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A climate ensemble involves slightly different models of the climate system. There are at least four different types, to be described below. For the equivalent in numerical weather prediction, see ensemble forecasting.
The aim of running an ensemble is usually in order to be able to deal with uncertainties in the system. An ultimate aim may be to produce policy relevant information such as a probability distribution function of different outcomes. This is proving to be very difficult due to a number of problems. These include:
Perturbed physics ensembles form the main scientific focus of the ClimatePrediction project. Modern climate models do a good job of simulating many large-scale features of present-day climate. However, these models contain large numbers of adjustable Parameters which are known, individually, to have a significant impact on simulated climate. While many of these are well constrained by observations, there are many which are subject to considerable uncertainty. We do not know the extent to which different choices of parameter-settings or schemes may provide equally realistic simulations of 20th century climate but different forecast for the 21st century. The most thorough way to investigate this uncertainty is to run a massive ensemble experiment in which each relevant parameter combination is investigated.
Initial condition ensembles involve the same model in terms of the same atmospheric physics parameters and forcings, but run from variety of different starting states. Because the climate system is chaotic, tiny changes in things such as temperatures, winds, and humidity in one place can lead to very different paths for the system as a whole. We can work around this by setting off several runs started with slightly different starting conditions, and then look at the evolution of the group as a whole. This is similar to what they do in weather forecasting.
Having an initial condition ensemble can help to identify natural variability in the system and deal with it.
A model can be subjected to different forcings. These may correspond with different scenarios such as those described in the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios.
A grand ensemble is an ensemble of ensembles. There has to be at least two nested ensembles. This is best illustrated in the diagram opposite.
Weather forecasting uses initial condition ensembles.
Climate ensembles were used to project future changes in the occurrence of selected pests of crops.
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