ADVANCE: Collaborating to Create Climate Projections

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Madeline McKenna, C+S ’16

Through the C+S course in Regional Climate and Climate Impacts, I gained a handful of practical experience examining the present-day climates of regions all around the world. For those unfamiliar with climate information, think about the daily weather.

How hot does it get during the day? What’s the coldest temperature it cools down to at night? How much does it typically rain in a month?

Average all of this weather information over at least three consecutive decades and you have a snapshot of a region’s climate. Looking back at the last several months spent in the C+S program, I can say that I’ve become proficient in qualitatively and quantitatively analyzing the mean temperature and precipitation of any given location using the IRI Climate Data Library. When it comes to putting this climate data to use, however, where do you start?

This summer, I have been working at the Center for Climate Systems Research (CCSR) on the Adaptation for Development and Conservation (ADVANCE) Partnership—a joint program of CCSR at Columbia University and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The ADVANCE approach is a method of co-generating climate change information through working with stakeholders and decision-makers from a wide range of backgrounds. The goal is to produce climate projections that environment and wildlife conservationists can trust and use in their project planning, following three broad steps.

Analyzing Context

The first step in the ADVANCE approach is to establish the context of how people will actually use the information. Scientists collect input from the main project stakeholders who will use the information by asking questions such as:

  • Does climate information exist in the region already and is it being used?
  • Are there specific regional considerations when it comes to politics or other socioeconomic factors?
  • Are there different geographic sub-regions that need to be considered and treated in different ways?
Cropland in one of the valleys of Bhutan. Credit: Manishka De Mel, Center for Climate Systems Research

Cropland in one of the valleys of Bhutan. Credit: Manishka De Mel, Center for Climate Systems Research

For example, in one project country, Bhutan, the northern area of the country is dominated by the steep and snowy Himalaya mountain range. Those mountains give way to highlands and valleys with milder climates in the southern region, though. There is a noticeable difference in the present climate for each of these areas, so it doesn’t make sense to lump together their projections for future change.

Creating Climate Change Projections

After establishing the context and needs of a specific project, it’s time to create climate projections. Our team uses the NASA Earth Exchange Global Daily Downscaled Projections dataset, which incorporates the results from 21 different climate models under 2 different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios.

That gives us a wide range of possible future circumstances, which can be narrowed down to a more manageable range of temperature and precipitation projections for decision-makers to use. Having a range allows users to prepare for a host of likely outcomes.

An example of a temperature projection would look something like this: In northern Bhutan, for the 2011-40 time period, the average spring temperature is projected to be 1.8˚-3.1°F warmer than the historical average temperature during that season.

Getting Feedback and Providing Guidance

Once the projections are produced, our team from CCSR heads out into the field to meet with in-country project teams, WWF colleagues, government officials, and other organizations to distribute and present the results of the climate projections and first-round risk analysis. The team can clarify what the projections say and discuss how the projected future changes may affect the regional project and conservation efforts. Oftentimes some changes in the projections are needed — whether it be looking at a different time period or further sub-dividing the region — to better suit the project needs.

Workshop participants in Bhutan collaborate to determine and assess the climate variables that may impact their region. Credit: Manishka De Mel, Center for Climate Systems Research

Workshop participants in Bhutan collaborate to determine and assess the climate variables that may impact their region. Credit: Manishka De Mel, Center for Climate Systems Research

Here in the U.S. we pretty much follow a December to February winter, March to May spring, June to August summer, and a September to November autumn. But in Bhutan they identify four different seasons: the pre-monsoon season, from March to May; the monsoon season, from June to September; the post-monsoon season, from October to November and winter from December to February. That means we’ve had to alter our approach to think about the seasons that matter most to stakeholders.

After all this, we conduct surveys during in-country workshops to understand just how useful (or not) climate information is to stakeholders and evaluate the outcomes of the ADVANCE approach. Survey responses from the Bhutan workshop earlier this summer indicated that climate information is most user-friendly when it is presented quantitatively — in tables, charts, and graphs — or qualitatively, as speculations on the potential impacts that climate change may have on the area.

We’ve also learned about the barriers preventing decision-makers from using climate information in their work. The most common concerns thus far are the complexity of the information and the uncertainty of the projections.

While the overall ADVANCE Approach goes into much further detail than I’ve described here, we’re continuing to improve its effectiveness. Each project and region comes with unique challenges and perspectives, proving the ADVANCE team’s flexibility and expertise in putting together comprehensive climate change projections and climate risk assessments.

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