Chris Jones, Manager of the Earth System and Mitigation Science Group
4 November 2013
In order to provide climate advice to our customers, it's essential that every prediction is as accurate and useful as possible. That means not just mapping how climate may change, but also taking into account how it interacts with ecosystems. Chris Jones leads the Met Office research into Earth System modelling and climate, providing a crucial link between human activity and climate response - essential for policymaking across all timescales.
As part of this role, Chris led the HadGEM2-ES development and testing, the Met Office's most complex model to date used for input to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment. The 'ES' tag in the name stands for 'Earth System' and reflects how the project goes beyond the physical atmospheric and oceanic processes commonly included in climate simulations and focuses on a much wider range of factors. It includes representations of the global carbon cycle, dynamic vegetation, atmospheric chemistry and aerosols, and ocean biology. Instead of using pre-determined inputs of atmospheric composition such as aerosols and greenhouse gases, the model can show how these components will alter over time as they respond to a changing climate.
The fine detail
The interaction between climate and ecosystems is crucial. Climate affects how ecosystems function and grow - but ecosystems also affect climate. For instance, as an ecosystem grows it will absorb more and more carbon dioxide - but, conversely, climate change affects how this works. Chris and his team collaborate with scientists from a wide range of different fields to ensure that factors such as vegetation, aerosols or ocean biology are taken into account in the climate simulations. The greater level of detail that can be included, the more possibility for accuracy in climate modelling.
Much of the team's day-to-day work is spent at the computer, splitting the world into ever-finer distinctions and trying to understand how the different components fit together. The model takes into account the temperature, rainfall and wind speed at each point, and can map how each evolves through time. The team can then set other parameters, for instance, what is the impact if an area is deforested or changes in technology affect our emissions? The results are analysed and tested wherever possible against observations, to ascertain the accuracy and to continually enhance the model.
Collaboration across Europe
Chris and his team are also involved in many exciting pan-European research collaboration projects, co-leading work in COMBINE and EMBRACE and playing a key role in CARBONES. The projects are incorporating new components into climate models, for instance carbon stored in permafrost that may thaw under climate change and looking at risks of abrupt changes.
Pan-European projects like these pool the expertise of climate experts across the continent to rise to an international challenge. They also encourage continual improvement. As Chris points out, even though another country may be using the same techniques to tackle the same questions, they may have different outcomes. This encourages both parties to interrogate the simulation and pinpoint the vital elements, in order to improve the model and confidence in its predictions.
Ever increasing accuracy like this is crucial for Chris and the team. "The big challenge is to understand which parts of the model to enhance in order to improve our confidence in the future," he explains. "We are constantly trying to improve the faithfulness of the model."
Chris and his team are also looking at how ecosystems are 'committed' to change for decades after climate has stabilised, much as an ice cube is 'committed' to melt after it has been taken out of the freezer; not instantly, but over a few minutes. Is this a depressing thought? Not necessarily, points out Chris.
"Without detailed understanding of our changing climate, any polices that are made might not have the intended consequences. But now we have enough knowledge to know the consequences of action - or inaction - it is in our hands to decide what to do..."