Climate simulations are mostly accurate, study finds
Washington – The computer models used to simulate what heat-trapping gases will do to global temperatures have been pretty spot-on in their predictions, a new study found.
After years of hearing critics blast the models’ accuracy, climate scientist Zeke Hausfather decided to see just how good they have been. He tracked down 17 models used between 1970 and 2007 and found that the majority of them predicted results that were “indistinguishable from what actually occurred.”
“By and large our models have gotten it right, plus or minus a little bit,” said Hausfather, a University of California, Berkeley scientist who is climate and energy director at the Breakthrough Institute. “If they get it wrong, it’s slightly on the warm side, but I wouldn’t read too much into that.”
Ten of the 17 were close to the temperatures that actually happened, said Hausfather, lead author of a study in Wednesday’s journal Geophysical Research Letters.
But scientists actually got the physics right even more than that, Hausfather said. That’s because they make two main assumptions when they model what will happen in the future. One is the physics of the atmosphere and how it reacts to heat-trapping gases. The other is the amount of greenhouse gases put into the air.
A few times, scientists were wrong in their predictions about the growth of carbon pollution, saying there would be more of the gases than there actually were, Hausfather said. If they got the amount of heat-trapping gases wrong, they then got the temperatures wrong.
So Hausfather and colleagues, including NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, looked at how well the models did on just the pure science, taking out the emissions factor. On that count, 14 of the 17 computer models accurately predicted the future.
The scientists also gave each computer simulation a “skill score” that essentially gave a percentage grade to each one. The average grade was a 69%.
One of the earliest computer models, made in 1970, got a 91%. What’s so impressive about that is that at the time, climate change wasn’t noticeable in the yearly temperature records like it is now.