# FAQ on climate models: Part II

• What are parameterisations? Some physics in the real world, that is necessary for a climate model to work, is only known empirically. Or perhaps the theory only really applies at scales much smaller than the model grid size. This physics needs to be ‘parameterised’ i.e. a formulation is used that captures the phenomenology of the process and its sensitivity to change but without going into all of the very small scale details. These parameterisations are approximations to the phenomena that we wish to model, but which work at the scales the models actually resolve. A simple example is the radiation code – instead of using a line-by-line code which would resolve the absorption at over 10,000 individual wavelengths, a GCM generally uses a broad-band approximation (with 30 to 50 bands) which gives very close to the same results as a full calculation. Another example is the formula for the evaporation from the ocean as a function of the large-scale humidity, temperature and wind-speed. This is really a highly turbulent phenomena, but there are good approximations that give the net evaporation as a function of the large scale (‘bulk’) conditions. In some parameterisations, the functional form is reasonably well known, but the values of specific coefficients might not be. In these cases, the parameterisations are ‘tuned’ to reproduce the observed processes as much as possible.
• How are the parameterisations evaluated? In at least two ways. At the process scale, and at the emergent phenomena scale. For instance, taking one of the two examples mentioned above, the radiation code can be tested against field measurements at specific times and places where the composition of the atmosphere is known alongside a line-by-line code. It would need to capture the variations seen over time (the daily cycle, weather, cloudiness etc.). This is a test at the level of the actual process being parameterised and is a necessary component in all parameterisations. The more important tests occur when we examine how the parameterisation impacts larger-scale or emergent phenomena. Does changing the evaporation improve the patterns of precipitation? the match of the specific humidity field to observations? etc. This can be an exhaustive set of tests but again are mostly necessary. Note that most ‘tunings’ are done at the process level. Only those that can’t be constrained using direct observations of the phenomena are available for tuning to get better large scale climate features. As mentioned in the previous post, there are only a handful of such parameters that get used in practice.
• Are clouds included in models? How are they parameterised? Models do indeed include clouds, and do allow changes in clouds as a response to forcings. There are certainly questions about how realistic those clouds are and whether they have the right sensitivity – but all models do have them! In general, models suggest that they are a positive feedback – i.e. there is a relative increase in high clouds (which warm more than they cool) compared to low clouds (which cool more than they warm) – but this is quite variable among models and not very well constrained from data. Cloud parameterisations are amongst the most complex in the models. The large differences in mechanisms for cloud formation (tropical convection, mid-latitude storms, marine stratus decks) require multiple cases to be looked at and many sensitivities to be explored (to vertical motion, humidity, stratification etc.). Clouds also have important micro-physics that determine their properties (such as cloud particle size and phase) and interact strongly with aerosols. Standard GCMs have most of this physics included, and some are even going so far as to embed cloud resolving models in each grid box. These models are supposed to do away with much of the parameterisation (though they too need some, smaller-scale, ones), but at the cost of greatly increased complexity and computation time. Something like this is probably the way of the future.
• What is being done to address the considerable uncertainty associated with cloud and aerosol forcings? As alluded to above, cloud parameterisations are becoming much more detailed and are being matched to an ever larger amount of observations. However, there are still problems in getting sufficient data to constrain the models. For instance, it’s only recently that separate diagnostics for cloud liquid water and cloud ice have become available. We still aren’t able to distinguish different kinds of aerosols from satellites (though maybe by this time next year). However, none of this is to say that clouds are a done deal, they certainly aren’t. In both cloud and aerosol modelling the current approach is get as wide a spectrum of approaches as possible and to discern what is and what is not robust among those results. Hopefully soon we will start converging on the approaches that are the most realistic, but we are not there yet. Forcings over time are a slightly different issue, and there it is likely that substantial uncertainties will remain because of the difficulty in reconstructing the true emission data for periods more than a few decades back. That involves making pretty unconstrained estimates of the efficiency of 1930s technology (for instance) and 19th Century deforestation rates. Educated guesses are possible, but independent constraints (such as particulates in ice cores) are partial at best.
• Do models assume a constant relative humidity? No. Relative humidity is a diagnostic of the models’ temperature and water distribution and will vary according to the dynamics, convection etc. However, many processes that remove water from the atmosphere (i.e. cloud formation and rainfall) have a clear functional dependence on the relative humidity rather than the total amount of water (i.e. clouds form when air parcels are saturated at their local temperature, not when humidity reaches X g/m3). These leads to the phenomenon observed in the models and the real world that long-term mean relative humidity is pretty stable. In models it varies by a couple of percent over temperature changes that lead to specific humidity (the total amount of water) changing by much larger amounts. Thus a good estimate of the model relative humidity response is that it is roughly constant, similar to the situation seen in observations. But this is a derived result, not an assumption. You can see for yourself here (select Relative Humidty (%) from the diagnostics).
• What are boundary conditions? These are the basic data input into the models that define the land/ocean mask, the height of the mountains, river routing and the orbit of the Earth. For standard models additional inputs are the distribution of vegetation types and their properties, soil properties, and mountain glacier, lake, and wetland distributions. In more sophisticated models some of what were boundary conditions in simpler models have now become prognostic variables. For instance, dynamic vegetation models predict the vegetation types as a function of climate. Other examples in a simple atmospheric model might be the distribution of ozone or the level of carbon dioxide. In more complex models that calculate atmospheric chemistry or the carbon cycle, the boundary conditions would instead be the emissions of ozone precursors or anthropogenic CO2. Variations in these boundary conditions (for whatever reason) will change the climate simulation and can be considered forcings in the most general sense (see the next few questions).
• Does the climate change if the boundary conditions are stable? The answer to this question depends very much on perspective. On the longest timescales a climate model with constant boundary conditions is stable – that is, the mean properties and their statistical distribution don’t vary. However, the spectrum of variability can be wide, and so there is variation from one decade to the next, from one century to the next, that are the result of internal variations in (for instance) the ocean circulation. While the long term stability is easy to demonstrate in climate models, it can’t be unambiguously determined whether this is true in the real world since boundary conditions are always changing (albeit slowly most of the time).
• Does the climate change if boundary conditions change? Yes. If any of the factors that influence the simulation change, there will be a response in the climate. It might be large or small, but it will always be detectable if you run the model for long enough. For example, making the Rockies smaller (as they were a few million years ago) changes the planetary wave patterns and the temperature patterns downstream. Changing the ozone distribution changes temperatures, the height of the tropopause and stratospheric winds. Changing the land-ocean mask (because of sea level rise or tectonic changes for instance) changes ocean circulation, patterns of atmospheric convection and heat transports.