Climate Prediction at Home

by James Lea, August 2004

Computer rendition of the world, as seen without any clouds.

Climate change, brought about by humankind's increasing output of greenhouse gases, will have wide-reaching effects on our weather patterns. In the UK we are already seeing some of the characteristic signatures predicted decades ago - a warmer wetter world with increased flooding, unseasonal weather and the widespread migration of animals, insects and fishes in response to warmer climates.

As I write this in the normally calm sunny month of August 2004 I reflect on the weather we've been having over the past two weeks. It has lurched from brilliant sunshine to terrible flash floods and downpours. An entire village has been swept away, roads shut down after large mudslides and farmers are reporting reduced crop yields after a strange summer.

The Atlantic Conveyor

However, we face a much greater risk - the shutdown of the Atlantic conveyor, the vast circulation of warm tropical waters from the Caribbean up to northern Europe which keeps our climate mild and temperate. Without the Atlantic Conveyor the UK's climate would be far colder, much like that of northern Canada, which is at the same latitude.

Crucially, the Conveyor relies on the salt present in seawater to allow it to circulate. As the icecaps melt in the warmer climate, their freshwater dilutes the seawater, making it less salty. Scientists predict that if the seawater becomes too dilute with pure polar meltwater, then the Conveyor could shutdown altogether. There are already signs that this is starting to happen.

If the Conveyor shuts down, the UK (along with many other northern European countries) will suffer enormous environmental and economic losses through the collapse of agriculture and widespread damage to infrastructure such as roads, rail, sewage, water supplies and power lines. Perhaps when that happens politicians will start to take action, although by then it will be too late and many lives will already have been lost.

This scenario is dramatised in the film The Day After Tomorrow, in which the effects of the Conveyor shutdown are felt worldwide, and lead to a new northern ice age.

Mitigating Climate Change

Climate change is already under way. We now need to reduce its severity and rate of impact, with the long term aim of stabilising the Earth's climate at a sensible level with fewer greenhouse gases than we have at the moment.

In order to persuade politicians to act, we must assemble scientific predictions of the likely effects of climate change. With those predictions we can then calculate the economic losses from rising sea levels, increased flooding and damage to agriculture worldwide. Faced with incontrovertible economic data, our capitalistic world will be forced to act, or pay the price.

For the first time we can make a personal contribution to understanding the likely future of the world's climate using nothing other than spare time on our home computers. Most of us have powerful computers that spend most of their time idle, when they're not being used for surfing the net, writing emails or playing games!


Worldwide, thousands of computer users are taking part in one of the biggest distributed projects ever - predicting the future climate of the earth.

Set up by a consortium of universities, www.climateprediction.net is a web-based project that allows anyone with a spare computer and an internet connection to contribute.

As of 24 August 2004 there are more than ten thousand contributors from all the world's continents. They are all running the same software, a climate prediction model developed by the UK Met Office and licensed to climateprediction.net. This computer model is used to compile the national weather forecasts and is scientifically and operationally proven.

How does it work?

Each computer runs a simulation of the earth's climate, but with slightly different starting parameters. By comparing the outputs of different 'runs', climateprediction.net will obtain better estimates of the future expected climate.

Taking Part

Taking part is straightforward, but does require a reasonably powerful computer. Each model takes several weeks to months of computer time to run. Indeed, it is only recently that home computers have become powerful enough to run such a complex simulation.

climateprediction.net can be run on Mac OS X, Linux and Windows operating systems. For full instructions visit www.climateprediction.net. You'll need to download the model and register an account before setting it running.

I've completed two simulations already, and have two more on the go. I'm hopeful that the data I've helped produce is contributing to a better understanding of our world's volatile climate.


Any comments on this article?

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-- (c) James Lea, www.GreenLiving.co.uk, 2005 - 2007 --