Großbaustelle Klimamodelle: Probleme mit Pilzen, Bakterien, Boden-CO2 und Regionalmodellierungen

Klimamodelle sollen das Klima der Erde virtuell nachbilden. Dazu müssen alle Prozess in Gleichungen gefasst werden, aus denen der Computer dann den Verlauf in Zeit und Raum berechnet. Die Ergebisse von Klimamodellen bilden die Grundlage für den begonnenen weitreichenden Umbau der Energiesysteme und Gesellschaft. Die Erwärmung der letzten 150 Jahre bekommen die Modelle einigermaßen hin. Der Anstieg des CO2 passt gut zur Erwärmung. Allerdings ist im selben Zeitraum auch die Sonnenaktivität stark angestiegen. Hat sie wirklich nichts mit der Erwärmung zu tun?

Einen Hinweis auf Probleme bei den Klimamodellen gibt die Auswertung von regionalen Entwicklungen. Eigentlich sollten die Modelle die kleinermaßstäblichen Klimaentwicklungen gut bewältigen können, denn die Summe der regionalen Entwicklungen ergibt doch eigentlich die globale Summe. Interessanterweise versagen die Modelle jedoch reihenweise, wenn es um regionale Simulationen geht. Hierauf wies im August 2016 die Penn State University in einer Pressemitteilung noch einmal ausdrücklich hin:

Global climate models do not easily downscale for regional predictions

One size does not always fit all, especially when it comes to global climate models, according to Penn State climate researchers.”The impacts of climate change rightfully concern policy makers and stakeholders who need to make decisions about how to cope with a changing climate,” said Fuqing Zhang, professor of meteorology and director, Center for Advanced Data Assimilation and Predictability Techniques, Penn State. “They often rely upon climate model projections at regional and local scales in their decision making.”

Zhang and Michael Mann, Distinguished professor of atmospheric science and director, Earth System Science Center, were concerned that the direct use of climate model output at local or even regional scales could produce inaccurate information. They focused on two key climate variables, temperature and precipitation.

They found that projections of temperature changes with global climate models became increasingly uncertain at scales below roughly 600 horizontal miles, a distance equivalent to the combined widths of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. While climate models might provide useful information about the overall warming expected for, say, the Midwest, predicting the difference between the warming of Indianapolis and Pittsburgh might prove futile.

Regional changes in precipitation were even more challenging to predict, with estimates becoming highly uncertain at scales below roughly 1200 miles, equivalent to the combined width of all the states from the Atlantic Ocean through New Jersey across Nebraska. The difference between changing rainfall totals in Philadelphia and Omaha due to global warming, for example, would be difficult to assess. The researchers report the results of their study in the August issue of Advances in Atmospheric Sciences.

“Policy makers and stakeholders use information from these models to inform their decisions,” said Mann. “It is crucial they understand the limitation in the information the model projections can provide at local scales.” Climate models provide useful predictions of the overall warming of the globe and the largest-scale shifts in patterns of rainfall and drought, but are considerably more hard pressed to predict, for example, whether New York City will become wetter or drier, or to deal with the effects of mountain ranges like the Rocky Mountains on regional weather patterns.

“Climate models can meaningfully project the overall global increase in warmth, rises in sea level and very large-scale changes in rainfall patterns,” said Zhang. “But they are uncertain about the potential significant ramifications on society in any specific location.” The researchers believe that further research may lead to a reduction in the uncertainties. They caution users of climate model projections to take into account the increased uncertainties in assessing local climate scenarios. “Uncertainty is hardly a reason for inaction,” said Mann. “Moreover, uncertainty can cut both ways, and we must be cognizant of the possibility that impacts in many regions could be considerably greater and more costly than climate model projections suggest.”

Ein Jahr zuvor hatte bereits die Lund University auf eine große Unsicherheit in den Klimamodellen hingewiesen, die wohl den wenigsten Beobachtern in den Sinn gekommen wäre: Pilze und Bakterien. Diese werden von den gängigen Klimamodellen fundamental falsch dargestellt. Hier die Pressemitteilung vom  28. August 2015:

Future climate models greatly affected by fungi and bacteria
Researchers from Lund University, Sweden, and USA have shown that our understanding of how organic material is decomposed by fungi and bacteria is fundamentally wrong. This means that climate models that include microorganisms to estimate future climate change must be reconsidered.

When a plant dies, its leaves and branches fall to the ground. Decomposition of soil organic matter is then mainly carried out by fungi and bacteria, which convert dead plant materials into carbon dioxide and mineral nutrients. Until now, scientists have thought that high quality organic materials, such as leaves that are rich in soluble sugars, are mainly decomposed by bacteria. Lower quality materials, such as cellulose and lignin that are found in wood, are mainly broken down by fungi. Previous research has also shown that organic material that is broken down by fungi results in a reduced leakage of carbon dioxide and nutrients compared to material decomposed by bacteria. This has consequences for climate models, since more loss of carbon dioxide and mineral nitrogen would have a direct bearing on the soil’s contribution to greenhouse gases and eutrophication.

In a 23-year experiment, researchers from Lund University and USA have examined the relative significance of fungal and bacterial decomposition. “In contrast with expectations, there was no evidence that high quality organic material was mainly broken down by bacteria. In fact, the data strongly suggested the contrary”, says Johannes Rousk, researcher in Microbial Ecology at Lund University in Sweden. “There was also no evidence to suggest that organic material broken down by fungi reduced the leakage of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, or the leakage of nutrients. Once again, the results tended to suggest the contrary”, says Johannes Rousk. The results could have consequences not only for future climate models, but may also impact current policies on land use intended to promote fungi. This may be based on flawed assumptions regarding the fungal role in reducing negative environmental effects.

Publication: Revisiting the hypothesis that fungal-to-bacterial dominance characterizes turnover of soil organic matter and nutrients

Die großen Unsicherheiten in den Klimamodellen hinsichtlich des CO2-Haushalts im Boden sind auch Thema einer Pressemitteilung der Yale University vom 1. August 2016:

Managing Uncertainty: How Soil Carbon Feedbacks Could Affect Climate Change

A new Yale-led paper makes the case that developing meaningful climate projections depends upon a better understanding of the role of “soil carbon turnover.”

There is more than twice as much carbon in the planet’s soils than there is in its atmosphere, so the loss of even a small proportion of that could have a profound feedback effect on the global climate. Yet in its most recent report, in 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) used models that paid less attention to soil carbon potentially entering the atmosphere than had earlier reports, concluding that there simply wasn’t enough evidence about how warmer global temperatures might impact soil carbon stocks.

A new Yale-led paper makes the case that developing meaningful climate projections will rely on understanding the role of “soil carbon turnover” and how it might potentially trigger climate feedbacks in a warming world. Writing in the journal Nature Climate Change, a team of scientists calls for more collaboration between modelers and soil scientists to improve the scientific understanding of the mechanisms that control the creation, stabilization, and decomposition of carbon in the soil. That in turn will promote the kinds of experiments that will begin to remove uncertainties about the competing mechanisms that drive soil carbon stocks, the researchers write.

While scientists might never eliminate all uncertainty when it comes to evaluating the mechanisms driving changes in soil carbon stocks, new research advances are making it possible to predict the full range of potential outcomes, said Mark Bradford, an Associate Professor of Terrestrial Ecosystem Ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) and lead author of the study. And that, he says, will increase confidence. “There is so much discussion of uncertainty in the public debate about climate change that the term now seems ambiguous and politically loaded,” Bradford said. “The discussion should not be about how much uncertainty there is, but rather about how much confidence we have that the real planetary response lies somewhere in the range of projected uncertainty.”  “You gain scientific confidence by representing the best — and sometimes polar opposite — ideas about the how the world works in your models. If someone tells you they have high confidence that something will happen, you can then take actions based on the best knowledge available.”

Warming temperatures can trigger two very different changes in soil carbon soil levels. On the one hand, they can stimulate the growth of plants, increasing the amount of carbon storage potential. Conversely, those higher temperatures can also accelerate the activity of organisms that live in the soil and consume decaying plant matter. In that case, there is a net increase in the amount of carbon released from the biosphere into the atmosphere. In other words, one function puts carbon into the soil, keeping it out of the atmosphere, while the other emits it into the atmosphere. The twist, however, is that the processes that emit carbon from the soil also convert a small fraction of the decaying plant matter into stores of carbon that can be locked away over millennial timescales, which would be optimal to minimizing climate impacts.

While scientists have made great advances in understanding how plants will respond, their ability to evaluate how much carbon goes into the soil, and where it ends up, is made difficult because it’s not possible to measure directly. “In the soil, we don’t know how things are working because, if you like, it’s as clear as mud,” Bradford said. “Often we can’t measure what we’re trying to measure because we can’t see the organisms. You have millions of individual microbes — from thousands of cryptic species — in just a handful of soil.” For these reasons, he said, much of the understanding of how soil carbon stocks will respond to warming is based only on the outputs, which is like trying to calculate the balance of a bank account based simply on how much money is being withdrawn.

Another complicating factor is that our knowledge of how soil carbon is created and stabilized is undergoing somewhat of a conceptual revolution, and only one set of ideas is represented in the climate models, the new paper says. For decades scientists assumed that carbon entering the soil through materials that are harder to “digest” by microbes — like, say, wood — would be more likely to remain in the soil longer. In recent years, however, there has emerged a growing consensus that carbon is more likely to remain in the soil if it enters through more digestible plant matter — a cloverleaf, for instance. “The science has flipped,” Bradford said. “The harder it is to digest initially the less of it stays in the soil, whereas the easier it is to be eaten then the more of it stays in the soil.” This is important because it’s the easily digestible plant matter — such as the sugars released from plant roots into the soil — that likely eventually get converted into the long term stores of soil carbon but they are also the hardest inputs to quantify.

This growing awareness shifts the way scientists view ecosystem management, from thinking about the biomass that you can see aboveground to a focus on thinking about the amount of carbon that can be pumped belowground directly through the roots of the plants and to the organisms in the soils. Ultimately, Bradford says, it will be impossible to eliminate all uncertainty. But that, he says, is not such a bad thing. “By increasing our real understanding, we might even end up making our climate projections more uncertain, in terms of a greater range in the extent the planet might warm,” he said. “But we’ll be more confident that the true answer falls within that range.” “Advancing our confidence and taking necessary actions will ultimately require that we embrace uncertainty as a fact of life.”