Research Center Helps Countries Deal with Climate Prediction

Posted: September 7, 2010 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: September 6, 2010 at 8:39 am

By Devon Madison

Jagadish Shukla. Creative Services photo

When Jagadish Shukla talks about the weather, it’s anything but idle chitchat. A world-renowned climatologist, Shukla has helped make George Mason University a major player in climate dynamics research.

Shukla was one of the lead authors of the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former vice president Al Gore.

In that same year, Shukla received the International Meteorological Organization Prize, considered to be the highest prize in meteorology in the world. He also was appointed to the Virginia Commission on Climate Change by former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine.

When Shukla began teaching at Mason in 1994, he was still founding director of the Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies (COLA), an institution that encourages earth scientists from several disciplines to work together on interdisciplinary research related to the variability and the predictability of Earth’s climate.

While he has stepped down as director of COLA, he remains the president of its parent organization, the Institute of Global Environment and Society, which he also founded.

Shukla has brought various COLA scientists to teach at Mason during his tenure here. Their teaching and research activities have culminated in a prestigious climate dynamics PhD program within the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Earth Sciences (AOES) at Mason, which parallels the research performed at COLA.

Over the years, Shukla and his group of scientists have made numerous contributions to the field of climate dynamics. One significant contribution was harvesting seasonal predictability in spite of chaotic weather.

“Before we started our work, people thought that weather was predictable for only a few days, and climate was not predictable,” says Shukla. “We were the first ones to show that there is predictability in the midst of chaos.”

What Shukla and his colleagues found was that while they could not predict the day-to-day weather forecast beyond a two-week period, they could establish a scientific basis for predictions based on a seasonal average.

By using computer models and supercomputers, they came up with a scientific theory showing under what conditions meteorologists could successfully predict the weather for an entire season; whether it would be drier or wetter or hotter or colder than usual in a given region.

Another important finding for Shukla’s group was related to its involvement with the IPCC, the world’s most authoritative group on climate change.

Indian Ocean monsoon clouds over Howrah Bridge, Calcutta.

While Mason scientists had historically focused on current climate — phenomena that are to occur in the next day, season or year — when they were asked to participate in the 2007 report on climate change, their focus shifted to more long-range predictions.

But Shukla and his colleagues discovered some surprising findings when they changed their focus.

With further research on climate change, they found that while the IPCC had issued its strongest warning yet, the prediction didn’t go far enough.

In a paper published by Geophysical Research Letters, Shukla and his coauthors present a detailed mathematical analysis of model simulations predicting the estimates of global warming to be 4 to 5 degrees Centigrade as opposed to the IPCC’s estimate of 2 to 4 degrees Centigrade.

“While a warming of 2 to 4 degrees is cause for serious concern, the higher estimate of 4 to 5 degrees could affect the habitability of our planet,” says Shukla.

Shukla and the COLA scientists have been widely influential through their work on climate variability.

Not only do the researchers serve on many international panels and committees, but they also are active in helping to set up weather and climate centers worldwide.

In 1989, at the behest of Rajiv Gandhi, then prime minister of India, Shukla and his colleagues helped establish the first supercomputer center in India for monsoon forecasting. Beyond helping India with its weather-forecasting challenges, the COLA group has more recently been helping the country by providing training to Indian meteorologists to work on weather and climate forecast challenges.

For example, COLA director James Kinter, who is also an associate professor of climate dynamics at Mason, has been helping the Indian government further refine its monsoon forecasting techniques. Kinter and his colleagues have found that since the monsoon system varies from year to year by about 10 percent, making predictions is more difficult.

“What is it in the world’s climate system that determines the monsoon rainfall anomaly? How can you make better predictions of those factors that influence the monsoon? That is the cutting-edge of research right now,” says Kinter.

Their climate forecasting work has important implications.

“In places where agriculture is dominant, that rainfall turns out to be absolutely critical to the functioning of society and the economy,” says Kinter.

And if the researchers can properly predict a failed monsoon — a monsoon that is too dry — the government can take appropriate action earlier.

Shukla’s team also helped launch a center in South Korea. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Climate Center (APCC) was created to address the need for improved climate prediction at the regional level. Shukla chairs its Scientific Advisory Committee.

Emilia Jin, assistant professor in AOES, works closely with APCC on an international research project using 21 computer models to investigate climate predictions.

Based on these findings, Jin and her colleagues are helping to develop an in-house climate model prediction system for the center.

“This [system] is valuable to those countries without the capacity to produce climate predictions. Now they are able to access optimized, high-cost global climate predictions produced by the center,” Jin says.

Shukla and his colleagues are also active in the work of Italy’s International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), an institution with a mission to provide training to scientists from developing countries.

Shukla, who initiated programs at ICTP in the 1980s, runs targeted training activities there every year on weather and climate prediction. David Straus, chair of AOES, has been involved with a number of these activities and workshops.

For targeted training in 2009, Shukla invited heads of weather services from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to forge an agreement. This newly created South Asian Climate Outlook Forum will meet every May to share information about the monsoon system that affects them all.

“This kind of cooperation is relatively unprecedented and has the potential to serve as a basis for many other cooperative and collaborative ventures,” Shukla says.

“Our view is that the application of scientific knowledge for the sustainable development of society is a worthy goal, especially in the context of climate change — the dire consequences of which will affect the poor countries the most, countries that have contributed the least to the problem.”

This article originally appeared in Mason Research 2010.

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