Sources of knowledge and ignorance in climate research

  • Risbey J
  • O'Kane T
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Ignorance is an inevitable component of climate change research, and yet it has not been specifically catered for in standard uncertainty guidance documents for climate assessments. Reports of ignorance in understanding require context to explain how such ignorance does and does not affect understanding more generally. The focus of this article is on dynamical sources of ignorance in regional climate change projections. A key source of ignorance in the projections is the resolution-limited treatment of dynamical instabilities in the ocean component of coupled climate models. A consequence of this limitation is that it is very difficult to quantify uncertainty in regional projections of climate variables that depend critically upon the details of the atmospheric flow. The standard methods for quantifying or reducing uncertainty in regional projections are predicated on the models capturing and representing the key dynamical instabilities, which is doubtful for present coupled models. This limitation does not apply to all regional projections, nor does it apply to the fundamental findings of greenhouse climate change. Much of what is known is not highly flow-dependent and follows from well grounded radiative physics and thermodynamic principles. The growing field of applications of regional climate projections would benefit from a more critical appraisal of ignorance in these projections.

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  • James S. Risbey

  • Terence J. O'Kane

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