Skip to Main Content U.S. Department of Energy
Breakthroughs Magazine
Global Climate Change

The Changing Global Climate

Despite all the hot talk about global climate changepredictions of flooding and pestilence, forecasts of economic collapse of entire industries, arguments between nations about who should shoulder the costs of mitigation, and the doubters who dismiss the issuetwo facts remain: A blanket of gases, water droplets, and aerosol particles holds the sun's energy in our atmosphere, warming the planet with a greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide, one of five important greenhouse gases, has increased in the atmosphere by 30 percent since 1800 and is now higher than at any time in the last 160,000 years.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the increase in carbon dioxide may bear a relationship to human development. "This increase has raised concerns that human activities have become a climatic force in the environment," said Gerry Stokes, associate laboratory director for Environmental and Health Sciences at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "We are moving closer to an understanding of whether energy use, agriculture, industrial processes, and population growth are making the Earth more or less habitable. But, there still are many uncertaintiesjust listen to the current debate over global warming."

Pacific Northwest has fielded a broad global climate change effort since 1988 with work in three areas: science, policy, and technology. "Our goal is to generate new knowledge that will help people understand climate issues and to meaningfully contribute to the policy debate," Stokes said.

"We are moving closer
to an understanding of
whether energy use,
industrial processes,
and population growth
are making the Earth
more or less habitable."

Building the Scientific Base

Much is unknown about the basic processes that govern climate. While forecasting weather a few days in advance is now possible, a great deal more data and computing power is needed to predict climate change over many decades. Pacific Northwest is involved in the data gathering and computing efforts that can solve some of these mysteries.

The Laboratory coordinates the day-to-day activities of the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Program and the Computer Hardware, Advanced Mathematics and Model Physics Program for the U.S. Department of Energy. These programs seek to clarify climate processes and improve scientists' abilities to predict climate change. They involve extensive participation by DOE's national laboratories, universities, and other federal agencies. In all, ARM counts 57 organizations in its list of participants, while CHAMMP is working with 28.

ARM focuses on measuring the way the sun's energy is transmitted, absorbed, and reflected in the atmosphere and the role of the interaction of clouds with solar radiation to heat and cool the Earth. The measurements are needed to improve general circulation models and single column models that predict global and regional climate changes.

With sites in the Southern Great Plains of Oklahoma, the islands in Tropical Western Pacific near Papua New Guinea, and the North Slope of Alaska near Barrow, the ARM program gathers enormous amounts of data from three key climate regimes. Scientists at Pacific Northwest are working in most aspects of the program from helping to develop, integrate, and operate new instruments at the sites to contributing new knowledge about fundamental processes such as the way energy creates turbulence at the Earth's surface. Pacific Northwest also is the site for the Experiment Center, where ARM data is prepared and packaged for the scientists who work with the program.

"Considerable uncertainties remain in models that are used to estimate climate change," Stokes said. "With the good quality data from ARM and programs like it, I expect our models will improve over the next decade."

CHAMMP's goal is to develop a new generation of global climate models using massively parallel computers. The increased computing power will let scientists use more realistic representations of physical processes in their models, but the new machines pose significant challenges. "Building teams of computational and climate scientists across institutional and disciplinary boundaries is the biggest challenge to fully exploiting the new ultra-computer architectures, but we're seeing a lot of good science being developed," said Dave Bader, the program manager at Pacific Northwest who leads the CHAMMP program for DOE. Recently, CHAMMP was integrated into DOE's Climate Prediction Program.

Providing Meaningful Information for Decision-Making

The political implications of human-induced global warming are stupendous. For the people of the Marshall Islands, whose lands are only a few feet above sea level, rising seas could obliterate their homeland. For China, strict curbs on energy use could increase poverty of its people. For U.S. farmers in arid lands, permanent drought would bring economic ruin. "Civilization has grown to the point that there are no isolated energy, economic, or environmental systems. In spite of scientific uncertainties, decisions will have to be made," Stokes said.

A range of Pacific Northwest tools are used to provide meaningful information to policymakers. These tools allow users to consider climate change as a system of related economic, social, and natural forces.


Stationed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the Battelle Gulfstream G1 is used to collect aerosol and other atmospheric data around the world.

Along the West Coast, for example, a model sponsored by DOE and the Environmental Protection Agency is providing finely tuned estimates of the impact of global change on water resources. While other models take a macro view of water systems, the regional model uses a subgrid approach to estimate the impact of temperature shifts to snow cover and stream flows down to a resolution of 1 kilometer. Ruby Leung, one of the developers of the model, reported early results suggest the Pacific Northwest region could warm unevenlyless than 1 degree Celsius in the summer and 4 degrees Celsius in the winter. This trend could lead to earlier and more pronounced snowmelt in the spring, increasing the chances of winter flooding and reducing water supplies for irrigation in the growing season.

On a national scale, Laboratory researchers modeled many scenarios for U.S. policymakers to consider before the recent Kyoto Summit. Studies showed the United States would have to charge a carbon tax of $100 per ton to return its carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2010 if the United States had to achieve that goal independently.

"We found the U.S. could drop this cost to $20-25 a ton if it could trade pollution credits with the rest of the world. By quantifying the effects of decisions, we were able to help inform policy," said Jae Edmonds, senior staff scientist at Pacific Northwest and developer of the Edmonds-Reilly-Barns and Second Generation models for scenario analysis.

Internationally, a consortium of Canadian, U.S., and Mexican organizations is using Pacific Northwest's Global Change Assessment Model to understand the regional implications of climate change on water and agricultural issues. This model incorporates the Second Generation Model for scenario analysis as well as models of atmospheric chemistry and climatic, hydrologic, and agricultural effects. It can forecast global or regional impacts of climate change and variability on agricultural and unmanaged ecosystems as well as water resources.

Technology Fix

Ten Suggestions for Global Climate Change Policymakers

Staff members Steve Rayner and Elizabeth L. Malone, authors of Human Choice and Climate Change, believe it is time to look beyond the carbon tax for climate change solutions. Here is their advice to policymakers:

  1. Take a holistic view that includes reducing emissions, adapting, and technological solutions.
  2. Recognize institutional as well as environmental limits to global sustainability.
  3. Expect rapid social, economic, and technological change to impact people more than climate change.
  4. Recognize the limits of rational planning: Focus on enhancing institutional flexibility and resilience.
  5. Employ a range of perspectives and decision aids from natural and social sciences and humanities in climate change policymaking.
  6. Design policies for real world conditions rather than making the world conform to policies.
  7. Incorporate climate change into immediate issues: jobs, defense, the economy, and health.
  8. Take a regional and local approach to climate policymaking and implementation.
  9. Direct resources into identifying vulnerability and promoting resilience.
  10. Use a pluralistic approach to decision-making.

Human Choice and Climate Change is published by Battelle Press.

A 1997 DOE report written by five national laboratories, including Pacific Northwest, concluded that a national investment in energy-efficient and clean energy technologies can reduce U.S. emissions of global warming gases and produce energy savings that roughly equal or exceed the costs to implement them. John Clarke at Pacific Northwest is responsible for a new international public/private partnership to develop a technology strategy for global climate change. He agrees that technology is the key to combating global warming.

"Modern society and its technology are responsible for unleashing new global forces which could have a detrimental effect on the environment," Clarke said. "New science and improved technologies can and must be used to mitigate those environmental problems."

In addition to developing scientific knowledge and policy analysis, the Laboratory conducts diverse technology activities aimed at reduced emissions: It helped establish energy efficiency centers in the Ukraine, China, Russia, Bulgaria, Poland, and Czech Republic. These non-governmental, not-for-profit centers, operated by local experts, encourage use of energy-efficient technologies and management practices to reduce fossil fuel use. As a participant in the Northwest Alliance for Transportation Technologies, Pacific Northwest is helping develop lightweight metal connecting and shaping techniques for cars with reduced emissions. Pacific Northwest-developed software programs make it easy for builders to comply with energy standards and build fuel-efficient homes and offices. Finally, a new proposal to develop catalytic techniques that economically remove carbon from current fuels, could eventually disconnect energy use from global warming.

Stokes said new technology could eliminate a carbon-based energy system and stabilize atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide around twice the pre-industrial levels. Pacific Northwest will focus future development in the technologies needed to eliminate combustion as our source of energy.

Electronic Land art

Technology harvest: Lab to Break New Ground in Agriculture

Mother Nature and technology are combined at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory under the Agriculture and Food Processing Initiative where researchers will, among other things, genetically engineer plants that produce useful enzymes.

The soil is prepared. The seed is planted, and now Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is busily cultivating what it hopes will be a bumper crop of new ideas and technologies for the agriculture and food processing industries.

"We have the scientific and technical expertise necessary to help bring about positive, significant changes in the way the world feeds itself," said Doug Lemon, who leads Pacific Northwest's recently established Agriculture and Food Processing Initiative. "We have the right kinds of skills to help solve a wide range of agriculture-related problems."

Those problems include a burgeoning world population that will consume increasing quantities of food; farming practices that contribute to environmental problems; food safety concerns; and decreasing availability of land, water, energy, and other resources used to produce crops.

"It makes sense for the Laboratory, a leader in energy and environmental sciences, to bring some of that capability to the emerging problems of agriculture and food production," Lemon said. "Another factor that influenced our decision to enter this field was the 1995 agreement between the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture pledging cooperation in agricultural research activities."

The initiative will focus on finding ways to:

  • enhance the stewardship of energy and environmental resources associated with agriculture and food processing
  • increase the quantity, quality, and safety of the world's food supply
  • improve the productivity and profitability of the agriculture and food processing industries
  • enhance the responsiveness of industry to diverse and changing consumer needs.

Searching for answers, researchers will plow new and familiar fields of science and technology. Genetic engineering efforts, for example, will focus on creating plants and yeasts that inexpensively produce useful enzymes. Researchers also intend to explore the use of satellite technology for crop monitoring, identify new resource management strategies, develop food safety detection systems, and build upon Pacific Northwest's strengths in converting biomass such as food processing waste streams to chemicals.

Although the initiative is new, agriculture-related research at Pacific Northwest is not. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Laboratory's Food and Agriculture Section conducted research and technology development in bioprocessing, hydroponics, and other areas. At its peak, the effort involved up to 30 staff members and a $1-million budget. For a variety of reasons, the group's focus shifted to other research areas over the years, but some of the original staff remains at Pacific Northwest.

Breakthroughs Magazine

In this issue...