Like physicists struggling with the theory of quantum entanglement in the first half of the last century, today’s climate scientists – handed a new tool for estimating the impact of climate change – will finally be able to make near-term plans and reach decisions vis-à-vis farming, forestry, water use, and the amount and kinds of resources NGOs will need to meet the future requirements of vulnerable communities.
The tool is called “Decadal Prediction” and, as its name suggests, it fills that difficult slot between short-term forecasting (one month to one year in the future) and the long-term climate projections – 50 to 100 years in the future – delivered primarily by entities like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a joint project of the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization.
The most troubling part about long-term climatic predictions is their inherent uncertainty. For example, Doppler radar, introduced in the 1980s, is still unable to calculate the precise path of a Midwestern tornado. And, while it may never be able to do so, when used as one part of a series of forecasting tools, it may be able to alert defenseless populations in developing countries to extreme weather events, including torrential rainfall and severe drought.
Decadal Prediction is the "new kid on the block," according to Lisa Goddard of the International Research Institute, or IRI. It is also an invaluable tool for measuring climate change, standing as it does between short-term and long-term estimates. The IRI was created to provide for cooperative ventures between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA's) Climate Program Office and Columbia University. It is part of The Earth Institute, and is located at the Lamont Campus.
Goddard – head of IRI’s climate program and lead author of the decadal projection article published in the May issue of Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society has succinctly noted that: "Climate change projections are important for planning and adaptation, but in order to make it through the next 50 years, you first have to get through the next ten.”
Like any new hypothesis, though, decadal predictions are relatively new, experimental, and uncertain largely because they have not been proved by events. In spite of that, many scientists and planning engineers are beginning to use decadal prediction to decide if (and where) a dam is needed, or an oceanfront city like New Orleans needs to be buttressed against hurricane seas, or how much agriculture can be expanded to meet future food needs without exhausting groundwater.
Goddard also rejects the idea that decadal prediction is warring for sponsorship and research dollars with its big brother, seasonal forecasting. As she has observed, both forms of predicating future weather depend on more or less identical ‘general circulation models’, using the same algorithms and reliant on the same weather stations and satellites.
As a result, improvements in decadal prediction or seasonal forecasting can only be expected to improve one another, as well as very short-term and near-term predictions. This certainty, if not yet proven, forms the basis for the article’s rather unique title, “Two Time Scales for the Price of One,” (Almost).
To quote from the paper, “Seasonal and Decadal should not be treated as competitors for the attention of the scientific community. Rather, we should enable them to “play nicely” together, in order to maximize the efforts invested in each.”
A wonderfully harmonious attitude if I ever heard one. Now, if we could only inculcate it in the very noisy and persistent non-anthropogenic (manmade) global warming faction.