Why global climate models do not give a realistic description of the local climate

Fjords Climate models need boundary conditions describing the surface conditions (e.g. energy and moisture fluxes) in order to yield a realistic representation of the climate system. Often simple parameterisation schemes are employed to provide a reasonable description, but these do not capture the detailed variations associated with small spatial scales.

Skillful scale

Shortcomings associated with parameterisation schemes and coarse resolution explain why one gridpoint value provided by the GCMs may not be representative for the local climate. A concept called skillful scale has sometimes been employed in the literature, most of which have been linked to a study by Grotch and MacCracken (1991) who found model results to diverge as the spatial scale was reduced. Specifically, they observed that:

Although agreement of the average is a necessary condition for model validation, even when [global] averages agree perfectly, in practice, very large regional or pointwise differences can, and do, exist.

Although it is not entirely clear whether this study really touched upon skillful scale, it has since been cited by others, and used to argue that the skillful scale is about 8 gridpoints. Nevertheless, since the 1991-study, the GCMs have improved significantly, and the GCMs now are run for longer periods and with diurnal variations in the insolation.



The figure above gives an illustration of the concept of regionalisation, or so-called downscaling. The left panel shows a typical RCM land-sea mask, giving a picture of its spatial resolution. The middle panel shows a blurred satellite image of Europe, which can illustrate how the sharp details are lost yet providing a realistic large-scale picture. The unblurred image of Europe is shown in the right panel. An analogy for the data from GCMs is looking at a blurred picture (middle above) while regional modeling (RCMs) and empirical-statistical downscaling (ESD) is putting on the glasses to improve the image sharpness (right above).

Both RCMs and GCMs give a somewhat ‘blurred’ picture albeit to different degrees of sharpness, and RCMs and GCMs are similar in many respects. However, GCMs are not just ‘blurred’ but also involve some more serious ‘structural differences’ such as an exaggerated Gibraltar Strait (see land-sea mask above), and the Great Lakes area, or Florida, Baja California are quite different and not just blurred (see figure below). Such structural differences are also present in RCMs (eg. fjords), but on much smaller spatial scales.

Model resolution, (Source: Strand, NCAR)(Source: Strand, NCAR)

Yet the images shown here for present climate models do not really show features down to kilometer scales that may influence the local climate where I live, such as valleys, lakes, mountains and fjords, even for RCMs (the lower right panel shows an optimistic projection for improved spatial resolution in GCMs for the near future). The climate in the fjords of Norway (can be be illustrated by the snowcover) is very different from the climate on the mountains separating them. In principle, ESD can be applied to any spatial scale, whereas the RCMs are limited by computer resources and the availability of boundary data.

What is the skilful scale now?

My question is whether the concept of a skillful scale based on old GCMs still apply for the state-of-the-art models. The IPCC AR4 doesn’t say much about skilful scale, but merely states that

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