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Future Forecasts

Predicting the Future

"Nature is constantly loading the dice, and we're constantly trying to find out how they're loaded."

Dr. Randall Dole,

Millennial temperature reconstruction of Northern Hemisphere temperatures and various IPCC model scenarios of the 21st Century.

Because there are so many variables involved in forecasting weather and climate, sophisticated models have been developed to produce scenarios of potential or likely events. While these models have improved forecasting, accurate longer term and even annual and seasonal forecasts remain elusive.

For weather forecasts, eleven to fourteen days in the future is generally regarded as limit for accurate forecasts, with uncertainty growing the further out a forecast goes. When it comes to forecasting climate in the months, years and decades ahead, there are many challenges in accurately predicting what the future holds. When an ENSO event-- either the warm pulse of El Niño or cool pulse of La Niña-- is identified, certain general predictions based on probability can be made at a regional level. But not all regions are impacted by ENSO, and even when forecasts are accurate, they are not always clearly communicated to or by the media, nor are they necessarily used by those they are intended to benefit.

Currently, one of the most important and both scientifically and politically
controversial climate concerns is that of Global warming.
The instrumental temperature record of the past 150 years shows that overall the Earth has warmed close to 0.5 degrees C or 0.9 F., and evidence suggests that the cause is the burning of fossil fuels which release carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Regional assessments, such as the United States Global Change Research Program's report, "The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change- US National Assessment" acknowledge that regional impact will likely be varied and that not all regions will necessarily become drier and hotter.

There are skeptics within the scientific community who question the extent and causes of global warming and how future projections are modeled, such as Dr. William Gray who believes the hydrologic cycle acts as a thermostat on the Earth's climate that will prevent a runaway greenhouse effect.

Generally, however, there is consensus that greenhouse gases are building up, that the cause is primarily the burning of fossil fuels, and that change is occurring in the Earth's climate system. If
the forecasts by IPCC scientists of 2.5–10.4°F by 2100 are true, entire species and biomes are may become extinct on a mass scale. Studies of vegetation changes in North America after the warming at the end of the last Ice Age may provide insight into what is in store in the next 100-200 years.

As to what actions should be taken to address the buildup of greenhouse gasses and land-use changes impacting the global system and what can be done to mitigate against climate variability, there remains considerable debate among scientists, policy makers, politicians and industrialists. Some climate scientists, such as Richard Alley, note that models of past and future climate change tend to smooth out actual variations, and that the real-world climate system tends to be more extreme than models show. Moreover, abrupt climate changes have occurred in the past that models can never get exactly right.

For a visualization of how climate change can impact a particular region,view an animation (1250kb) showing changes and potential changes in glaciers and vegetation from 1850 to 2100 from Predicting the Impact of Climate Change on Glacier and Vegetation Distribution in Glacier National Park to the Year 2100.

Additional Resources and References




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