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NCAR Releases New Version of Premier Global Climate Model

June 22, 2004

BOULDER—The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) on June 23 is unveiling a powerful new version of a supercomputer-based system to model Earth's climate and project global temperature rise in coming decades. Scientists will contribute results from the new system to the next assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international research body that advises policymakers on the likely impacts of climate change.

The system, known as the Community Climate System Model, version 3 (CCSM3), indicates in a preliminary finding that global temperatures may rise more than the previous version had projected if societies continue to emit large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

CCSM3 shows global temperatures could rise by 2.6 degrees Celsius (4.7 degrees Fahrenheit) in a hypothetical scenario in which atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are suddenly doubled. That is significantly more than the 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit) increase that had been indicated by the previous version of the model.

NCAR developed the model in collaboration with researchers at universities and laboratories across the country, with funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NCAR is releasing the model results and the underlying computer codes to atmospheric researchers and other users worldwide.

William Collins, a NCAR scientist who oversaw the development of CCSM3, says researchers have yet to pin down exactly what is making the model more sensitive to an increased level of carbon dioxide. But he says the model overall is significantly more accurate than its predecessor.

"This model makes substantial improvements in simulating atmospheric, oceanic, and terrestrial processes," Collins says. "It has done remarkably well in reproducing the climate of the last century, and we're now ready to begin using it to study the climate of the next century."

As scientists learn more about the atmosphere, the world's most powerful climate models are in general agreement over the climatic effects of carbon dioxide, an important greenhouse gas emitted by motor vehicles, power plants, and other sources. Observations show that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have increased from 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv) in preindustrial times to more than 370 ppmv today, and the increase is continuing. A doubling of carbon dioxide over present-day levels would significantly increase global temperatures, according to all the major models. The models do not always agree, however, on the complex impacts of clouds, sea ice, and other pieces of the climate system.

CCSM3 is one of the world's leading general-circulation climate models, which are extraordinarily sophisticated computer tools that incorporate phenomena ranging from the effect that volcanic eruptions have on temperature patterns to the impact of shifting sea ice on sunlight absorbed by the oceans. Climate models work by solving mathematical formulas, which represent the chemical and physical processes that drive Earth's climate, for thousands of points in the atmosphere, oceans, sea ice, and land surface. CCSM3 is so complex that it requires about 3 trillion computer calculations to simulate a single day of global climate.

The Community Climate System Model, version 3, incorporates data about phenomena ranging from clouds to sea ice in order to simulate Earth's complex climate system. The model is so complex that it requires about three trillion computer calculations to simulate a single day of global climate, and it produces far more information about regional climate variations than the previous version. Click on image for higher resolution.

With CCSM3, scientists were able to add four times more points for the land and atmosphere than had existed in the previous version of CCSM, thereby producing far more information about regional variations in climate and climate change. The new version also captures such features as continental land temperatures and upper atmospheric temperatures far more accurately than the previous version. In a test, the model closely simulated changes in global temperatures over the last century.

In addition to simulating temperatures over the next century, scientists will use the model to study climate patterns of the past, such as the peak of the last ice age 21,000 years ago. They will also use it to probe chemical processes and the cycling of carbon between the atmosphere, ocean, and land, as well as the localized impacts of sulfates and other pollutants on climate.

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research under primary sponsorship by the National Science Foundation.


The National Center for Atmospheric Research and UCAR Office of Programs are operated by UCAR under the sponsorship of the National Science Foundation and other agencies. Opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of any of UCAR's sponsors.

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