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Better climate forecasts could cut adaptation costs

barometerThe right investments in climate science could yield better long-term forecasts and thus help reduce the costs of adapting to global warming, according to new research from the UK’s National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS).

The study, published in the Bulletin for the American Meteorological Society, finds that investments made now can lead to as much as 10 – 20 per cent improvement in climate predictions for the UK and Europe in the coming decades, and up to 20 per cent across the rest of the globe.

Such improved forecasts would benefit businesses and policy-makers trying to create plans for adaptation to climate change in the coming years. Reduced uncertainty in climate predictions means adaptation measures can be more focussed in scope, meaning they will be less expensive than plans designed with greater resilience.

Researchers at the University of Reading’s Walker Institute used data from a suite of state-of-the-art climate models to identify the main causes of uncertainty in predictions of temperature change over different space and time scales.  Although this type of study had previously been done on a global scale, this was the first time it had been attempted on regional scales (2,000 kilometres) around the world.

Results showed that for all regions for the next four decades, the main uncertainties in climate predictions are dominated by:

  • Differences between the climate models themselves (for example, in the way they represent different atmospheric processes); and
  • The natural variability of the climate (that is, changes in the climate not brought about by human influences).

Fortunately, according to the NCAS, both types of uncertainty are reducible through investment and progress in climate science. An important issue for planners and funding agencies, therefore, is how climate science can best deliver improvements in such predictions, and so reduce the costs of adaptation to a changing climate.

“A certain amount of climate change is inevitable, and we will need to adapt,” said lead researcher Ed Hawkins. “This work has highlighted the need for a debate about where best to target investment in climate science and to consider the return we get in terms of better climate forecasts and reduced adaptation costs.”

He added, “Our work suggests that investments in ocean observations, for example, and their use in setting the initial conditions of climate models and in verifying predictions, could give some of the best returns in improved models and climate forecasts for the next 5 – 50 years. It is not until the 2050s that the dominant uncertainty is in the unknown future emissions of greenhouse gases.”

Issues such as these will also be debated at the World Climate Conference-3 in Geneva at the end of this month, where the focus will be on climate predictions and information for decision-making. Senior scientists, including Rowan Sutton, Director of Climate Research for NCAS and a co-author on the study, will be attending to provide scientific advice and expertise, and stakeholders and government representatives will all meet with the aim to create a global framework to link scientific advances in climate prediction with the needs of users such as farmers and water managers. The conference is only the third of its kind in the last 30 years.

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