Our Mission: to Understand Earth's Changing Climate

Our mission presents a profound intellectual challenge due to the complexity, multiplicity, and interconnectedness of the climate system itself. What is the present state of our climate, and what causes it to change? Does the system reverberate chaotically and recombine into a new, different state? Or do external forcings such as alterations in the incidence of solar radiation and increased carbon dioxide levels prevail as agents for change? What is the combined effect of forces both internal and external acting simultaneously? And then there is the problem of timescales. We know from proxy measurements that the climate has lurched many times between glacial and interglacial states, but how do we separate long-term trends from short-term variations? Then, contributing to the complexity and blurring the difference between causality and coincidence, there are numerous, quasi-predictable cycles in the atmosphere and ocean, such as El Nino and the North Atlantic Oscillation, capable of changing weather conditions worldwide.

Industrialization and its demand for natural resources, continental-scale agriculture and its demand for land, and the swelling global population with its demand for everything continue to reshape the Earth. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, our exhausts and effluviums have increased atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels by more than one third. These products of human activity have begun to leave their mark, and are changing our climate. What separates anthropogenic climate change from natural climate variations is its unprecedented rate of change. Not only by changing Earth’s climate but by doing so at fast-forward speed, humankind has become a true geophysical force.

It is of course insufficient for a scientist simply to say that humanity – or humanity in conjunction with other forces—has changed the world’s climate. As scientists, we need to identify the causes of change and, if possible, need to predict change. But to do so requires a degree of understanding of the climate system as a whole far greater than we possess at present. And that brings us back to our mission and the pressing intellectual challenge before us. To fulfill our mission by confronting the challenge, we will approach the problem in the light of two guiding questions:

How susceptible is the Earth system to perturbations?
What are the limits of Earth system predictability?


We are keenly aware of the challenges that must be overcome to enhance our understanding of Earth’s dynamic climate system. But the challenges are not daunting – intellectual and technical opportunities abound as the new decade unfolds.

Our greatest opportunity lies in the advancement of comprehensive Earth system modeling. We will build on the history of research within the MPI-M that started from the development of component models of the atmosphere and ocean, moved to pioneering studies of the coupled atmosphere-ocean system, and recently culminated in the development of the MPI Earth system model. However, increasing further the complexity of our models will not by itself provide answers to our guiding questions; instead, answers will arise from the richness and clarity of the concepts that our models help us create.

The MPI-M continues to attract the most talented and creative scientists from around the world. We integrate them into a stimulating institutional environment, which consists of excellent support staff, state-of-the-art facilities, and the MPI-M membership in the Cluster of Excellence CliSAP.

The MPI-M requires and enjoys privileged access to high-performance computing facilities, chief among them the German Climate Computing Centre (DKRZ). The ever-increasing computational capacity makes some tasks easier and others imaginable. For example, the exploration of climate predictability requires the simulation of large ensembles of runs, each differing by a small amount in the initial conditions; this task is greatly aided by a sufficiently powerful computing and data storage system such as at DKRZ. Other simulations have only now become possible, such as replacing cumulus parameterizations by convection-resolving models and thus basing the simulation on much firmer conceptual grounds.

To evaluate and initialize our models, we will increasingly exploit the growing observational record, which allows us to extract fundamentally new insights into the changing Earth system; from the vertical structure of clouds, to the growing uptake of heat by the ocean, to ever richer descriptions of the land biosphere. The global observational record is complemented by a new generation of targeted measurement campaigns aiming at, for example, cloud dynamics in the subtropics or the ocean’s meridional overturning circulation.

Opportunities abound. And we have in the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology a practiced, fully functioning institution with a thoroughgoing history in climate research. We have the required quality in our scientific and support staff to develop and use comprehensive Earth system models. We have the technical and scientific capability to augment and integrate into our models a rich and growing observational record. We understand our mission and the questions that must be addressed to realize it. And so, prepared and dedicated, we look forward to the coming decade.

From Strategic Plan „2020 Vision“, page 5ff, 2011

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