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Tuesday, 7 May, 2002, 08:23 GMT 09:23 UK
Worldwide weather watchers wanted
Satellite image of Earth temperature, AP
test hello test
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent
Net users will soon get the chance to take part in a grand experiment to work out how global climate could change over the next 50 years.

Scientists have developed software that simulates 100 years of worldwide weather patterns in order to refine predictions about global warming and its effect on climate.

Climatologists already have some ideas about climate change over the next 50 years, but they need the help of thousands of people running the simulation to find out the full breadth of potential outcomes.

The 100-year simulation software is expected to be ready in late summer and those downloading it must be prepared to let the model run for at least eight months.

A century of weather

The experiment is similar to the Seti@home project, started in 1997, that uses idle home computers to look for signs of alien intelligence in radio signals collected by telescopes.

Floods in the UK, PA
Extreme weather has been blamed on climate change
However, has one crucial difference.

"The Seti@home project is analysing data from a central source, we are generating it on PCs and will analyse it ourselves," said Dave Frame, a developer and researcher at the University of Oxford department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics, UK.

Each simulation carried out by participants will be unique because all of them will use slightly different starting conditions.

"This is a fully-fledged research climate model," said Dr Myles Allen, project leader for and a physicist in the Space Science and Technology Department of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

"It's not a stripped down 'toy' version, so the runs take time," he said.

The unpredictable physics of weather patterns means that they could generate very different end results.

The simulation will cover the hundred years from 1950 to 2050.

The results of the simulations will be returned to the team who will then pick the ones that generated global temperature changes similar to those seen during the period 1950 to 2000.

All outcomes

Although it is impossible to forecast weather patterns for specific regions many years ahead, phenomena such as global temperature patterns do seem predictable, said Dr Allen.

"That's one of the most intriguing things about the planet," he added. "Its large scale behaviour is simpler than its small scale behaviour."

Quantifying the uncertainty is something we cannot do at the moment

Dr Myles Allen, project leader
With a vast range of simulations done, it should be possible to get an idea of the full range of possible changes to global climate over the next 50 years, said Dr Allen.

At the moment climatologists had only explored a small fraction of all the possible outcomes and this had inevitably led to disputes about the effects of global warming, he said.

"Quantifying the uncertainty is something we cannot do at the moment," he said.

The project needed at least 20,000 participants and would cap numbers at two million, said Dr Allen.

To reward participants, the simulation will be interactive and will let people fly around their programmed planet and watch how weather patterns change.

"We cannot just tell participants: 'thank you very much'", said Dr Allen "They have to get something back out of this, too."

The simulation software should be ready in time for August to coincide with a UN conference held to mark the 10th anniversary of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that attempted to start tackling problems wrought by climate change.

See also:

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29 Mar 01 | Sci/Tech
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