Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Mission: Impossible

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to forecast natural disasters up to 30 years ahead. As always, should you or any of your team be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This web-page will self-destruct in five seconds.
A few weeks ago, I sent off a research proposal concerning regional climate prediction on the 30-year time scale. I'm bored with climate sensitivity - for starters, we already know the answer (we are just waiting for others to agree) and furthermore, it doesn't actually matter much in terms of how the climate will evolve within my lifetime. So, I want to do something more useful, by attempting to describe how climate will change (in probabilistic terms) on the time and spatial scales that actually affect people directly. Sadly, the proposal wasn't funded. The response (which I received only a couple of days ago) was that the work was undoubtedly extremely important, but that the plan was somewhat lacking in credibility. It had been thrown together in a bit of a rush and we weren't really sure what they were after, so I wasn't hugely surprised or disappointed. I was, however, rather surprised to see this story in the news today! No doubt the details are somewhat puffed up in the story - I can't imagine any scientist is really going to claim to predict whether the west side of Kamakura or the east side of Kamakura is going to get hit by more typhoons in 30 years (the Japanese version of the story mentions 1km resolution).

Our proposal was of course rather less ambitious in scope than this news report - I reckon that we should certainly be able to make meaningful (albeit imprecise) predictions about regional temperature trends, maybe something vague about overall precipitation levels if we are lucky...but beyond that, I wouldn't like to say. In no small part, the goal was to try to work out how credibly we can say anything at all on these sub-global scales. Nevertheless, our proposal was rather similar in overall scope and aims to this one.

I guess I should make it clear that I don't think for a minute that they have ripped off our idea! The 30-year prediction idea is becoming increasingly common in climate prediction circles - that time scale hits a bit of a sweet spot between the interannual variability problem of year-to-year forecasting, and 100 years ahead when the scenarios have a huge impact and which none of us will see anyway. 30 years is near-term enough to actually affect some current infrastructure decisions (eg power stations, water resources), and the Hadley Centre's QUMP group (apparently web-page-less, which is a shame) are already on the case as far as the UK goes. I'm very pleased to see that the Japanese are also heading in this direction.

Apparently this project will have ~$100million to allocate. Yes, really - that is ¥1010. Maybe they are planning on just buying up the Hadley Centre, lock stock and barrel, and shipping it over here? If a very small proportion of that money heads in our direction it should keep us in beer for a few more years :-)


I see that RPSnr has found the story reported here. I agree that there is a risk of over-hyping what can be achieved here - and also a risk of scientists over-selling their abilities in order to get their hands on the funding. So long as that is avoided, I'm not as negative as he is though - when long-term infrastructure decisions are being made, it would be irresponsible to not try to use all the information at our disposal, including judgements about future climate changes.

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