What are the local consequences of a global climate change? This question is important for proper handling of risks associated with weather and climate. It also tacitly assumes that there is a systematic link between conditions taking place on a global scale and local effects. It is the utilization of the dependency of local climate on the global picture that is the backbone of downscaling; however, it is perhaps easiest to explain the concept of downscaling in climate research if we start asking why it is necessary.
Global climate models are our best tools for computing future temperature, wind, and precipitation (or other climatological variables), but their limitations do not let them calculate local details for these quantities. It is simply not adequate to interpolate from model results. However, the models are able to predict large-scale features, such as circulation patterns, El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), and the global mean temperature. The local temperature and precipitation are nevertheless related to conditions taking place over a larger surrounding region as well as local geographical features (also true, in general, for variables connected to weather/climate). This, of course, also applies to other weather elements.
Downscaling makes use of systematic dependencies between local conditions and large-scale ambient phenomena in addition to including information about the effect of the local geography on the local climate. The application of downscaling can involve several different approaches. This article will discuss various downscaling strategies and methods and will elaborate on their rationale, assumptions, strengths, and weaknesses.
One important issue is the presence of spontaneous natural year-to-year variations that are not necessarily directly related to the global state, but are internally generated and superimposed on the long-term climate change. These variations typically involve phenomena such as ENSO, the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), and the Southeast Asian monsoon, which are nonlinear and non-deterministic.
We cannot predict the exact evolution of non-deterministic natural variations beyond a short time horizon. It is possible nevertheless to estimate probabilities for their future state based, for instance, on projections with models run many times with slightly different set-up, and thereby to get some information about the likelihood of future outcomes.
When it comes to downscaling and predicting regional and local climate, it is important to use many global climate model predictions. Another important point is to apply proper validation to make sure the models give skillful predictions.
For some downscaling approaches such as regional climate models, there usually is a need for bias adjustment due to model imperfections. This means the downscaling doesn’t get the right answer for the right reason. Some of the explanations for the presence of biases in the results may be different parameterization schemes in the driving global and the nested regional models.
A final underlying question is: What can we learn from downscaling? The context for the analysis is important, as downscaling is often used to find answers to some (implicit) question and can be a means of extracting most of the relevant information concerning the local climate. It is also important to include discussions about uncertainty, model skill or shortcomings, model validation, and skill scores.
Regional models were originally developed to serve weather forecasting and regional process studies. Typical simulations encompass time periods in the order of days or weeks. Thereafter regional models were also used more and more as regional climate models for longer integrations and climate change downscaling. Regional climate modeling or regional dynamic downscaling, which are used interchangeably, developed as its own branch in climate research since the end of the 1990s out of the need to bridge the obvious inconsistencies at the interface of global climate research and climate impact research. The primary aim of regional downscaling is to provide consistent regional climate change scenarios with relevant spatial resolution to serve detailed climate impact assessments.
Similar to global climate modeling, the early attempts at regional climate modeling were based on uncoupled atmospheric models or stand-alone ocean models, an approach that is still maintained as the most common on the regional scale. However, this approach has some fundamental limitations, since regional air-sea interaction remains unresolved and regional feedbacks are neglected. This is crucial when assessing climate change impacts in the coastal zone or the regional marine environment. To overcome these limitations, regional climate modeling is currently in a transition from uncoupled regional models into coupled atmosphere-ocean models, leading to fully integrated earth system models. Coupled ice-ocean-atmosphere models have been developed during the last decade and are currently robust and well established on the regional scale. Their added value has been demonstrated for regional climate modeling in marine regions, and the importance of regional air-sea interaction became obvious. Coupled atmosphere-ice-ocean models, but also coupled physical-biogeochemical modeling approaches are increasingly used for the marine realm. First attempts to couple these two approaches together with land surface models are underway. Physical coupled atmosphere-ocean modeling is also developing further and first model configurations resolving wave effects at the atmosphere-ocean interface are now available. These new developments now open up for improved regional assessment under broad consideration of local feedbacks and interactions between the regional atmosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere.