Does Model Calibration Reduce Uncertainty in Climate Projections?

Simon Tett*, Jonathan M. Gregory, Nicolas Freychet, Coralia Cartis, Michael Mineter, Lindon Roberts

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Uncertainty in climate projections is large as shown by the likely uncertainty ranges in equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) of 2.5–4 K and in the transient climate response (TCR) of 1.4–2.2 K. Uncertainty in model projections could arise from the way in which unresolved processes are represented, the parameter values used, or the targets for model calibration. We show that, in two climate model ensembles that were objectively calibrated to minimize differences from observed large-scale atmospheric climatology, uncertainties in ECS and TCR are about 2–6 times smaller than in the CMIP5 or CMIP6 multimodel ensemble. We also find that projected uncertainties in surface temperature, precipitation, and annual extremes are relatively small. Residual uncertainty largely arises from unconstrained sea ice feedbacks. The more than 20-year-old HadAM3 standard model configuration simulates observed hemispheric-scale observations and preindustrial surface temperatures about as well as the median CMIP5 and CMIP6 ensembles while the optimized configurations simulate these better than almost all the CMIP5 and CMIP6 models. Hemispheric-scale observations and preindustrial temperatures are not systematically better simulated in CMIP6 than in CMIP5 although the CMIP6 ensemble seems to better simulate patterns of large-scale observations than the CMIP5 ensemble and the optimized HadAM3 configurations. Our results suggest that most CMIP models could be improved in their simulation of large-scale observations by systematic calibration. However, the uncertainty in climate projections (for a given scenario) likely largely arises from the choice of parameterization schemes for unresolved processes (“structural uncertainty”), with different tuning targets another possible contributor.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2585–2602
JournalJournal of Climate
Early online date4 Apr 2022
Publication statusPublished - 15 Apr 2022


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