Climate Change 2001:
Working Group I: The Scientific Basis
Other reports in this collection

G. Advancing Understanding


Figure 28: The cascade of uncertainties in projections to be considered in developing climate and related scenarios for climate change impact, adaptation, and mitigation assessment. [Based on Figure 13.2]
The previous sections have contained descriptions of the current state of knowledge of the climate of the past and present, the current understanding of the forcing agents and processes in the climate system and how well they can be represented in climate models. Given the knowledge possessed today, the best assessment was given whether climate change can be detected and whether that change can be attributed to human influence. With the best tools available today, projections were made of how the climate could change in the future for different scenarios of emissions of greenhouse gases.

This Section looks into the future in a different way. Uncertainties are present in each step of the chain from emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols, through to the impacts that they have on the climate system and society (see Figure 28). Many factors continue to limit the ability to detect, attribute, and understand current climate change and to project what future climate changes may be. Further work is needed in nine broad areas.

G.1 Data

Arrest the decline of observational networks in many parts of the world. Unless networks are significantly improved, it may be difficult or impossible to detect climate change in many areas of the globe.

Expand the observational foundation for climate studies to provide accurate, long-term data with expanded temporal and spatial coverage. Given the complexity of the climate system and the inherent multi-decadal time-scale, there is a need for long-term consistent data to support climate and environmental change investigations and projections. Data from the present and recent past, climate-relevant data for the last few centuries, and for the last several millennia are all needed. There is a particular shortage of data in polar regions and data for the quantitative assessment of extremes on the global scale.

G.2 Climate Processes and Modelling

Estimate better future emissions and concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols. It is particularly important that improvements are realised in deriving concentrations from emissions of gases and particularly aerosols, in addressing biogeochemical sequestration and cycling, and specifically, and in determining the spatial-temporal distribution of CO2 sources and sinks, currently and in the future.

Understand and characterise more completely dominant processes (e.g., ocean mixing) and feedbacks (e.g., from clouds and sea ice) in the atmosphere, biota, land and ocean surfaces, and deep oceans. These sub-systems, phenomena, and processes are important and merit increased attention to improve prognostic capabilities generally. The interplay of observation and models will be the key for progress. The rapid forcing of a non-linear system has a high prospect of producing surprises.

Address more completely patterns of long-term climate variability. This topic arises both in model calculations and in the climate system. In simulations, the issue of climate drift within model calculations needs to be clarified better in part because it compounds the difficulty of distinguishing signal and noise. With respect to the long-term natural variability in the climate system per se, it is important to understand this variability and to expand the emerging capability of predicting patterns of organised variability such as ENSO.

Explore more fully the probabilistic character of future climate states by developing multiple ensembles of model calculations. The climate system is a coupled non-linear chaotic system, and therefore the long-term prediction of future exact climate states is not possible. Rather the focus must be upon the prediction of the probability distribution of the system's future possible states by the generation of ensembles of model solutions.

Improve the integrated hierarchy of global and regional climate models with emphasis on improving the simulation of regional impacts and extreme weather events. This will require improvements in the understanding of the coupling between the major atmospheric, oceanic, and terrestrial systems, and extensive diagnostic modelling and observational studies that evaluate and improve simulative performance. A particularly important issue is the adequacy of data needed to attack the question of changes in extreme events.

G.3 Human Aspects

Link more formally physical climate-biogeochemical models with models of the human system and thereby provide the basis for expanded exploration of possible cause-effect-cause patterns linking human and non-human components of the Earth system. At present, human influences generally are treated only through emission scenarios that provide external forcings to the climate system. In future more comprehensive models are required in which human activities need to begin to interact with the dynamics of physical, chemical, and biological sub-systems through a diverse set of contributing activities, feedbacks and responses.

G.4 International Framework

Accelerate internationally progress in understanding climate change by strengthening the international framework that is needed to co-ordinate national and institutional efforts so that research, computational, and observational resources may be used to the greatest overall advantage. Elements of this framework exist in the international programmes supported by the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). There is a corresponding need for strengthening the co-operation within the international research community, building research capacity in many regions and, as is the goal of this assessment, effectively describing research advances in terms that are relevant to decision making.


Other reports in this collection