Shukla Receives $1.25 Million to Study Climate Variation

Posted: November 8, 1999 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Emily Yaghmour

Jagadish Shukla of the Institute for Computational Sciences and Informatics (CSI) recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation for $1,250,000 for a five-year project to study climate variation. The project builds on a discovery Shukla and his research team made while conducting a previous project.

Until recently, scientists assumed it was impossible to predict variations in climate. The earth’s atmosphere is considered to be a chaotic system, which makes it dependent on initial conditions. Because it is impossible to know all the initial conditions that affect climate (and even if we did, we don’t have computers powerful enough to process all these conditions), it should be impossible to predict climate.

Then Shukla and his research team made an interesting discovery: changes in sea surface temperature largely determine changes in the wind and rainfall patterns in some tropical regions. In other words, changes in the temperature of the ocean’s surface have the power to overrule initial conditions in determining climate variation. This proves “that there is a scientific basis for predicting climate,” says Shukla, who also serves as director of COLA (the Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies), an independent research center in Calverton, Md. “What we want to do now is to demonstrate and enhance the predictability.”

To achieve this goal, he and his colleagues plan to extend the same computer models used for weather prediction to predict climate variation. Models have been used in the past to try to predict climate variation, but these models were statistical, not based on measurable physical conditions and mathematical equations as weather prediction models are.

In addition, Shukla plans to search for other conditions that, like changes in sea surface temperature, may help predict climate variation. While he hopes and expects to find other factors and processes that can help predict climate variation, Shukla points out that there are limits. Because we are dealing with a chaotic system, he says, climate predictions will always be based on probability.

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