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Characterizing Sources of Uncertainty from Global Climate Models and Downscaling Techniques

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  • 1 State Climate Office of North Carolina, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina
  • | 2 U.S. Geological Survey Department of the Interior Southeast Climate Science Center, and Department of Applied Ecology, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina
  • | 3 Department of Statistics, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina
  • | 4 U.S. Geological Survey Department of the Interior Southeast Climate Science Center, and Department of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina
  • | 5 Department of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina
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Abstract

In recent years, climate model experiments have been increasingly oriented toward providing information that can support local and regional adaptation to the expected impacts of anthropogenic climate change. This shift has magnified the importance of downscaling as a means to translate coarse-scale global climate model (GCM) output to a finer scale that more closely matches the scale of interest. Applying this technique, however, introduces a new source of uncertainty into any resulting climate model ensemble. Here a method is presented, on the basis of a previously established variance decomposition method, to partition and quantify the uncertainty in climate model ensembles that is attributable to downscaling. The method is applied to the southeastern United States using five downscaled datasets that represent both statistical and dynamical downscaling techniques. The combined ensemble is highly fragmented, in that only a small portion of the complete set of downscaled GCMs and emission scenarios is typically available. The results indicate that the uncertainty attributable to downscaling approaches ~20% for large areas of the Southeast for precipitation and ~30% for extreme heat days (>35°C) in the Appalachian Mountains. However, attributable quantities are significantly lower for time periods when the full ensemble is considered but only a subsample of all models is available, suggesting that overconfidence could be a serious problem in studies that employ a single set of downscaled GCMs. This article concludes with recommendations to advance the design of climate model experiments so that the uncertainty that accrues when downscaling is employed is more fully and systematically considered.

Current affiliation: South Central Climate Science Center, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma.

© 2017 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Adrienne Wootten, amwootte@ou.edu

Abstract

In recent years, climate model experiments have been increasingly oriented toward providing information that can support local and regional adaptation to the expected impacts of anthropogenic climate change. This shift has magnified the importance of downscaling as a means to translate coarse-scale global climate model (GCM) output to a finer scale that more closely matches the scale of interest. Applying this technique, however, introduces a new source of uncertainty into any resulting climate model ensemble. Here a method is presented, on the basis of a previously established variance decomposition method, to partition and quantify the uncertainty in climate model ensembles that is attributable to downscaling. The method is applied to the southeastern United States using five downscaled datasets that represent both statistical and dynamical downscaling techniques. The combined ensemble is highly fragmented, in that only a small portion of the complete set of downscaled GCMs and emission scenarios is typically available. The results indicate that the uncertainty attributable to downscaling approaches ~20% for large areas of the Southeast for precipitation and ~30% for extreme heat days (>35°C) in the Appalachian Mountains. However, attributable quantities are significantly lower for time periods when the full ensemble is considered but only a subsample of all models is available, suggesting that overconfidence could be a serious problem in studies that employ a single set of downscaled GCMs. This article concludes with recommendations to advance the design of climate model experiments so that the uncertainty that accrues when downscaling is employed is more fully and systematically considered.

Current affiliation: South Central Climate Science Center, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma.

© 2017 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Adrienne Wootten, amwootte@ou.edu
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