IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis

8.8 Representing the Global System with Simpler Models

8.8.1 Why Lower Complexity?

An important concept in climate system modelling is that of a spectrum of models of differing levels of complexity, each being optimum for answering specific questions. It is not meaningful to judge one level as being better or worse than another independently of the context of analysis. What is important is that each model be asked questions appropriate for its level of complexity and quality of its simulation.

The most comprehensive models available are AOGCMs. These models, which include more and more components of the climate system (see Section 8.2), are designed to provide the best representation of the system and its dynamics, thereby serving as the most realistic laboratory of nature. Their major limitation is their high computational cost. To date, unless modest-resolution models are executed on an exceptionally large-scale distributed computed system, as in the climateprediction.net project (http://climateprediction.net; Stainforth et al., 2005), only a limited number of multi-decadal experiments can be performed with AOGCMs, which hinders a systematic exploration of uncertainties in climate change projections and prevents studies of the long-term evolution of climate.

At the other end of the spectrum of climate system model complexity are the so-called simple climate models (see Harvey et al., 1997 for a review of these models). The most advanced simple climate models contain modules that calculate in a highly parametrized way (1) the abundances of atmospheric greenhouse gases for given future emissions, (2) the radiative forcing resulting from the modelled greenhouse gas concentrations and aerosol precursor emissions, (3) the global mean surface temperature response to the computed radiative forcing and (4) the global mean sea level rise due to thermal expansion of sea water and the response of glaciers and ice sheets. These models are much more computationally efficient than AOGCMs and thus can be utilised to investigate future climate change in response to a large number of different scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions. Uncertainties from the modules can also be concatenated, potentially allowing the climate and sea level results to be expressed as probabilistic distributions, which is harder to do with AOGCMs because of their computational expense. A characteristic of simple climate models is that climate sensitivity and other subsystem properties must be specified based on the results of AOGCMs or observations. Therefore, simple climate models can be tuned to individual AOGCMs and employed as a tool to emulate and extend their results (e.g., Cubasch et al., 2001; Raper et al., 2001). They are useful mainly for examining global-scale questions.

To bridge the gap between AOGCMs and simple climate models, EMICs have been developed. Given that this gap is quite large, there is a wide range of EMICs (see the reviews of Saltzman, 1978 and Claussen et al., 2002). Typically, EMICs use a simplified atmospheric component coupled to an OGCM or simplified atmospheric and oceanic components. The degree of simplification of the component models varies among EMICs.

Earth System Models of Intermediate Complexity are reduced-resolution models that incorporate most of the processes represented by AOGCMs, albeit in a more parametrized form. They explicitly simulate the interactions between various components of the climate system. Similar to AOGCMs, but in contrast to simple climate models, the number of degrees of freedom of an EMIC exceeds the number of adjustable parameters by several orders of magnitude. However, these models are simple enough to permit climate simulations over several thousand of years or even glacial cycles (with a period of some 100 kyr), although not all are suitable for this purpose. Moreover, like simple climate models, EMICs can explore the parameter space with some completeness and are thus appropriate for assessing uncertainty. They can also be utilised to screen the phase space of climate or the history of climate in order to identify interesting time slices, thereby providing guidance for more detailed studies to be undertaken with AOGCMs. In addition, EMICs are invaluable tools for understanding large-scale processes and feedbacks acting within the climate system. Certainly, it would not be sensible to apply an EMIC to studies that require high spatial and temporal resolution. Furthermore, model assumptions and restrictions, hence the limit of applicability of individual EMICs, must be carefully studied. Some EMICs include a zonally averaged atmosphere or zonally averaged oceanic basins. In a number of EMICs, cloudiness and/or wind fields are prescribed and do not evolve with changing climate. In still other EMICs, the atmospheric synoptic variability is not resolved explicitly, but diagnosed by using a statistical-dynamical approach. A priori, it is not obvious how the reduction in resolution or dynamics/physics affects the simulated climate. As shown in Section 8.8.3 and in Chapters 6, 9 and 10, at large scales most EMIC results compare well with observational or proxy data and AOGCM results. Therefore, it is argued that there is a clear advantage in having available a spectrum of climate system models.