Climate Model Predicts Dramatic Changes in Next 100 Years

December 5, 2005

The most comprehensive climate model of the continental United States predicts more extreme temperatures throughout the country and more extreme precipitation along the Gulf Coast, in the Pacific Northwest and east of the Mississippi.

The climate model, run on supercomputers at Purdue University, takes into account factors that have been incompletely incorporated in past studies, such as the effects of snow reflecting solar energy back into space and of high mountain ranges blocking weather fronts from traveling across them, according to Noah S. Diffenbaugh, the team’s lead scientist.

Diffenbaugh said a better understanding of these factors, coupled with a more powerful computer system on which to run the analysis, allowed the team to generate a more coherent image of what weather to expect in the continental United States for the next century. Those expectations, he said, paint a very different climate picture for most parts of the country.

“This is the most detailed projection of climate change that we have for the U.S.,” said Diffenbaugh, an assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences in Purdue’s College of Science and a member of the Purdue Climate Change Research Center. “The changes our model predicts are large enough to substantially disrupt our economy and infrastructure.”

Diffenbaugh’s team required five months to run their model on a cluster of Sun computers at the Rosen Center for Advanced Computing on Purdue’s campus.

“The results were worth it, though, because this model allows us to project changes in climate with unprecedented resolution,” Diffenbaugh said.

With their improvements over previous models, the team has been able to make several observations about the change in climate during the next century, particularly for the late century when greenhouse gas accumulation could have greater effect than, say, a decade from now.

“These projections are not necessarily about specific weather events,” Diffenbaugh said. “But they do give us a good idea about what kind of weather to expect over the long run in a particular part of the country.”

Some of the expectations include:

  • The desert Southwest will experience more heat waves of greater intensity, combined with less summer precipitation. Water is already at a premium in the four-corner states and southern Nevada. As years pass, even less water will be available for the region’s burgeoning populations, with extreme hot events increasing in frequency by as much as 500 percent.
  • The Gulf Coast will be hotter and will receive its precipitation in greater volumes over shorter time periods. “The region actually will get more rainfall than it does now, but it will not be steady,” Diffenbaugh said. “We project more dry spells punctuated by heavier rainfalls. We need to perform further analyses to understand how much of this is related to tropical cyclone activity.”
  • In the northeastern part of the United States–roughly the region east of Illinois and north of Kentucky–summers will be longer and hotter. “Imagine the weather during the hottest two weeks of the year,” Diffenbaugh said. “The area could experience temperatures in that range lasting for periods of up to two months by century’s end.”
  • Similarly, the continental United States will experience an overall warming trend: Temperatures now experienced during the coldest two weeks of the year will be a past memory, and winter’s length will diminish as well, according to the model.
  • The model, Diffenbaugh said, assumes that greenhouse gases will attain a concentration more than twice their current levels, but he said he is confident that the model’s performance gives as accurate a picture of the future as we can hope for at the moment.

    Diffenbaugh emphasized that while the model was in no way designed to return an alarmist image of our climate’s future, the picture it painted should be considered.

    “The more detail we look at with these models, the more dramatic the climate’s response is,” he said. “Critics have complained that climate models lack sufficient spatial detail to be trusted. In terms of looking at the whole contiguous United States, we’ve quadrupled the spatial detail and, as a result, it appears that climate change is going to be even more dramatic than we previously thought. Of course, we can never be completely certain of the future, but it’s clear that as we consider more and more detail, the picture of future climate change becomes more and more severe.”

    Stanford University’s Stephen H. Schneider said the results confirm scientists’ suspicions about the future of climate change.

    “This study is the latest and most detailed simulation of climatic change in the United States,” said Schneider, who is Stanford’s Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies. “Critics have asserted that the coarse resolution of previous studies made their sometimes dire predictions suspect, but this new result with a very high resolution grid over the United States shows potential climatic impacts at least as significant as previous results with lower resolution models. As the authors wisely note, such potential impacts certainly should not be glibly dismissed.”

    The Purdue research was funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The research team also included Diffenbaugh’s Purdue colleague Robert J. Trapp, and Jeremy S. Pal and Filippo Giorgi of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy. Their paper appeared in the Oct. 17 online edition of the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Topics USA Climate Change

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