How Climate Modeling Helps Us Understand Climate Change

This article is part of a series of Arctic ice updates contributed by

Hottest year on record. Lowest levels of sea ice in the Arctic. Most extreme weather patterns we’ve ever seen. How do researchers study a changing climate? Most rely on some form of climate modeling.

In order to understand the dynamics of our climate, scientists and engineers have come together to build models that represent physical processes describing the transfer of energy and materials through Earth’s climate system. Climate models, also called general circulation models, use complex mathematical equations that characterize the interaction between matter and energy across various parts of ocean, land, and atmosphere.

Simply said, a climate model is a tool that can be used to digitally simulate the Earth’s climate. Such simulations are often very useful to understand how the climate is likely to change in the future. These models are different from the tools that meteorologists use to predict weather patterns and storms.

The Difference Between Climate and Weather

“Weather is a short-term state of the atmosphere, often described by temperature, rainfall, humidity, wind, cloudiness, and other meteorological variables at any particular location. It fluctuates over a few hours to a few days’ time-scale,” says climate modeling expert Dr. Subarna Bhattacharyya, a founder of  Climformatics. “Long-term averages (usually over 30 years or more) of temperatures, rainfall, humidity, wind, and other weather variables in a particular place describe its climate. Climate refers to what the weather in an area is usually like over a long period of time.”

Weather fluctuates much faster compared to climate, which changes slowly. As the saying goes, climate is what you expect; weather is what you get.

With an increase in severe weather events, like the California droughts and wildfires, stronger-than-normal hurricanes in the tropics, and some of the coldest weather the U.S. has ever experienced, climate modeling helps us understand what a change in our climate can do to our normal weather patterns in the future.

How Weather Observations Become Climate Data

Networks of ground-based weather observing stations around the world measure weather conditions at thousands of locations every day of the year, some even at hourly time intervals. Collected and studied over a long period of time, these measurements allow climate experts to identify long-term average conditions, providing insight into an area’s climate. Systematic weather records have been kept in many places around the globe for over 100 years. With advances in satellite imagery technologies over the last few decades, more detailed additional weather observations is now possible.

Using the Data to Measure Climate Change

“Using mathematical and statistical tools to analyze such long-term records, scientists can detect patterns and trends. Change in such patterns help us to detect and understand climate change, “ explains Bhattacharyya. “I use various data science and analytics tools based on mathematics, statistics, signal processing along with visualization software, sometimes requiring high-performance computing facilities.”

Continued climate modeling helps the Ice911 research team determine exactly where in the Arctic to target deployment of our reflective glass. Targeted deployment helps ensure that our efforts have the greatest impact on climate stability, global temperatures, and Arctic ice volume.

It also helps researchers understand where we might see the greatest challenges of climate change geographically. Some communities are already experiencing the effects of climate change more than others. The ability to evaluate where we might see the most dramatic changes to a stable climate could help us prepare for how climate change will affect humans — and other life — in the future.

About the Author

Charlie Heck is a multimedia news editor and radio producer. She was co-host of the National Science Foundation’s Science 360 Super Science Show and writes on other various STEM subjects and Ice911-related news.


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