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GeoTalk: the climate communication between Earth’s polar regions

GeoTalk: the climate communication between Earth’s polar regions

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview, we caught up with Christo Buizert, an assistant professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis, who works to reconstruct and understand climate change events from the past. Christo’s analysis of ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica helped reveal links between climate change events from the last ice age that occurred on opposite ends of the Earth. At this year’s General Assembly, the Climate: Past, Present & Future Division recognized his innovative contributions to palaeoclimatology by presenting him with the 2018 Division Outstanding Early Career Scientists Award.

Christo, thank you for talking to us today! Could you introduce yourself and tell us about your career path so far?

Thanks for having me on GeoTalk! I’m a palaeoclimate scientist working on polar ice cores (long sticks of ancient ice drilled in Greenland and Antarctica), combining data, modeling and fieldwork. My background is in physics, and I did a MSc thesis project on quantum electronics. As you can see, I ended up in quite a different field. After teaching high school for a year in my home country the Netherlands, I pursued a PhD at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark, working on ice cores. I must say, doing a PhD is a lot easier than teaching high school! I have gained a lot of respect for teachers.

After obtaining my PhD I moved to the US for reasons of both work and love (not necessarily in that order). I got a NOAA Climate & Global Change Postdoctoral Fellowship at Oregon State University (OSU). OSU has a great palaeoclimate research group and Oregon is one of the prettiest places on Earth, so the decision to stick around was an easy one.

What inspired you to pursue palaeoclimatology after getting your MSc degree in quantum electronics?

I wish I had a better answer to this question, but the truth is that I was drawn by the possibility of doing fieldwork in Greenland, mainly.

At the General Assembly, you received a Division Outstanding Early Career Scientist Award for your work on understanding the bi-polar phasing of climate change. For those of us who aren’t familiar, could you elaborate on this particular field of study?

The final drill run of the WAIS Divide ice core, with ice from 3,405 m (11,171 ft) depth that has been buried for 68,000 years. (Credit: Kristina Slawny/University of Bern)

During the last ice age (120,000 to 12,000 years ago), the world experienced some of the most extreme and abrupt climate events that we know of, the so-called Dansgaard-Oeschger (D-O) events. About 25 of these D-O events happened in the ice age, and during each of them Greenland warmed by 8 to 15oC within a few decades. Each of the warm phases (called interstadials) lasted several hundreds to thousands of years. Greenland ice cores provide clear evidence for these events.

The abrupt D-O events are thought to be linked to changes in ocean circulation. Heat is transported to the Atlantic Ocean by the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere. The AMOC keeps the Nordic Seas free of sea ice and effectively warms Greenland, particularly during the winter months. However, the strength of this heat circulation went through abrupt changes during the last ice age. Marine sediment data and model studies show that changes to the AMOC strength caused the extreme temperature swings associated with the D-O events.

During weak phases of the AMOC, less heat and salt are brought to the North Atlantic, leading to expansive (winter) sea ice cover and cold conditions in Greenland. These are the D-O cycle’s cold phases, the so-called stadials. And vice versa, during the AMOC’s strong phases, the ocean transports more heat northwards, reducing sea ice cover and warming Greenland. These are the warm (interstadial) phases of the D-O cycle.

When the AMOC is strong, it warms the northern hemisphere at the expense of the southern hemisphere. This inter-hemispheric heat exchange is sometimes referred to as ‘heat piracy,’ since the North Atlantic is ‘stealing’ heat from the southern hemisphere. So when Greenland is warm, we see Antarctica cool, and when Greenland is cold, Antarctica is warming. These opposite hemispheric temperature patterns are called the bipolar seesaw, after the playground toy. Using a new ice core from the West Antarctica Ice Sheet (the WAIS Divide ice core), we were able to study the relative timing of the bipolar seesaw at a precision of a few decades – which is extremely precise by the standards of palaeoclimate research.

An infographic explaining the opposite hemispheric temperature patterns, also known as the bipolar seesaw (Illustration by David Reinert/Oregon State University).

We found that the temperature response to the northern hemisphere’s abrupt D-O events was delayed by about two centuries at WAIS Divide. This finding shows that the effects of these D-O events start in the north, and then are transmitted to the southern high-latitudes via changes in the ocean circulation. If the atmosphere were responsible, transmission would have been much faster (typically within a year or so). State-of-the-art climate models actually fail to simulate this 200-year delay in the Antarctic response, suggesting they are missing (or overly simplifying) some of the relevant physics of how temperature anomalies are propagated and mixed in the global ocean. The timescale of two centuries is unmistakably the signature of the ocean, in my view, and so it is an interesting target for testing models.

At the meeting you also gave a talk about the climatic connections between the northern and southern hemispheres during the last ice age. Could you tell us a little more about your findings and their implications? 

A volcanic ash layer in an Antarctic ice core. Volcanic markers like these were used in the new study to synchronize ice cores from across Antarctica. (Credit: Heidi Roop/Oregon State University)

I presented some recently published work that elaborates on this 200-year delay mentioned earlier. Together with European colleagues, we synchronized five Antarctic ice cores using volcanic eruptions as time markers. This makes it possible to study the timing of the seesaw across the entire Antarctic continent with the same great precision as at WAIS Divide. It turns out that the 200-year delayed oceanic response to the northern hemisphere’s abrupt climate change is visible all over Antarctica, not just in West Antarctica.

But the exciting thing is that by looking at the spatial picture, we detect a second mode of climatic teleconnection, superimposed on the bipolar seesaw we talked about earlier. This second mode has zero-time lag behind the northern hemisphere, suggesting that this mode is an atmospheric teleconnection pattern. In my talk I used postcards and text messages as an analogy for these two modes. The oceanic mode is like a postcard, that takes a long time to arrive in Antarctica (200 years). The atmospheric mode is like a text message that arrives right away.

The atmospheric circulation change (the “text message”) causes a particular temperature pattern over Antarctica, with cooling in some places and warming in others. Think of this as the “fingerprint” of the atmospheric circulation. We then compared the ice-core fingerprint to the fingerprints of several wind patterns seen in modern observations. We found that the so-called Southern Annular Mode, a natural mode describing the variability of the westerly winds circling Antarctica, is the best modern analog for what we see in the ice cores.

An infographic explaining how Earth’s polar regions communicate with each other (Illustration by Oliver Day/Oregon State University)

Another piece of the puzzle is that atmospheric moisture pathways to Antarctica change simultaneously with the atmospheric mode. All this supports the idea that the southern hemisphere’s westerly winds respond immediately to abrupt climate change in the North Atlantic. When D-O warming happens in Greenland the SH westerlies shift to the north, and vice versa, during D-O cooling they shift to the south.

This had been predicted in models, and some limited evidence was available from the WAIS Divide ice core, but the new results provide the strongest observational evidence for this effect. This movement of the westerlies has important consequences for sea ice, ocean circulation, and perhaps even CO2 levels and ice sheet stability. So it really urges us to look at these D-O cycle in a global perspective.

You’ve enjoyed success as a researcher, not least your 2018 EGU Award. As an early career scientist, do you have any words of advice for graduate students who are hoping to pursue a career as a scientist in the Earth sciences?

I’m sure there are many different routes to becoming a successful researcher. Developing your own ideas and insights is key, and the secret to having good ideas is having many ideas, because most of them end up being wrong! So be creative and go out on a limb. I am lucky to have had supervisors who gave me a lot of freedom to explore my own ideas. I would also encourage everybody to develop skills in programming and numerical data analysis, for example in Matlab or python.

Christo Buizert (right) and Didier Roche, President of the Climate: Past, Present & Future Division, (left) at the EGU 2018 General Assembly (Credit: EGU/Foto Pflugel).

Frustrating and unfair as it may be, luck plays an important role in getting your research career started. My main PhD project did not work out, but I had a very productive postdoc that grew out of a side project. I ended up in the right place at the right time, because the WAIS Divide ice core had just been drilled, and I got the privilege to work with some of the best ice core data ever measured.

Research is fundamentally a collaborative enterprise, and so developing a good network of collaborators is maybe the most important thing you can do for yourself. Be generous and helpful to your colleagues, and it will be rewarded.

A career in science sometimes feels like a game of musical chairs, with fewer and fewer positions available as you go along. But if you can hang in there it’s definitely worth it; we have the privilege of thinking about interesting problems, traveling to beautiful places, all while interacting with a global network of fantastic colleagues. Could it get much better?

Interview by Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

Can the EU become carbon neutral by 2050? A new strategy from the EU!

Can the EU become carbon neutral by 2050? A new strategy from the EU!

On Wednesday 28 November 2018, the European Commission adopted a strategic long-term vision for a climate neutral economy (net-zero emissions) by 2050!  A Clean Planet for All, tactically released ahead of the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP 24), which will be hosted in Katowice, Poland from 2-14 December, describes seven overarching areas that require action and eight different scenarios that allow the EU to significantly reduce emissions.

The EU is currently responsible for approximately 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is looking to become a world leader in the transition towards climate neutrality – a state where the amount of emissions produced is equal to that sequestered [1]. A Clean Planet for All highlights how the EU can reduce its emissions and, in two of the eight scenarios outlined, have a climate neutral economy by 2050.

A Clean Planet for All is a leap toward a climate neutral economy but it does not intend to launch new policies, nor alter the 2030 climate & energy framework and targets that are already in place. Instead, it will use these targets as a baseline while simultaneously setting the direction of EU policies so that they align with the Paris Agreement’s temperature objectives, help achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and improve the EU’s long-term prosperity and health.

What role did science play in the Clean Planet for All strategy?

Reports generated using climate research, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC, have been catalysts in national climate strategies and policies around the world. This is holds true for the EU’s A Clean Planet for All which features quotes and statistics from the IPCC’s 1.5ºC Report.

International treaties and targets set by organisations such as the United Nations also put pressure on national and regional governments to act and implement their own polices to reduce emissions. Many of these treaties and global targets are based on scientific reports that describe the current state of the world and give projections based on future scenarios. One of the most noteworthy examples of a global treaty is the Paris Agreement which was ratified by 181 counties in 2015. The Sustainable Development Goals are an example of global targets created using a breadth of scientific studies and that are a major consideration when national and local governments are creating policy.

More directly, A Clean Planet for All’s eight different scenarios and their likely outcomes required a huge amount of research and calculations – these scenarios are outlined in more detail below. External scientific input was also employed with scientists and other stakeholders given the opportunity to contribute to the proposal. An EU Public Consultation was open from 17 July until 9 October 2018 and received over 2800 responses. There was also a stakeholder event on 10-11 July 2018 that brought together stakeholders from research, business and the public to discuss the issues with the upcoming strategy.

The 7 strategic building block for a climate neutral economy

A Clean Planet for All outlines seven building blocks that will enable Europe to reduce emissions and build a climate neutral economy.

  1. Energy efficiency
  2. Renewable energy
  3. Clean, safe and connected mobility
  4. Competitive industry and circular economy
  5. Infrastructure and interconnections
  6. Bio-economy and natural carbon sinks
  7. Carbon capture and storage

Figure 1: Achieving a climate neutral economy will require changes in all sectors. Source: EU Commission [3]

Scenarios toward climate neutrality

The Clean Planet for All strategy describes eight different scenarios or pathways that range from an 80% cut in emissions to net-zero emissions by 2050 (see Figure 2 below). Regardless of the scenario chosen, the Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy, Miguel Arias Cañete, emphasised that the structure of the strategy will give member states a certain amount of flexibility to follow different paths. The eight options outlined in the strategy are “what if-scenarios”. They highlight what is likely to happen with a given combination of technologies and actions. While all eight scenarios will enable the EU to reduce emissions, only the last two (shown in the figure below) provide Europe with the opportunity to build a carbon neutral economy by 2050.

The first five scenarios all focus on initiatives which foster a transition towards a climate neutral economy with the extent that electrification, hydrogen, e-fuels and energy efficiency is implemented and the role that the circular economy will play, being the variable. The anticipated electricity consumption required in 2050 also differs depending on the option selected. The energy efficiency and circular economy options have a greater focus on reducing the energy demand rather than developing new sources of clean energy and therefore require the lowest increase in electricity generation (approximately 35% more by 2050 compared with today). Despite the differences, the first five scenarios will all only achieve 80 – 85% emission reductions by 2050 compared with 1990, 15% short of a climate neutral economy.

The sixth scenario combines the first five options but at lower levels and reaches an emissions reduction of up to 90%. The seventh and eighth scenarios are the only ones that could lead to net-zero emissions by 2050. The seventh option combines the first four options and negative emissions technology such as carbon capture and storage. The eighth scenario builds on the seventh with an additional focus on circular economy, encouraging less carbon intensive consumer choices and strengthened carbon sinks via land use changes.

Figure 2: Overview of A Clean Planet for All’s 8 different scenarios to a climate neutral economy [3]

What about the economic cost?

The EU has allocated approximately 20% of its overall 2014-2020 budget (over €206 billion) to climate change-related action. This covers areas such as research and innovation, energy efficiency, public transport, renewable energy, network infrastructure, just to name a few. To achieve a climate neutral economy by 2050, the EU has proposed to raise the share spent on climate-related action to 25% (€320 billion) for the 2021-2027 period.

This is a significant increase but it’s also a smart investment! Not only will it help the EU reach net-emissions but it’s also expected to lower energy bills, increase competitiveness and stimulate economic growth with an estimated GDP increase of up to 2% by 2050. It will also help to reduce the financial impacts of climate change such as damages from increased flooding, heatwaves and droughts. According to a study published in 2018 by the Joint Research Centre, 3ºC of warming (likely in a business-as-usual scenario), would cut Europe’s GDP by at least €240 billion annually by the end of the century. That estimate drops to €79 billion with 2ºC of warming.

Fighting for a climate neutral economy is is expected to have a net-positive impact on employment but of course, some sectors and regions will see job losses. However, the EU has already outlined programmes to manage this issue, such as the European Social Fund Plus (ESF+), and the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund (EGF). As Miguel Arias Cañete (Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy), states:

“Going climate neutral is necessary, possible and in Europe’s interest.”

What are the next steps?

The strategy and scenarios will be discussed at COP24 and may even provide inspiration for other countries to implement similar strategies. You can keep an eye on COP24 developments by streaming sessions via the UNFCCC live webcast and by using #COP24 on social media.

Although already adopted by the European Commission, A Clean Planet for All still needs input and approval from the European Council, the European Parliament’s Environment Committee, the Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee. According to the Paris Agreement, all 181 nations must submit their 2030 emissions targets by 2020 so it’s likely that comments from these committees will come in early 2019.

It’s likely that there will also be a number of stakeholder events in 2019, such as Citizens Dialogues that give scientists, businesses, non-governmental organisations and the public the opportunity to share their thoughts and be involved in the process. The EGU will provide updates on relevant opportunities as they arise. To receive these updates you can join the EGU’s database of expertise!

References and further reading

[1] A Clean Planet for all. A European strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral economy

[2] Questions and Answers: Long term strategy for Clean Planet for All 

[3] In-Depth Analysis in Support of The Commission Communication Com(2018) 773

New EU plan comes out fighting for ‘climate neutrality’ by 2050

Factsheet on the Long Term Strategy Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction

10 countries demand net-zero emission goal in new EU climate strategy

October GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

October GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, major geoscience headlines, as well as unique and quirky research, this monthly column aims to bring you the latest Earth and planetary science news from around the web.

Major story

In October, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark report and summary statement that detailed the severe consequences for our environment and society if global warming continues unabated. The special report, also known as the SR15, was compiled by 91 authors from 40 countries, and cites more than 6,000 peer-reviewed studies.

“There’s no doubt that this dense, science-heavy, 33-page summary is the most significant warning about the impact of climate change in 20 years,” said Matt McGrath an environment correspondent for BBC News.

The  EGU announced its support of the IPCC report in a statement published last month. In this address, EGU President Jonathan Bamber said: “EGU concurs with, and supports, the findings of the SR15 that action to curb the most dangerous consequences of human-induced climate change is urgent, of the utmost importance and the window of opportunity extremely limited.”

The IPCC was first commissioned to produce this report by the UN Convention on Climate Change following the Paris agreement, where world leaders pledged to limit global warming to well below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels and “pursue efforts” towards 1.5ºC. The goal of the report was to better understand what it would take for the world to successfully meet this 1.5ºC target and what the consequences would be if we are unable to reach this goal.

The report illustrates the two different outcomes that would arise from limiting global warming to 1.5ºC or allowing temperatures to rise to 2ºC.

While a half-degree doesn’t come across like a pronounced difference, the report explains that additional warming by this degree could endanger tens of millions more people across the world with life-threatening heat waves, water shortages, and coastal flooding from sea level rise. This kind of warming would also increase the chances that coral reefs and Arctic sea ice in the summer would disappear. These are just a few of the impacts detailed in the report. Recently, Carbon Brief has also produced an interactive graphic that does a deep dive into how climate change at 1.5ºC, 2ºC and beyond will impact different regions and communities around the world.

It should be noted that while limiting warming to 1.5ºC is the better of the two pathways, it still isn’t optimal. For example, under this warming threshold, the authors of the report project that global  sea levels would still rise, coral reefs would decline by 70-90%, and more than 350 million additional people would be exposed to severe drought.

Furthermore, the report goes on to explain what action (and just how much of it) would be necessary to limit warming to 1.5ºC. An article from the Guardian perhaps put it best: “there’s one simple critical takeaway point: we need to cut carbon pollution as much as possible, as fast as possible.

The report authors emphasise that limiting warming would require a massive international movement to reduce emissions and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; and additionally this effort would need to happen within the next few years to avoid the most severe outcomes. They warn that if greenhouse emissions are still released at their current rate, the Earth’s temperature may reach 1.5ºC some time between 2030 and 2052, and reach more than 3ºC by 2100. Even more so, they concluded that the greenhouse gas reduction actions currently pledged by various countries around the world are still not enough to limit warming to 1.5ºC.

Measures to reach this temperature target include reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and reach a ‘net-zero’ by 2050. and making dramatic investments in renewable energy. They conclude that 70-35% of the world’s electricity should be generated by renewables like wind and solar power by 2050. By that same time, the coal industry would need to be phased out almost entirely.

Moreover, the authors say that we would need to expand forests and develop technology to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The report notes that climate action needs to be taken on an individual level as well, such as reducing the amount of meat we eat and time we spend on flying airplanes.

The authors report that we have the technology and means to limit warming by 1.5ºC, but they warn that the current political climate could make reaching this goal less likely.

“Limiting warming to 1.5ºC is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” said Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III, in an IPCC press release.

Still have questions about the recent report? The IPCC has released a comprehensive FAQ and Carbon Brief has published an in-depth Q&A that addresses questions such as why the panel released the report, why adaptation is important, what the reaction has been, and what’s next.

What you might have missed

BepiColombo approaching Mercury. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab; Mercury: NASA/JPL

Last month the science media was also abuzz with a series of space agency news. On 20 October, the European-Japanese mission BepiColombo successfully launched from French Guiana, starting its seven-year long journey to Mercury, the smallest and least explored terrestrial planet in the Solar System. The probe is poised to be the third mission to travel to Mercury.

Once it arrives in 2025, the spacecraft will actually separate into two satellites, which will orbit the planet for at least one year. One satellite will investigate Mercury’s magnetic field while the other will take a series of measurements, including collecting data on the planet’s terrain, topography, and surface structure and composition. The researchers involved with the mission hope to learn more about Mercury’s origins and better understand the evolution of our solar system.

While one mission has started its journey, another’s has come to an end. Last month NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope has officially been retired after running out of fuel. Over its 9-year life span, the telescope has spotted more than 2,600 planets outside our solar system, many of which are possibly capable of sustaining life.

“As NASA’s first planet-hunting mission, Kepler has wildly exceeded all our expectations and paved the way for our exploration and search for life in the solar system and beyond,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Not only did it show us how many planets could be out there, it sparked an entirely new and robust field of research that has taken the science community by storm. Its discoveries have shed a new light on our place in the universe, and illuminated the tantalizing mysteries and possibilities among the stars.”

However, even though Kepler’s planet-scoping days are over, NASA’s new space observatory, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission, which launched in April 2018, will continue the search for habitable worlds.

NASA’s Kepler space telescope, shown in this artist’s concept, revealed that there are more planets than stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Image credit: NASA

Links we liked

The EGU story

Earlier in October, we announced the winners of the 2019 EGU awards and medals: 45 individuals who have made significant contributions to the Earth, planetary and space sciences and who will be honoured at the 2019 EGU General Assembly next April. We have also announced the winners of the Outstanding Student Poster and PICO (OSPP) Awards corresponding to the 2018 General Assembly, which you can find on our website. Congratulations to all!

This month, we also opened the call for abstracts for the EGU 2019 General Assembly. If you are interested in presenting your work in Vienna in April, make sure you submit your abstract by 10 January 2019, 13:00 CET. If you would like to apply for a Roland Schlich travel grant to attend the meeting, please submit your abstract no later than 1 December 2018. You can find more information on the EGU website.

Interested in science and art? After successfully hosting a cartoonist and a poet in residence at last year’s annual meeting, we are now opening a call for artists to apply for a residency at the EGU 2019 General Assembly. The deadline for applications is 1 December. You can find more information about the opportunity online here.

And don’t forget! To stay abreast of all the EGU’s events and activities, from highlighting papers published in our open access journals to providing news relating to EGU’s scientific divisions and meetings, including the General Assembly, subscribe to receive our monthly newsletter.

How to forecast the future with climate models

How to forecast the future with climate models

Our climate is constantly changing, and with the help of simulation modelling, scientists are working hard to better understand just how these conditions will change and how it will affect society. Science journalist Conor Paul Purcell has worked on Earth System Models during his time as a PhD student and postdoctoral researcher; today he explains how scientists use these models as tools to forecast the future of our climate.

While we can’t predict everything about our future, climate scientists have a good understanding of how our environment will look and feel like in the coming years. Researchers and climate specialists predict that temperatures will increase dramatically in the 21st century, ranging between 1.5°C and 4°C above pre-industrial levels, depending on your location and the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere in the near future. Forecasts of future drought and flood risk, at both regional and global bases, are also provided by climate experts.

Understanding how such features of Earth’s changing climate may manifest, and ultimately impact on our society, takes considerable international collaboration – a collaboration which is largely based around the results of climate modelling. That’s because climate predictions for the future are made using sophisticated computer models, which are built around mathematical descriptions of the physical and biological processes that govern our planet.

These models have become so complex in recent years that they are now referred to as Earth System Models (ESMs). Using ESMs, climate modellers can create simulations of the planet at different times in the future and the past. ESMs are in fact the only tools we have for simulating the global future in this sense. For instance, if we want to know how our climate may look like one hundred years from now, how ocean acidification levels may change and how this might impact ocean life, or how plants will respond to increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, ESMs are the only tool available.

The models are built in components, each representing a separate part of the Earth system: the atmosphere, the ocean, the land surface and its vegetation, and the ice-sheets and sea-ice. These are constructed by coding each component with the mathematics that describes the environmental processes at work.

Climate models are systems of differential equations based on the basic laws of physics, fluid motion, chemistry, and biology. Pictured here is a schematic of a global atmospheric model. (Credit: NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons)

For example, the winds in the atmosphere are described by the mathematics of fluid motion. Model developers translate these mathematical equations into code that computers can understand, like giving them a set of instructions to follow. Supercomputers can then interpret the code to simulate how winds, for example, are expected to develop at each global location through time. The results are usually plotted on world maps.

As scientists have learned more about our Earth’s systems over time, the complexity of these individual models has been ramped up dramatically. For example, the land surface and vegetation model components become more sophisticated as plant biologists understand more and more about how plants transfer water and carbon between the land and atmosphere.

And it’s not just one giant solo project either: there are tens of ESMs and hundreds of subcomponent models developed and used at research centres around the globe. Collaboration between these facilities is a necessary part of progress, and information is shared at international conferences ever year, like the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in the United States and the European Geosciences Union’s General Assembly in Europe.

This means that developments are always been made towards increasing the realism of ESMs. On the horizon such developments will include increasing the resolution of the global models for improving accuracy at regional locations, and also incorporating the results from the latest research in atmospherics, oceanography and ice sheet dynamics. One example is research into plants, specifically how they interact with carbon dioxide and water in the atmosphere. Further understanding of this biological process is expected to increase the realism of models over the coming years and decades. In general, improvements to the accuracy of model simulations can help to help society in the future. For example, models will be able to help predict how climate change may impact, say, water scarcity in South Africa, wildfire risk in the western United States, or crop yields in Asia. Indeed, the ESMs of the future should boast incredibly accurate simulations and prediction capabilities unheard of today.

By Conor Purcell, a Science & Nature Writer with a PhD in Earth Science

Conor Purcell is a science journalist with a PhD in Earth Science. He is also founding-editor of www.wideorbits.com and is on twitter @ConorPPurcell and some of his other articles at cppurcell.tumblr.com.