Wednesday, September 17, 2014

An open letter to you climate people

Dear Climate People (yes, I mean you IPCC WG1 types):

I am a lowly social scientist. An economist to be precise. I am the type of person who is greatly interested in projecting impacts of climate change on human and natural systems. My friends and I are pretty darn good at figuring out how human and natural systems responded to observed changes in weather and climate. We use fancy statistics, spend tons of time and effort collecting good data on observed weather/climate and outcomes of interest. Crime? Got it. Yields for any crop you can think of? Got your back. Labor productivity? Please. Try harder.

But you know what's a huge pain in the neck for all of us? Trying to get climate model output in a format that is useable by someone without at least a computer science undergraduate degree. While you make a big deal out of having all of your climate model output in a public depository, we (yes the lowly social scientists) do not have the skills to read your terabytes and terabytes of netCDF files into our Macbooks and put them in a format we can use.

What do I mean by that? The vast majority of us use daily data of TMin, Tmax and Precipitation at the surface. That's it. We don't really care what's going on high in the sky. If we get fancy, we use wet bulb temperature and cloud cover. But that's really pushing it. For a current project I am trying to get county level Climate Model Output for the CMIP5 models. All of them. For all 3007 US counties. This should not be hard. But it is. My RA finally got the CMIP5 output from a Swiss server and translated them into a format we can use (yes. ASCII. laugh if you wish. The "a" in ASCII stands for awesome.) We now are slicing and dicing these data into the spatial units we can use. We had to buy a new computer and bang our heads against the wall for weeks.

If you want more people working on impacts in human and natural systems, we need to make climate model output available to them at the spatial and temporal level of resolution they need. For the old climate model output, there was such a tool, which was imperfect, but better than what we have now. I got a preview of the update to this tool, but it chokes on larger requests.

Here's what I'm thinking IPCC WG1: Let's create a data deposit, which makes climate model output available to WG2 types like me in formats I can understand. I bet you the impacts literature would grow much more rapidly. The most recent AR5 points out that the largest gaps in our understanding are in human systems. I am not surprised. If this human system has trouble getting the climate data into a useful format, I am worried about folks doing good work, who are even more computationally challenged than I am.

Call me some time. I am happy to help you figure out what we could do. It could be amazing!

Your friend (really) Max.


  1. Hello Max,
    I am not a climate modeler but I may be able to help. I'm working on a project in which we aim to provide high-resolution model projections for Tmax, Tmin, precip, and other parameters of economic relevance for planning and decision making. Let me know where / how to call you and I will. You can email me at
    best regards,

  2. You can download high-res downscaled projections from the US directly from here in more user-friendly format: