FAQ on climate models

We discuss climate models a lot, and from the comments here and in other forums it’s clear that there remains a great deal of confusion about what climate models do and how their results should be interpreted. This post is designed to be a FAQ for climate model questions – of which a few are already given. If you have comments or other questions, ask them as concisely as possible in the comment section and if they are of enough interest, we’ll add them to the post so that we can have a resource for future discussions. (We would ask that you please focus on real questions that have real answers and, as always, avoid rhetorical excesses).

Part II is here.

Quick definitions:

  • GCM – General Circulation Model (sometimes Global Climate Model) which includes the physics of the atmosphere and often the ocean, sea ice and land surface as well.
  • Simulation – a single experiment with a GCM
  • Initial Condition Ensemble – a set of simulations using a single GCM but with slight perturbations in the initial conditions. This is an attempt to average over chaotic behaviour in the weather.
  • Multi-model Ensemble – a set of simulations from multiple models. Surprisingly, an average over these simulations gives a better match to climatological observations than any single model.
  • Model weather – the path that any individual simulation will take has very different individual storms and wave patterns than any other simulation. The model weather is the part of the solution (usually high frequency and small scale) that is uncorrelated with another simulation in the same ensemble.
  • Model climate – the part of the simulation that is robust and is the same in different ensemble members (usually these are long-term averages, statistics, and relationships between variables).
  • Forcings – anything that is imposed from the outside that causes a model’s climate to change.
  • Feedbacks – changes in the model that occur in response to the initial forcing that end up adding to (for positive feedbacks) or damping (negative feedbacks) the initial response. Classic examples are the amplifying ice-albedo feedback, or the damping long-wave radiative feedback.


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