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date: 27 February 2021

Uncertainty Quantification in Multi-Model Ensembleslocked

  • Benjamin Mark SandersonBenjamin Mark SandersonUniversity Corporation for Atmospheric Research


Long-term planning for many sectors of society—including infrastructure, human health, agriculture, food security, water supply, insurance, conflict, and migration—requires an assessment of the range of possible futures which the planet might experience. Unlike short-term forecasts for which validation data exists for comparing forecast to observation, long-term forecasts have almost no validation data. As a result, researchers must rely on supporting evidence to make their projections. A review of methods for quantifying the uncertainty of climate predictions is given. The primary tool for quantifying these uncertainties are climate models, which attempt to model all the relevant processes that are important in climate change. However, neither the construction nor calibration of climate models is perfect, and therefore the uncertainties due to model errors must also be taken into account in the uncertainty quantification.

Typically, prediction uncertainty is quantified by generating ensembles of solutions from climate models to span possible futures. For instance, initial condition uncertainty is quantified by generating an ensemble of initial states that are consistent with available observations and then integrating the climate model starting from each initial condition. A climate model is itself subject to uncertain choices in modeling certain physical processes. Some of these choices can be sampled using so-called perturbed physics ensembles, whereby uncertain parameters or structural switches are perturbed within a single climate model framework. For a variety of reasons, there is a strong reliance on so-called ensembles of opportunity, which are multi-model ensembles (MMEs) formed by collecting predictions from different climate modeling centers, each using a potentially different framework to represent relevant processes for climate change. The most extensive collection of these MMEs is associated with the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP). However, the component models have biases, simplifications, and interdependencies that must be taken into account when making formal risk assessments. Techniques and concepts for integrating model projections in MMEs are reviewed, including differing paradigms of ensembles and how they relate to observations and reality. Aspects of these conceptual issues then inform the more practical matters of how to combine and weight model projections to best represent the uncertainties associated with projected climate change.

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