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ACACIA: Timely answers to real-world questions

A new climate change program will shape research from its conception to meet the needs of decision makers in the public and private sectors. A Consortium for the Application of Climate Impact Assessments (ACACIA) recently obtained sponsorship from NCAR and three private-sector research institutions: Japan's Central Research Institute of the Electric Power Industry (CRIEPI), the U.S. Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), and a similar energy research body in the Netherlands, KEMA. The operating budget for 1997 exceeds $200,000.

There are already many climate change research programs, which have done much to increase the scientific community's understanding of both global climate change and its possible human impacts. But better knowledge among scientists doesn't automatically translate into better decisions on the part of policy makers. Often, these individuals are not equipped to interpret scientific results and apply them to existing problems. Also, scientists may not be working in exactly the areas where business and government decision makers need more information.

Tom Wigley

"Over the years, there has been an increasing need to produce relevant science and to respond to the needs of the business, industry, and government decision-making communities," says Tom Wigley (CGD), who is directing ACACIA. "What ACACIA is doing is providing the pipeline for scientific information to those communities. I think this is a unique enterprise."

ACACIA's sponsors will air their questions at meetings of the program's executive board, which consists of a representative from each sponsor plus Tom. The next step will be to bring these concerns to the ACACIA Program Office, which will be housed at NCAR. In setting up the office and ACACIA in general, Tom has worked closely with Chuck Hakkarinen of EPRI. They will work with an advisory committee to assess whether the sponsors' questions can be answered with existing information. If not, they will translate these questions into appropriate scientific form and then commission research from scientists at institutions worldwide, who will be funded from the pool of sponsor contributions.

"The idea is to distribute the scientific research tasks to the best people in the world," says Tom. Besides NCAR, he mentions Germany's Max Planck Institute for Meteorology and the U.K.'s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research as two other likely locales. Researchers will be expected to provide a matching contribution, such as of personnel or computing time.

Actual projects will not be pinpointed until next month's initial meeting of the executive board. "Then we'll get the ball rolling as quickly as we possibly can," says Tom. He named two likely areas for research projects during the first year:

• There is a mismatch in scale between the output of global climate models (often called GCMs, for general circulation models) and the input needed for models of climate change impacts on individual ecosystems, known as impacts models. "A global climate model produces coarse resolution, maybe 3° by 4° [latitude and longitude]," Tom explains. "Many impacts models require much finer-scale information to drive them, maybe down to 10 kilometers or less. The problem is how to downscale GCM data to meet the needs of the impacts models."

• Sulfate aerosols are increasing in the atmosphere as a result of fossil fuel combustion and biomass burning. There, they absorb and scatter solar radiation, cooling the earth's surface; globally, this effect is currently thought to offset human-induced climate warming by 20-50%. They also affect climate indirectly because clouds that form around sulfate aerosol particles are particularly dense and thus very effective at reflecting solar radiation back to space. Because aerosol particles stay in the atmosphere only a few days, they have a strong influence near their sources and generally a lesser effect far away. The problem is finding a way all of these factors can be modeled.

These or other research areas will be broken down into specific tasks, undertaken by scientists at a number of institutions. The completed work will be assessed and interpreted at the Program Office and communicated to the sponsors. Although ACACIA is designed to answer policy questions rather than to make scientific breakthroughs, some advances in scientific knowledge will inevitably occur. These will be passed on to the research community in the usual way--through scientific publications, meetings, and the like.

One vital feature of ACACIA is its multidisciplinary scope. Tom points out, "A holistic view of the climate change problem has more direct policy relevance than any single component. Our job is translating results from a range of disciplines in a way that the sponsors may readily grasp the overall significance of the work--and, at the same time, using the best possible science." •Carol Rasmussen

For further information, contact Tom, ext. 2690, or visit ACACIA's Web site.


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Prepared by Jacque Marshall, jacque@ucar.edu