NewsApril 2, 2015

One Image That Shows Future of Climate Models

Brian Kahn

By Brian Kahn

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The future of climate modeling is taking a lesson from Van Gogh’s paintings with a dose of extra technicolor for good measure.

Los Alamos National Laboratory released a simulation that captures the temperatures and currents of the world’s oceans in intimate detail. The image reveals ripples at a resolution from 35 miles down to 9 miles, though researchers can zoom in even more if needed (and if they have enough computing power and data at their disposal).

An ocean simulation focused on the Atlantic.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory


The temperature gradient from cold water at the poles to warm water in the tropics is also on clear display, a reminder that although the Arctic is warming faster than any other region of the planet, you probably don’t want to plan a beach vacation there anytime soon.

The simulation is more than a pretty picture or vacation planning tool. It’s a glimpse at what’s to come in the future of climate modeling. The model, dubbed Model for Prediction Across Scales Ocean, is part of a big Department of Energy-funded initiative to build the next generation of climate models over 10 years.

The effort is designed to harness advances in computing, and develop exascale supercomputers, which are expected to perform a quintillion calculations per second. That will allow researchers to model our world in ever more intricate detail at ever faster paces.

Take the ocean in the image above, for example. As LiveScience notes, oceans act like “giant sponges” to take up much of the heat in our warming world. How currents and eddies move that heat around is of particular interest to scientists, but the current crop of climate models can’t fully reproduce them.

Recent research has suggested that a key ocean current in the Atlantic could be slowing due to ice melt in Greenland, which is essentially throwing up a brick wall of cold, fresh water.

Better modeling using those supercomputers would provide more clues about future changes and impacts in oceans, along the coasts and inland. The image from Los Alamos provides a hint of what some of those finer details might look like.