13 June 2024
Earth system models missing future climate piece

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Earth system models, which are used to predict future climate change, are missing a key piece of the puzzle, according to a new comment published in Nature Climate Change. The way science is funded is hampering Earth system models, and may be skewing important climate predictions, according to a new comment published in Nature Climate Change by Woodwell Climate Research Center and an international team of model experts.

Earth System Models Missing Permafrost Dynamics: A Critical Piece of the Future Climate Puzzle



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Introduction

Earth system models (ESMs) are powerful computer programs that scientists use to predict future climate scenarios based on various factors, including greenhouse gas emissions, land use changes, and natural climate variability. However, a recent study published in Nature Climate Change reveals a significant gap in these models: the lack of accurate representation of permafrost dynamics, which could potentially skew climate predictions.

What is Permafrost?

Permafrost refers to the frozen ground in the Arctic regions that remains frozen for at least two consecutive years. It contains vast amounts of organic carbon, nearly twice the amount present in the Earth’s atmosphere. As the Earth’s climate warms due to human activities, permafrost is thawing, releasing this carbon into the atmosphere. This process, known as permafrost carbon release, is a major concern because it could significantly accelerate global warming.

The Missing Link in Earth System Models

Surprisingly, only two out of eleven ESMs used in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report include permafrost carbon cycling. The ones that do use oversimplified approximations that do not capture the complex dynamics of permafrost carbon release. This omission is problematic because it leads to inaccurate predictions of future carbon emissions and climate change.

Challenges in Modeling Permafrost Dynamics

Modeling permafrost dynamics is a challenging task due to the intricate interactions between physical, biological, and chemical processes in these regions. The abrupt thawing of permafrost can create ponds and lakes, altering the surface hydrology and releasing additional carbon. These processes are not adequately represented in current ESMs.

Funding Constraints Hinder Model Development

The study highlights that the current funding structure for scientific research, with its relatively short three-year funding cycles, poses a significant obstacle to the development of accurate ESMs. Developing and improving these models is a complex and time-consuming process that requires long-term funding and sustained efforts. The short-term funding cycles make it difficult to train model developers and complete key development steps before teams turn over.

The Need for Targeted Funding

To address this gap, the study calls for substantial funding specifically dedicated to ESM development, on the order of multiple millions of dollars per ESM. This funding would enable the establishment of necessary infrastructure and support for model development, including highly skilled software developers and programmers.

Conclusion

The accurate representation of permafrost dynamics in ESMs is crucial for reliable climate predictions and informed policy decisions. Addressing the funding constraints and providing targeted support for ESM development are essential steps toward improving the accuracy of these models and enhancing our understanding of the complex interactions shaping our planet’s climate..

FAQ’s

What are Earth system models (ESMs)?

ESMs are computer programs that scientists use to predict future climate scenarios based on factors like greenhouse gas emissions, land use changes, and natural climate variability.

What is permafrost, and why is it important?

Permafrost is frozen ground in the Arctic regions that remains frozen for at least two consecutive years. It contains vast amounts of organic carbon, nearly twice the amount in the Earth’s atmosphere. As the climate warms, permafrost thaws, releasing this carbon into the atmosphere, potentially accelerating global warming.

Why are permafrost dynamics missing from most ESMs?

Only two out of eleven ESMs used in the latest IPCC report include permafrost carbon cycling. The ones that do use oversimplified approximations that do not capture the complex dynamics of permafrost carbon release.

What challenges are faced in modeling permafrost dynamics?

Modeling permafrost dynamics is challenging due to the intricate interactions between physical, biological, and chemical processes in these regions. The abrupt thawing of permafrost can create ponds and lakes, altering surface hydrology and releasing additional carbon. These processes are not adequately represented in current ESMs.

How can we address the funding constraints that hinder ESM development?

The study calls for substantial funding specifically dedicated to ESM development, on the order of multiple millions of dollars per ESM. This funding would enable the establishment of necessary infrastructure and support for model development, including highly skilled software developers and programmers.

Links to additional Resources:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-022-01408-0 https://www.woodwellclimate.org/ https://www.nature.com/subjects/climate-sciences

Related Wikipedia Articles

Topics: Permafrost, Earth system models, Climate change

Permafrost
Permafrost (from perma- 'permanent', and frost) is soil or underwater sediment which continuously remains below 0 °C (32 °F) for two years or more: the oldest permafrost had been continuously frozen for around 700,000 years. While the shallowest permafrost has a vertical extent of below a meter (3 ft), the...
Read more: Permafrost

Earth system science
Earth system science (ESS) is the application of systems science to the Earth. In particular, it considers interactions and 'feedbacks', through material and energy fluxes, between the Earth's sub-systems' cycles, processes and "spheres"—atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, geosphere, pedosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, and even the magnetosphere—as well as the impact of human societies...
Read more: Earth system science

Climate change
In common usage, climate change describes global warming—the ongoing increase in global average temperature—and its effects on Earth's climate system. Climate change in a broader sense also includes previous long-term changes to Earth's climate. The current rise in global average temperature is more rapid than previous changes, and is primarily...
Read more: Climate change

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