The signing of the Paris agreement in 2015 has encouraged some to conclude that the major questions concerning climate change have at last been answered and that climate science has met its challenges. This, as is argued in a new Perspective article in Nature Climate Change, would be a wrong and short-sighted conclusion. In the article, an international team of prominent scientists, led by Prof. Jochem Marotzke from the Max Planck Institute of Meteorology and including Prof. Bjorn Stevens from the same institute, instead argue that climate change makes basic climate research more relevant than ever.
Climate research has demonstrated that human-caused global warming is occurring. But it has not yet articulated what this warming means and whether it will be accompanied by surprises. The international team of authors argues that climate research will tackle new frontiers and serve society by focusing on three guiding questions:
• Where does the carbon go?
• How does the weather change with climate?
• How does climate influence the habitability of the Earth and its regions?
“We need to know in real time what is happening to the carbon released by humans into our atmosphere, how different parts of the system can take it up, and how to accurately determine the carbon emissions of each country,” says Jochem Marotzke. “I’m reminded of science discussions prior to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in the early 1990s. Then, the question was whether underground nuclear explosions could be detected. Now, we need to know whether countries’ self-reporting is reliable. This requires a concerted, international research effort.”
“The degree of future global warming will depend to a great extent on how clouds change in a warmer climate. And clouds are inextricably linked to weather – so we need to understand how the weather changes to understand how clouds will change,” adds Bjorn Stevens. “Furthermore, most impacts of climate change will be felt through weather events and climate extremes on regional scales, which depend on the behavior of circulation systems, an understanding of which remains rudimentary.”
Achieving the ambitious goals the article sets out will require breakthroughs in our understanding and our ability to observe and compute the climate. Enormous computing power is required to capture the detailed processes that go into the formation of clouds, the impact of landforms and vegetation and a host of other climate processes that occur at regional levels such as Europe.
Good-quality and long-term observations both globally and in many parts of the world are needed to unravel the key process interactions involved in determining regional climates, and to test hypotheses that emerge from the modelling.
To overcome the lack of regional understanding, the authors are calling for new and enhanced internationally co-ordinated research efforts supported by large computational infrastructure, much like the international particle physics laboratory CERN.
“Society depends on the basic research we do,” says Jochem Marotzke. “We must apply our research curiosity to the challenges that nature poses for us. The three questions sharpen our view of the challenges, so that we are ready for the surprises ahead. “
Marotzke, J., C. Jakob, S. Bony, P.A. Dirmeyer, P. O’Gorman, E. Hawkins, S. Perkins-Kirkpatrick, C. Le Quéré, S. Nowicki, K. Paulavets, S.I. Seneviratne, B. Stevens, and M. Tuma (2017) Climate research must sharpen its view. Nature Climate Change, doi:10.1038/nclimate3206.
Image credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons