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Scientific (r)evolution, continued

Kutzbach’s innovation – using climate models to explain the observed changes – was the critical glue of the project. Both the sharing of data among scientists and the building of interdisciplinary teams of climate modelers, oceanographers, ecologists and geologists was revolutionary, and a precursor to the modern practice of integrated earth system science. This effort ultimately gave rise to the Paleoclimate Model Intercomparison Project, whose results are used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to understand the natural and human drivers of climate change.

CCR continues to be a world leader in historical climate modeling, led by Zhengyu Liu. Liu, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, succeeded Kutzbach as CCR director in 2002 and has received his own accolades, elected a fellow of the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society.

Center for Climatic Research researchers Zhengyu Liu, Reid Bryson and John Kutzbach
Former directors Zhengyu Liu, Reid Bryson and John
Kutzbach, left to right, helped position CCR as a world
leader in climate research
.

Liu and staff scientist Feng He were part of a team that recently completed a project decades in the making: a comprehensive and continuous simulation of the climate from the last glacial maximum to the present, showing how meltwater from receding ice sheets could trigger abrupt changes in the ocean and atmosphere.

New science, new challenges

Climate models are always evolving, riding on ever-faster computer processing capabilities and developing higher-resolution and ever-increasing realism in their representations of the earth system. At the same time, the urgency of climate change now calls for new science and a closer connection to decision-making.

For example, in the COHMAP days, the most advanced climate models treated the world ocean essentially as an inert slab – able to exchange energy with the atmosphere, but with no ability to circulate. At CCR, Liu has pioneered the development of ocean-atmosphere and ocean-atmosphere-vegetation models that show how feedbacks between these systems are a crucial cause of climate variability, past and present.

One of CCR’s strengths has been its longstanding relationship with UW-Madison’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, one of the strongest such programs in the world. And the blending of disciplines from across campus, essential to the center from its inception, has never been stronger, with more faculty members, scientists and student researchers involved than at any point in CCR’s past, with access to unprecedented capabilities from models, satellites and other tools.

“The brainpower in CCR today is incredible,” says Kutzbach, describing how CCR has expanded beyond its early roots in climatology into wide-ranging studies across the new field of Earth system science.

The areas of research on which the center was founded still thrive, but a new array of interdisciplinary projects have blossomed on topics like carbon cycles in the Great Lakes, oceans and forests; long-term oscillations in the oceans; Arctic climate feedbacks; and the climatic effect of land use changes thousands of years ago.

“A lot of people need
the best available science
and information about what
climate changes are expected
over the next several decades,
and CCR is in a key position
to help with this effort."

And increasingly, CCR’s mission is working with decision-makers to assess climate vulnerability and develop strategies to help society adapt.

“In the 1990s and maybe early 2000s, the goal was stopping climate change,” says current CCR director Jack Williams. “I would say we’ve passed the moment where that goal is possible. Now we’re in a conversation about slowing the rate of climate change and adapting to the changes that are happening now and are going to continue over this century.”

Again, CCR has helped lead the way, developing innovative new partnerships among climate scientists, decision-makers and stakeholders, particularly through the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts.

“CCR has a really important role to play, particularly on adaptation,” Williams says. “A lot of people need the best available science and information about what climate changes are expected over the next several decades, and CCR – because it’s got such a top notch group of scientists from the atmospheric sciences, the biological sciences and the geological sciences – is in a key position to help with this effort.”

It all goes back to Bryson’s vision more than 50 years ago, when he began to stretch the boundaries of climate science. He was well ahead of his time, but others would soon follow.

“Reid’s idea had legs,” says Kutzbach. “When he set up CCR, it was unique. There was nothing like an interdisciplinary climate research group in 1962. But the idea has proven to be so valuable that you now have a lot of centers in this country and around the world that have modeled themselves after CCR.”

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