Looking to the Clouds to Predict Future Climate

Andrew Majda, founder and principal investigator of NYU Abu Dhabi's Center for Prototype Climate Modeling (CPCM) looks to clouds to advance its atmospheric and oceanographic studies.

"Right now, we're using only 1 percent of the current data available from satellites to help us understand climate change," said Andrew Majda, founder and principal investigator of NYU Abu Dhabi's Center for Prototype Climate Modeling (CPCM). "The data sets are so massive that people don't know what to do with them, or how to explore them." Additionally, explained Majda, "many scientists feel that the 18 climate-change models by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change currently being used have major deficiencies." This is precisely where the CPCM comes in.

With a primary mission to bridge the gap between modern applied mathematics, climate theory, modeling, and observation in order to improve climate forecasting, scientists and researchers at the CPCM will explore, test, and implement ideas in climate prediction to build new interfaces between theoretical ideas and practical models, something that hasn't been done before. According to Majda, "There wasn't a center for having new ideas from theory make immediate impact in these complex models."

Working with Co-principal Investigators Shafer Smith and Olivier Pauluis, both associate professors of mathematics at NYU New York's Center for Atmosphere Ocean Science (CAOS), Majda — also the Samuel FB Morse Professor of Arts and Science in NYU New York's Mathematics department and CAOS — will continue to develop new approaches and ideas for using theory to understand computational models. The CPCM will utilize NYUAD's high-performance computer, currently the fastest supercomputer in the UAE, to advance its atmospheric and oceanographic studies.

Targeting what Majda calls "the 800-pound gorillas of climate change," the team's research will center on clouds, specifically those in the tropics. "People may think of clouds as one object, but clouds act very differently in different parts of the world," he said. "We don't care so much what one cloud is doing, we care about their collective impact." As Majda explained, atmospheric conditions in Indonesia, for example, can profoundly affect the weather in the US two weeks later. A singular event, he said, "can affect the extent of the deserts, the extent of how extreme our summers and winters will be, how many hurricanes we're likely to have . . . they're all tied together in a complex way." And because these events often have negative societal and economic impacts, focusing on the cumulative impact of clouds to improve climate modeling and long-range weather forecasting, especially considering the impacts of global warming, is something of a hot topic for climate, atmosphere, and ocean scientists worldwide.

The Center will also focus on the factors of midlatitude and subtropical impacts in forming desert and transporting moisture and — because many of these factors involve how the ocean interacts with the atmosphere — the features of the ocean, such as turbulence, to discover the effects on the clouds and the birth of giant cloud patterns.

The understanding of and ability to predict climate in the tropics and subtropics will have tremendous impact on the countries in those regions, including the UAE.

Andrew Majda, founder and principal investigator of NYUAD's Center for Prototype Climate Modeling

As this research depends on data gathering and computer modeling, the team will also work on new approaches for computer model diagnostics, or, as Majda explained, "ways for us to use theory to help us understand the computer model, which will result in new and different ways for what we call parameterization; that is, representing all the things you don't see." As he said, "even the world's largest supercomputers, when they run climate problems, represent all of the weather over a 100-square-kilometer distance with just a single point — so, looking at a climate model, you can't describe all of the elements of the climate system," elements including the mobility, unpredictability, and apparent randomness of the clouds. "A lot of the parameterization that has been developed doesn't have a random element," said Majda, "so one thing we are very interested in doing is using parameterization with fluctuation and the randomness that we see in nature. We're trying to capture coherent disorder." In addition to this, the team will work to improve active data gathering and the processing of complex data sets.

This improvement in the understanding of and ability to predict climate in the tropics and subtropics will have tremendous impact on the countries in those regions, including the UAE. "We feel that, societally, around the world, the impacts of climate change in the tropics and subtropics are important for an enormous population of people," said Majda. "It is very relevant to have a center here in Abu Dhabi." Additionally, when considering global warming and temperature increases, "people often don't realize that the most profound effect will be on the water cycle, where it rains and how much," explained Majda. "In a sense, we know that Abu Dhabi is a place where water is important, so it's a natural center for our research." Add to that the occurrence of the tropical intraseasonal oscillation, which is triggered in the Indian Ocean, not far from the Arabian Sea, and the fact that the CPCM will be working to improve the ability to predict severe droughts in the subtropics, and the Center's location in Abu Dhabi is a perfect fit.

Looking forward, the Center will comprise up to three senior scientists, up to six postdoctoral researchers, and a few technicians. It envisions that its research will be a collective effort with faculty members at CAOS and collaborators at other universities and modeling centers. As such, the Center will provide a valuable link between individual university researchers — who often do not have the resources to run large climate models — and large modeling centers that are unable to devote sufficient time to fundamental research.

It also hopes to count NYUAD students as part of the research team. As Majda said, "It's an interesting area for undergraduates who are interested in continuing with a PhD. There's a lot of need for good undergraduate students and there are many research opportunities related to the issue of climate change."

"It's well known that we're facing a lot of complex challenges worldwide in our globally warming world," said Majda. "We care now about how climate will change in the next 10 years, the next 20 years, the next 50 years, as well as what extreme events will happen and how they will influence tropical, subtropical, and midlatitude weather. We know we're working on hard problems. Part of the fun is waiting and trying to figure out what the challenges will be."