This past July the International Arctic Research Center (IARC) hosted their once a year summer school program.  However, even for our hosts at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), the July 2012 program offered something new and different.  This year was the first year that the IARC summer school was sponsored by the Alaska Climate Science Center (CSC), but it was also the first year that the summer school topic was about the applications of downscaling.  Specifically the focus was on “Climate System Modeling: Downscaling Techniques and Practical Applications”.  It was first for IARC and the Alaska CSC, but it was also a valuable learning experience for all of us involved.

The majority of the students (right – 2012 IARC student at McCallum Glacier, Alaska Range – courtesy of Tohru Saito, IARC/UAF) in the two week course were sponsored by their respective CSCs.  There were climatologists involved, but there were also ecologists, biologists, and hydrologists represented by the students in the course.  In this wide range of disciplines, there was only one thing in common.  All of us had some need or question we were working on that required downscaled climate data, or the use of downscaling techniques on climate data.  The instructors also came from a range of disciplines and from across the country.  As a result the course discussed 4 main themes:

  • Climate Change
  • Downscaling
  • Applications (including hydrology and ecology)
  • Communication and Human Dimension

While much of the summer school was focused on Alaska and Arctic, the topics also extended to our own research particularly with regards to communication.   While much of these topics were discussed in a classroom, there were also several field trips which put the challenges of modeling things such as glaciers and permafrost in context.  For example, in our trip to areas around Smith Lake on the UAF campus (shown right), we discovered that the ecosystem can shift from a birch forest to a black spruce forest in less than a quarter mile.  Between these ecosystems there are significant differences in soil temperature and moisture, along with the thickness of the organic layer and understory.  There was permafrost in one forest, while there was no permafrost in the other forested area.  The differences in the ecology, soil properties, and permafrost over such a short distance presents challenges to the use of climate model data and projecting the impact of climate change to the ecosystems and permafrost in the region.  The spatial variability of permafrost, which has an impact on both ecology and infrastructure in Alaska, also extends several meters underground in some places (such as the Army Corps of Engineers Permafrost Tunnel, shown left) which present an additional challenge to impact studies in this region.  One of the other challenges of downscaling for impact studies in Alaska is the glaciers in the region.  The Canwell Glacier for instance (shown below), is 16km long but it and other glaciers feed into the streams in the Alaska Range south of Fairbanks.  Aside from the size of the glacier, Canwell has visible ice which transitions to debris covered ice at smaller resolutions.  All of these present challenges of scale, but also challenges representing the subtle changes in reflectivity in these regions associated with the changes between glacial ice, debris covered glacial ice, and tundra. 

All of these challenges to climate system modeling and impact studies are specific to Alaska, but they reminded all of us of the challenges in our own regions which are similar.  However, while discussing all of these we are also reminded that communication of the results and sources of uncertainty in climate models and downscaled datasets between the climate science community, other sectors, and the general public has become increasingly important.  The discussion here covered everything from the jargon differences between sectors to the challenges of working with the media.

In the end, I traveled 4260 miles (or between 12 and 16 hours) from Raleigh to Fairbanks to learn more about the challenges in climate, hydrology and ecosystem modeling, downscaling, and communication.  The course was an excellent introduction to the topics and challenges in each one, which will stay with me as my doctorate research begins.  However, as I think back over the two weeks there is one hidden theme of the course which comes to mind.  To borrow from one of the instructors’ presentations, with regards to all these topics and scientific research being done, a professional in communication once said “Who cares? Tell me please!”  While these 4 main themes were discussed throughout there was always discussion of the information needs of stakeholders and the public.  For me, the IARC summer school served as an excellent reminder of the challenges in climate system modeling and an introduction to ecosystem and hydrology modeling, but also as a reminder that research should satisfy the needs of science and the needs of stakeholders.  The reminder here is to do science with the endpoints in mind.  Regardless of whether the research focuses on Raleigh or Fairbanks or anywhere in between, can you answer that question about your research?  “Who cares? Tell me please!”

Click for more information on the 2012 IARC Summer School – “Climate System Modeling: Downscaling Techniques and Practical Applications”