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Why Climate Models Fail

Is it possible humanity needs new methods for using historical climate trends to anticipate future changes?

Depending on the circles you travel in life and on the internet, you might find yourself inundated with predictions and ruminations of impending doom. But lately, some scientists have questioned the accuracy and validity of some climate models — simulations of Earth based on past data — used to predict Earth’s climate. Is it possible humanity needs new methods for using historical climate trends to anticipate future changes?

Examples of Controversy Involving Climate Models

There is more to climate than heating and cooling trends — scientists also want reliable methods to predict extreme weather events accurately. Below is a look at some ongoing debates surrounding current climate models.

1. Predicting Droughts

Modern climate models are not always capable of predicting major droughts. Why do these models fail? Partly, it is because they have always been flawed.

Scientists developed a lot of their present methodology in the 1950s. To predict general circulation trends and extreme weather, climate models use wind speed, air pressure, temperature and atmospheric motion to predict mega-droughts and other harmful events.

Scientists have tested these models over the years. In 2015, one research group determined the models have failed to predict several now-famous mega-droughts. In 2022, published research from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences argued that future droughts would be likewise difficult to predict because climate change does not have a uniform impact on changing rainfall rates across the globe.

Ultimately, various factors impact extreme weather and scientists still need to create a simulation model that accurately reflects all of them at once. Thankfully, engineers and researchers are working hard to develop better tools. For example, breakthroughs in robotics are making it easier to study land-sea interfaces, which is a massive help in understanding both the causes and the impacts of climate change.

2. Modeling Wintertime Climates

Scientists are seeking ways to improve the accuracy of regional climate predictions — especially in wintertime. Some of the models currently used to do this may have revealed fatal flaws in recent years environmental scientists hope to address in future iterations. Moreover, there is a lot of overlap between environmental science and environmentalism and it can be easy to let feelings sway the interpretation of available evidence.

Environmental scientists expected the North Atlantic jet stream to get only slightly stronger in the winter months based on climate modeling from 1951 to 2020, using 44 climate models and over 300 individual simulations. However, the observed increase in jet stream strength has far outstripped the predicted strengthening in any of these models or simulations. Scientists believe they just don’t have the “multidecadal-to-centennial” scale — nor the data points related to all human inputs — required to model the climate and atmosphere fully.

3. Understanding Degrees of Climate Change

Of all the environmental sciences, the study of climate change has proved the most controversial. Digesting these controversies with a complete understanding of each party’s potential conflicts of interest is essential.

Patrick Michaels — who served as an environmental science research professor for 30 years at the University of Virginia — is one public figure calling into question the validity of “doom”-filled climate change models.

In fact, Michaels claims the models used by climate change prognosticators — like the ones John Christy used in his testimony before Congress about human-made climate change — show approximately seven times as much atmospheric warming than has actually occurred. Some of the suspected problematic variables include:

  • Failure to account for nonstandard thermometer housings.
  • “Serial” adjustments to climate data over time have made earlier years disproportionately colder in the records.
  • Changes in temperature-measurement methodology may have created a false “plateau” of observed warming — a phenomenon discussed since at least 2015. Scientists are now rethinking that so-called “hiatus” in atmospheric warming. Critics had previously leaped on this hiatus as proof against human-made climate change.

NASA has expressed recent satisfaction with the models used by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) today to forecast future warming trends. These climate models have matured sufficiently to overcome the false plateau witnessed in earlier reports.

They still may need improvement, however. Several models have since been acknowledged as insufficient in some way, but scientists have a better understanding now of where they fall short. The reasons range from failing to account for greenhouse gases beyond CO2 to underestimating climate sensitivity in certain areas.

Do We Need Better Climate Models?

The problems described above are not a blow to science. If anything, they reveal it is a method that changes as new information comes to light. Additionally, it is clear researchers are getting closer to a fuller understanding of how Earth’s climate changes over time and the degree to which humans impact it. However, current climate models are not yet the infallible tools we wish them to be.

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