“If you want to work out what the Earth’s climate will be like over the next century, you actually have to look back millions of years,” says Open University climate chaos expert Neil Edwards. “We have problems convincing people of that, but actually the Earth’s climate has been really boring for 10,000 years. The last time it was really hot was 60 million years ago, and that’s where we get our clues as to what might happen.”
The OU’s Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research is doing just that – combining existing and new data to create models suggesting what happened in the past, and what is likely to happen in the future.
“The data comes from a huge range of evidence,” said Neil, a Reader in Earth Systems Science. “We look at the whole system. Most people think of climate change as something that happens in the atmosphere but this is driven by so many different things – the temperature in the oceans, carbon stored by plants, soils, ice-sheets. And as well as things like instrumental records, satellites and observation, we extend our data into the past examining, for example, tree ring records from thousands of years ago.”
The department takes such evidence to build models. Its latest research project is the GENIE (Grid Enabled Integrated Earth) system modeling framework, which is looking to create a unified Earth System Model (ESM) on more widely available computers so scientists who are not computer experts can explore their ideas.The project’s aims also include building models similar to the large mainstream models for ease of comparison, and to make them better and faster.
“The models fill in the gaps between the data,” explained Neil. “The evidence of our past and future climate is all there – it’s just that some of it is well hidden. We don’t have, for example, the ice-core from the Sahara but we do have it from Greenland. We can use the model to say ‘well, if the ice-core was doing that there, it would have been doing this here.”
And, adds Neil, the OU is amongst the leaders in combining models and data in this way. The OU already has top-class analytical facilities and an enviable reputation in environmental data analysis, modelling will help us to learn far more from the data we analyse.
“If the keys to predicting time future are contained in time past, then we must understand the enigma of ice ages and the interdependence of all the elements of our environment. Ice, ocean, air, soil and life on land and in the sea, their chemistry, biology and physics, even the dynamics of society itself must be included in a model of the complete Earth System.
“My fascination is with models that are complex enough to represent the principal interactions and dynamics, yet simple enough to understand. We want to create models that can give answers more quickly, models that tell you not just what might happen, but why – and models that are fun to play with!”