Missed wind patterns are throwing off climate forecasts of rain and storms
Climate scientists can confidently tie global warming to impacts such as sea-level rise and extreme heat. But ask how rising temperatures will affect rainfall and storms, and the answers get a lot shakier. For a long time, researchers chalked the problem up to natural variability in wind patterns—the inherently unpredictable fluctuations of a chaotic atmosphere.
Now, however, a new analysis has found that the problem is not with the climate, it’s with the massive computer models designed to forecast its behavior. “The climate is much more predictable than we previously thought,” says Doug Smith, a climate scientist at the United Kingdom’s Met Office who led the 39-person effort published this week in Nature. But models don’t capture that predictability, which means they are unlikely to correctly predict the long-term changes that are most influenced by large-scale wind patterns: rainfall, drought, flooding, and extreme storms. “Obviously we need to solve it,” Smith says.
The study, which includes authors from several leading modeling centers, casts doubt on many forecasts of regional climate change, which are crucial for policymaking. It also means efforts to attribute specific weather events to global warming, now much in vogue, are rife with errors. “The whole thing is concerning,” says Isla Simpson, an atmospheric dynamicist and modeler at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who was not involved in the study. “It could mean we’re not getting future climate projections right.”
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