Statistics, climate research and applications

International Convention Center, Jeju

Between 24th and 28th June, an international meeting on statistical climatology (IMSC) was held in Jeju Island, Republic of Korea. The meeting is one of the largest in the field and is held every third year. Well over 200 researchers participated, including three from the Division of Atmospheric Sciences. The research field itself is very wide, covering several climate research topics which involve the use of statistical methods and their application to (often) large/complicated datasets used in climate research. As a general description, “The aim of IMSC is to promote good statistical practice in the atmospheric and climate sciences and to maintain and enhance the lines of communication between the atmospheric and statistical science communities.”

The Earth’s climate system is very complicated, involving myriads of processes many of which are poorly known. However, climate research is not only about to understand the underlying processes. The analysis of existing data also has several issues related to it, involving related expertise and experience. This is emphasized by the ever-growing amount of geodata, comprising both observations and model simulations. Nowadays, it has become common for research projects to freely distribute the produced data for all interested users who then can exploit it for their personal research purposes. In this way, the data developers can also get more feedback from the data users and the outcome eventually has benefits to both parties. Indeed, research methods used in natural sciences are fundamentally more data-oriented today than a few decades ago. While progress in science also requires production of new data, for many applications there already exists a wealth of data which is far from being comprehensively analyzed.

As climate in any specific place can eventually be described as averaged weather, the conventional variables familiar from everyday weather forecasts (whether observed or modelled: surface temperature, precipitation, wind speed, humidity, …) have also a very important role in climate research and in any applications related to it. This is emphasized by the fact that these surface variables are the most meaningful for most of the climate data users, in their own right and as an input for impact studies. Some of the most important questions to ask by anyone planning to apply any adaptive measures in order to prepare for changing climatic conditions are:

“How much is it likely for temperature and precipitation to change at my location during the 21st century?” “What will happen to precipitation intensity in the future?” “How sensitive is my crop to droughts and will their frequency increase?” “How will river discharges change and what are the related uncertainty intervals?” “How important it actually is to get the future climate simulations right for my application?” Indeed, societal interface is very close to many of the applications in the field – many sectors are sensitive to climate and weather. Without the field of applied climatology, much of the precious scientific basic research about process understanding would not be translated at all for numerous societal applications. This happens through climate predictions done with global/regional climate models: the overarching aim in large parts of geoscientific research is to improve future climate predictions by studying the actual processes and eventually implementing them as a part of a climate model.

The simulations of climate models are distributed to the users by some means, which is far from being a straightforward copy-and-paste activity. Many of the problems have no simple answer, but still desperately need to be assessed as they have a large importance in climate prediction. An honest scientific interpretation of the future climate predictions requires understanding of relevant processes affecting climate in any specific place (defined possibly by the user), statistical knowledge, and multidisciplinary interest from the people working at the science-society-policy interface. All of this emphasizes the importance of diverse research environment and knowledge that can integrate and condense information into better products and simultaneously facilitate adaptive decisions of the end-users by offering decent decision-support advice and products for them.

We cannot just build our fancy climate models indefinitely, but we also have to use them in practice. The impact-related research on the division helps climate data users to apply climate predictions better for their problems and therefore eventually facilitate their adaptive decisions. The importance of climate services is evermore growing, emphasizing the need to develop good practices and guidance for interpreting and using climate data. Without this kind of research, the interface between the climate science community and actual decision makers will deteriorate. Whatever impacts will be caused by changing climate, estimating them also involves the use of climate models. As a science community, we need to have credible methods and tools to be able to serve users and the wider society.

One poster session was held on each day

Jussi S. Ylhäisi
Jouni Räisänen
Olle Räty

Climate research group

OpenIFS – a leading model of atmospheric dynamics

Dr Sinclair (right) at the OpenIFS meeting.

Dr Sinclair (right) at the OpenIFS meeting.

Professor Heikki Järvinen and researcher Victoria Sinclair use the numerical weather forecast model OpenIFS, recently released by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), in their teaching and research.  OpenIFS is an open version of the IFS system currently in use at ECMWF for operational weather forecasting.  IFS is the leading model in its field: it has excellent forecasting ability for more than 6 days on average (measured by an 80% anomaly correlation limit) and was able to predict the track of superstorm Sandy as many as 7.5 days before the storm struck New York. The main competitors of the IFS are the Met Office and NCAR numerical forecast models.

In early June, Prof Järvinen and Dr Sinclair organised a 3-day workshop at the University of Helsinki for users to discuss OpenIFS model and its future prospects. Hands-on tutorials were organized with help of ECMWF staff at the computer rooms of the Physicum. All participants ran the model at the CSC’s CRAY supercomputer and analysed the results with the Metview visualization tools.

Prof Järvinen is a happy user of OpenIFS: “We are one of the first universities to have a licence for OpenIFS. With the OpenIFS, we can study questions about atmospheric dynamics that are both relevant and inspiring for the students. OpenIFS represents top-end science and there is potential for societal impact though its operational use. In our division, we have strong expertise in GHG, aerosols, and atmospheric processes, but OpenIFS also gives an opportunity to study marine aspects, which is on our agenda as well. In addition, by educating our students to use and understand numerical weather forecast models, we provide them job-relevant skills which can be easily applied to the use of Earth system models.”

The Division of Atmospheric Sciences has a commitment to develop a cutting-edge numerical meteorology laboratory course, and OpenIFS is an ideal tool for that. “I think OpenIFS is right for us and provides rich opportunities. It is relatively easy to use and it has a multitude of research applications. It is modern, modular, well documented, and computationally extremely efficient. There are also excellent training opportunities at ECMWF and within the OpenIFS community”, says professor Järvinen.

Victoria Sinclair’s initial experience of using OpenIFS for research has been positive. “I started working with OpenIFS in January and all went well from the start; my aim was to use it to understand how weather systems transport moisture to the interior of Antarctica by means of case studies, sensitivity experiments, and by analysing large-scale dynamics. I also wanted to calculate moisture budgets and to use the model in teaching synoptic meteorology”, Victoria says. “I think OpenIFS is a very good tool for a teacher to explain how weather systems work.”

Victoria found OpenIFS practical and easy to use. “IFS is a state-of-the-art numerical weather prediction model and well known internationally. It is computationally efficient, and as a global model, there are no difficult lateral boundary conditions. One simulation may have more than one use; furthermore, I can study both polar regions at once. IFS is well tested and well documented; as a European model, it is also more acceptable for some European funding agencies than American models.”

What about weak points? “Well, there are relatively few academic users at the moment, and this limits the sources of help and advice. If I have a problem with something, it is unlikely that someone else has ended up in the same situation before outside ECMWF. Also, the output is not that user friendly. I changed from IFS’s plotting programme, Metview to Matlab at some point, although Metview definitely has lots of potential. I just need to invest some time to learn how to use it.“

In summary, Prof Järvinen and Dr Sinclair think that OpenIFS is a very promising project for researchers, and for teaching, but that there is still quite a lot of room for improvement, especially in terms of user-friedliness.Prof Järvinen (left) at the OpenIFS meeting.

Tanja Suni, Heikki Järvinen, Victoria Sinclair

More information about ECMWF, IFS, and OpenIFS

Latest views on global CO2 emissions and sinks

Kuvankaappaus 2013-6-14 kello 14.12.41During the first week of June, the 9th International Carbon Dioxide Conference held in Beijing gathered together the carbon community from different parts of the world. Conference presentations ranged from climate policy to in-situ and remote observations of CO2 and modelling of CO2 emissions and sinks.  As one might expect, many of the presentations considered anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Alarming news was that during recent years, global CO2 emissions have followed the worst scenarios predicted by different sources; the hope that the emissions would follow lower estimates is declining. Besides the growth in emissions, one of the biggest questions among the community seemed to be the strength of carbon sinks on land surface and in the ocean.  Currently, oceans are considered to store about 1/3 of anthropogenic CO2 emissions but this number includes large uncertainties. Furthermore, several presentations referred to modelling studies suggesting that the carbon sink to oceans is actually smaller than previously expected, and that the sink may saturate more rapidly.

That China was the host of the conference seemed apt: between 1990 and 2011, the contribution of China’s CO2 emissions on a global level increased from below 10% to 26%.  In 1978, less than 17% of the Chinese population lived in cities, whereas currently this fraction is already above 50%. Urbanization, industrialization, and globalization are considered to be the main CO2 emission growth drivers. Despite the enormous increase in emissions, some regions in China, such as Beijing, have been able to keep their emissions fairly steady for the last ten years. Moreover, looking at CO2 emissions per capita, USA and EU are still ahead of China.

The conference finished in the conclusion that clearly more work in understanding the sinks and emissions of CO2 is necessary, particularly regarding the role of soil and water. For more information, please see the special issue in Tellus B (Vol. 62, Issue 5).

Leena Järvi

Finnish participants

Leena Järvi and Timo Vesala, Division of Atmospheric Sciences, Department of Physics, UHEL

Anne Ojala and Pekka Kauppi, Department of Environmental Sciences, UHEL


The future of the Arctic

In September 2012, Arctic sea ice cover declined to a record low, over 3 million square kilometers below the long-term average for the month. Photo: IIASA Newsletter

IIASA researchers and Finnish policymakers and scientists met in May to outline a new research agenda addressing the challenges facing the Arctic region.

The seminar, jointly organized by IIASA, The Finnish Prime Minister’s Office, and the Academy of Finland, brought together stakeholders to share views, discuss and clarify the kind of Arctic research that is most needed to help guide the region through an uncertain future. Prof Markku Kulmala took part in the meeting, giving a Finnish view on climate change issues. Other speakers included Prof Pavel Kabat, Director of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis IIASA, Austria; Ambassador Hannu Halinen, Arctic Affairs at the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs; Minister Counsellor, Deputy Head of Mission, Ulrik Tideström, Embassy of Sweden in Helsinki; Special Adviser Christine Daae Olseng, Coordinator for the Polar Research Programme, the Research Council of Norway; Senior Vice President and Chief Techology Officer Kari Knuutila, Outotec Oyj, Finland; Director Teija Tiilikainen, Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Finland; and Dr., Researcher Seija Tuulentie, Finnish Forest Research Institute.

“The meeting was an important step in establishing a real, efficient and useful dialogue between policy makers and scientists. Our Division is involved in many such efforts because we find it is in the best interest of society in every respect”, says Prof Kulmala.

Climate change has hit the Arctic region harder than any location on Earth. Over the last 30 years, the sea ice that covers the Arctic Ocean has declined by over 40% in summer, opening up new routes for shipping and making oil extraction and fishing more feasible in previously impassable waters. In the same time period, average temperatures have risen twice as fast in the Arctic as in lower latitudes. The resulting thawing of permafrost can undermine infrastructure, and the climate shifts may disrupt marine and terrestrial ecosystems, as well as the cultures that depend on them.

These changes open up new economic opportunities for resource extraction, shipping, and tourism in Arctic countries, but also pose many new questions about how to guide sustainable economic development and avoid environmental damage.

IIASA researchers focus on many issues relevant to the Arctic, including energy resources, air quality, and fisheries. The Institute also integrates scientific analyses into the assessment of policy options and future scenarios, a function that could be vital in the rapidly changing region, which is becoming ever more important on the global economic and geopolitical stage.

The meeting was webcast. For more information, visit the Academy of Finland Web site:

Tanja Suni
Adapted from IIASA Newsletter, Issue 14, June 2013

Science for decision makers

IIASA is located in the Laxenburg Castle, former summer retreat of the Habsburgs imperial family outside Vienna, Austria.

One of the largest challenges in search for solutions for problems concerning climate, environment, or poverty, is to generate a fruitful communication between scientists and policy makers. Currently, I work in the MAG group (Mitigation of Air Pollution & Greenhouse Gases) at IIASA (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis), an institute specialising in this communication. How does this communication work? And why is IIASA heard (or is it)? In the following I list a few (possible) reasons for the important role IIASA has in the international policy arena. Note that these thoughts are mine, and they are based on my experiences only.

–        History and tradition. IIASA was founded in the middle of the Cold War, in 1972, on the initiative of US president Lyndon Johnson and USSR premier Aleksei Kosygin (the era and the participants may explain the obscure name of the institute). The goal of IIASA was to promote co-operation between East and West in interdisciplinary scientific problems too wide for national institutions to handle. After the Cold War, the co-operation was extended from the East-West axis towards global, now crossing the boundaries between the first and third world. This background gives IIASA a strong label of neutrality. As a result of this history, IIASA scientists visit Brussels regularly to report our results to EU decision-makers. Similarly, representatives of the EU member countries regularly visit IIASA to update their information on, for example, the countries’ energy production and consumption, industry, transport, related technological objectives and future development.

–        Continuous funding. More than half of IIASA funding comes from the NMOs (National Member Organizations, Finnish representative being the Academy of Finland), which typically receive most of their funding from the governments they represent. There are currently 20 NMOs, from all the continents, including the most important players (USA, Russia, China, India, Brazil, Germany, Japan, Australia). Of course, there are also NMOs that have stopped their contribution for supporting IIASA, but the typically five year long contracts are, I guess, relatively stable under the current economics.

–        Policy-friendliness. IIASA transforms its scientific results into dollars/euros and human lives. The main output of the MAG program, the GAINS emission model, for example, gives out not only the efficiency of the technologies for decreasing emissions, but also their price. Furthermore, it estimates how many human lives can be saved by paying that price. And even further, it can be set to optimize the abatements of different emissions (different in sources and pollutants) in order to achieve the maximal benefit for a certain cost. And the data is available to anyone, registration as a user is free of charge. Another example would be the ‘7 shocks and Finland’ –project, ended a year ago, which analysed how the Finnish national economy would survive the economic shock situations.

Can we learn something from IIASA to help our own research in Finland to have an influence on political decisions? Organisations with similar goals in Finland include SYKE (Finnish Environmental Institute), the new national Climate Panel (Ilmastopaneeli), and the Forum for Environmental Information (Ympäristötiedon foorumi), although the two latter do not conduct research of their own. Similarly to IIASA, these organisations have been at least partly founded by decision makers in order to aggregate information necessary for their decisions.

These organisations are necessary because the purely academic results that universities provide are often too exact or theoretical for basing political decisions on. Thus, in order to have political influence, I find researchers and other well informed agents should, firstly, support (by actively offering information and, possibly, some resources) institutions such as IIASA, SYKE, the Climate Panel and the Forum for Environmental Information which are currently responsible for refining the scientific results to a form applicable to policy. Secondly, already at university level, we should put effort in offering simplified enough versions of our results to the media and thus to have also the non-academic people to hear and understand them: if the journalists do not understand the press-releases, the results never reach the news.

Most importantly, both above points must be carried out continuously, even if results are not immediately observable: at that very moment when the majority of decision makers feel that change is necessary (and voters are ready for it), we should be able to offer updated and comprehensive knowledge on feasible options, on their effectiveness and price. I guess very few of the reports by IIASA lead to immediate decisions, but when some decisions suddenly are to be made, it is too late to start scanning through ACP, JGR or BER and discussing what could be suggested for an action.

Pauli Paasonen (Division of Atmospheric Sciences; Guest Research Scholar at IIASA)



When money and climate put pressure on Finnish forests

Climate change is evident and we will expect that the Finnish forests will look different in the future because of increasing temperature and change in precipitation. However, forest management will also have to adapt to financial pressure. Pushed by both these drivers, forest owners will have to change their management practices by, for instance, changing the rotation period (the lifetime of the forest from planting to harvesting), the planted tree species, and the drainage of peatlands. Changing these parameters will again feed back on the climate. “Also, Finnish people have a strong connection with forests; changing the way they look or the way they can be used will stir people’s emotions. This, in turn, affects the willingness to change forest practices”, says Ditte Mogensen who is working on this multidisciplinary problem in the iLEAPS-HENVI project “Optimizing forest management and conservation to account for multiple interactions with the climate“. Other FCoE people taking part in this project include Eero Nikinmaa and Jaana Bäck from Forest Ecology, Michael Boy from our Division, and Ari Laaksonen from FMI.

The research program will, for the first time, analyze jointly all potentially important climate change impacts of forestry. Tradeoffs between the different climate change impacts and interactions between climate change mitigation and other forest uses will be analyzed. The research results have high relevancy for policy makers as we will analyse the full effects of forest management on climate change, tradeoffs between climate change mitigation and other forest services, as well as the social acceptability of climate change mitigation in the forestry.

The study is a collaborative effort between University of Helsinki department of Forest Sciences, and division of Atmospheric Sciences of department of Physics and the faculty of Social Sciences, the Finnish Forest Research institute and the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

Website of HENVI (Helsinki University Centre for Environment)

Website of iLEAPS (Integrated Land Ecosystem – Atmosphere Processes Study)

Photo of Ditte by Jari Juslin. 

Engineering the climate can only buy time

Governments are failing to act on climate change, and greenhouse gas emissions are increasing with accelerated speed. Joonas Merikanto is studying another route to mitigate climate change, climate engineering, of which there are two main types: some methods remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (carbon dioxide removal), whereas others reflect sunlight back to space (radiation management).

Carbon dioxide removal methods are slow and cumbersome. Planting new forests is an option but there really isn’t enough land and, since forest is usually darker than open land, the consequences on albedo could be adverse. Fertilising certain seaweeds is another option but it would have unpredictable consequences to marine ecosystems. Engineered carbon capture would also be possible, but appears to be extremely costly compared to emissions cuts, and involves storage problems.

The reflectivity of the atmosphere could be increased by  spraying aerosol particles in the sky, where they would become seeds for new clouds or directly reflect solar radiation. Aerosols could quickly cool the planet with relative little costs. According to Joonas, this method, too, entails severe risks and unknowns. Making clouds whiter could mix up rain patterns, and particles injected in the stratosphere could turn the sky from blue to grey and possibly increase ozone layer destruction. Termination of aerosol cooling in a world with increased carbon dioxide concentrations would be problematic, as it would quickly heat the planet to temperatures above the starting point. Therefore, aerosols offer no long-term solution to climate change.

At the moment, nobody really engineers climate although some countries like China have large scale rain enhancement projects. International legislation should be developed quickly, so that individual countries wouldn’t cool the climate without consideration of consequences outside their borders. “Climate engineering is not a magical remedy. It can only be a short-term solution that would buy us time to prevent environmental crises. No matter how much we engineer the climate artificially, we still need to cut down our emissions”, Joonas says. “However, a cooler Earth that suffers from side effects of climate engineering could still be a better place to live than a severely heated planet”, he concludes.

Summary of original article (in Finnish) “Pilvi Peitoksi”, Yliopisto 10/2012, page 25.

Russell et al. (2012), Ecosystem Impacts of Geoengineering: A Review for Developing a Science Plan, AMBIO, 41(4):350-69.

Photo of Hyytiälä by Juho Aalto.