Climate Science Program

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What is Climate Science

Essential Principles of Climate Science
* Life on Earth has been shaped by, depends on, and affects climate
* We increase our understanding of the climate system through observations and modeling
* The Sun is the primary source of energy for the climate system
* Earth's carbon cycle and climate system are the results of complex interactions
* Earth's climate varies over time and space
* Evidence indicates that human activities are impacting the climate system
* Human decisions involving economic crisis and social values influence Earth's climate system

Source: CLIMATE LITERACY: The Essential Principles of Climate Science, 2009 [Available online at US Climate Program Office]

Q.What is climate science, and how does it differ from meteorology and climatology?

A.   Climate science is distinguished from the more general discipline of atmospheric science or meteorology by its emphasis on climate as opposed to weather. Climate science is the study of average conditions over some time period, whereas meteorology is the study of actual events. It has been said that "climate is what we expect, and weather is what we get". Climate science is distinguished from climatology by practitioners in the field by the fact that climate science relies heavily on numerical models for the study of climate processes, whereas climatologists primarily use statistical methods to study climate. Climate scientists also use statistical methods to study the output of their numerical models and to compare these results with observations. The distinction is in the wide use of numerical models by climate scientists. These numerical models (in contrast to, say, statistical models or conceptual models) are based on the fundamental laws of physics and have essentially the same basic equations as models used by fluid engineers to study fluid motions in combustion chambers, flow around airplane bodies, and flow in pipes and ducts.

Q.What types of phenomena do climate scientists study, and how do you go about studying those phenomena?

A.   Climate scientists study long-term trends in average meteorological conditions and changes in these averaged conditions from season to season, year to year, decade to decade. They do not generally engage in forecasting or prediction of actual events (e.g., tomorrow’s temperature or precipitation) but rather average conditions (e.g., daily maximum and minimum temperature to be expected on a July day of any year). They do engage in projecting future scenarios of climate, as opposed to forecasting actual future conditions. For example they might project a future climate scenario (say the decade of the 2040s) that had an average daily maximum temperature for September that was 3.5°F higher than the current average daily maximum for September. But they would not predict the sequence of daily maximum temperatures for that decade. The phenomena studied by climate scientists include average conditions of all meteorological variables, such as the change in average conditions of precipitation, temperature, humidity, pressure, wind, and cloudiness, or average occurrences of events such as droughts, floods, heat waves, and storms. Both climatologists and climate scientists study climate change, but the climate scientist would use numerical models to further seek answers to questions such as what variables are changing, how much are they changing, why are they changing, and what are the consequences of these changes.