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Understanding Earth through GFDL’s Advanced Global Models

April 25th, 2024

In celebration of Earth Month, GFDL shares how the lab is investing to meet weather and climate goals through some of its advanced global models: CM4, SPEAR, ESM4, and SHiELD. These realistic models play an important role in enhancing our comprehension of the Earth system, each providing unique insights into the science underpinning our understanding and enabling predictions and projections.

CM4 (Climate Model version 4) is a comprehensive climate model that encompasses advanced representations of atmospheric, oceanic, ice, and land processes. CM4 is skillful at simulating diverse climate conditions across time — from historical climates to present variability and future projections. The model’s complexity and high resolution allows for deep insights into climate dynamics and the interactions driving global climate changes, which helps in developing effective climate response strategies and solutions.

SPEAR (Seamless System for Prediction and EArth System Research) is a modeling system designed for climate prediction and projection across time scales, from two months to a century or more in advance.  By integrating various components of the Earth system, including the atmosphere, ocean, land surface, and sea ice, SPEAR enhances our understanding and predictability of climate dynamics. SPEAR differs from CM4 by allowing the model to utilize a comprehensive set of real-time observations to predict the subsequent evolution of the ocean and atmosphere for months and years in advance. This model is skillful in forecasting environmental factors over seasonal and decadal timeframes and is actively used in the North American Multi-Model Ensemble, as well as seasonal forecasts for hurricanes and sea ice.

ESM4 (Earth System Model version 4) integrates the physical climate components that comprise the SPEAR and CM4 models — including the atmosphere, oceans, and land surface — along with interactive atmospheric chemistry and biogeochemical cycles, such as carbon and nitrogen. By capturing the interactions among the biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and land, and capturing the processes associated with terrestrial and marine ecosystems, ESMs enable the examination of how climate responds to greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the impacts and feedbacks on Earth’s ecosystems and human activities. This model provides a holistic view of the global climate and Earth System and its interdependencies, offering a comprehensive tool for addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation.

SHiELD (System for High-resolution prediction on Earth-to-Local Domains) specializes in providing high-resolution weather capabilities and skilled climate predictions that focus on localized geographical regions and extreme events such as hurricanes and severe thunderstorms. By enhancing the resolution and accuracy of the numerical simulations, SHiELD addresses specific regional weather-climate needs and supports targeted adaptation strategies. The system focuses on the understanding of how small-scale processes can influence broader weather and climate patterns, making it invaluable for regional planning and disaster preparedness.

Through the development and refinement of these advanced global models, GFDL continues to reinforce its leadership in weather, climate and Earth system science. These models are more than technological achievements; they are vital sources of knowledge that enable scientists around the world to unravel the complexities of Earth’s weather and climate system.

Together, SHiELD, SPEAR, CM4, and ESM4 models provide reliable guidance towards a future where informed understanding enables the building of a more resilient and sustainable world. Notably, GFDL has been a key contributor in every assessment conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since its inaugural report in 1990, leveraging insights from models ranging up to the current ESM4 and CM4 models, to inform climate policy and decision-making.