One of my students went to work for Risk Management Solutions (RMS). The challenges of using climate projections are far more challenging than using weather forecasts. With weather forecasts we have a long history of evaluating their quality and their improvement. We have reasonably good models of uncertainty. We have very limited experience with such quantitative analysis with climate projections – that’s one reason we call them projections. We have a far broader range of uncertainties. And we have the immense diversity of potential consumer mentioned above. While to some, scientists included, the uncertainty and diversity render the problem of climate services untenable, I believe that to cast away the problem as impossible is irresponsible. As I stated above this an issue of economic and national security; it is an issue of environmental sustainability. The use of climate information is such a compelling problem that people are already addressing climate and climate-change issues with whatever information they find usable – whether or not it is the best information available. It is, therefore, an issue of responsibility to be able to use the best information available at any given time, rather than just the information that is most usable. This is an issue just as much, perhaps more, of learning how to use climate information and how to provide usable information. This integrates the user needs into the scientific research, which defines a branch of research which may be in the nature of fundamental research, but it is fundamental research in service to the solution of societal applications (an old take on this).

Enough for now ….


Pakistan: I am certain to maintain an interest in Pakistan far longer than the average disaster attention span. My youngest sister Elizabeth is Counsel General in Peshawar so I keep an eye on the news. Attention to the Pakistan flood is moral imperative, a humanitarian imperative, and a security imperative. (Pakistan Flooding: A Climate Disaster, Yours truly on Chicago-based Radio Islam, Rood interview)

Here are some places that my sister has recommended for the humanitarian crisis in Pakistan. Organizations she sees.

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

Figure 1. Politics of Flood Management: Opinion from the Hindu

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