Four Integrated Research Themes

The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report identified key challenges for climate change research. Specifically, climate models need to perform at higher resolutions to better capture regional, rather than continental or global, consequences of climate change. Further, observational data from field sites and instrumented stations is spotty in developing nations, and more information is needed about the carbon cycle to set emissions goals aimed at curbing climate change effects.

Since its inception in 2009, the Climate Change Science Institute at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has addressed these and other challenges through four research theme areas—Earth System Modeling; Data Integration, Dissemination, and Informatics; Terrestrial Ecosystem and Carbon Cycle Science; and Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability Science.

These four groups are co-located and work synergistically across multiple projects. Modelers work with field experimentalists, who collect data that in turn improves the models. Moreover, these researchers work with others—data experts—to enhance availability and analysis of information. Other research collaborators use the climate change scenarios from the modeling group to determine impacts on various stakeholders. This interdisciplinary model for research has proven very effective in conducting climate change science research.

The Earth System Modeling group uses high-performance computing resources at ORNL, including America’s fastest supercomputer, Titan, to retool global Earth modeling techniques to operate at higher resolutions. The ongoing development of ultra-high-resolution models has led to models many times more detailed than standard models, which improves regional modeling in high demand by public and private decision makers. The group participates in the Climate Science for a Sustainable Energy Future project, a collaborative effort to develop and test improvements to the existing Community Earth System Model so that the sixth-generation CESM can feature greater predictive accuracy on finer geographic scales.

The Data Integration, Dissemination, and Informatics group hosts a number of projects aimed at merging data from separate archives into single portals geared toward a broad range of scientists and stakeholders interested in climate change information. For example, Earth science datasets inform the builders of complex climate models. The group creates data-management tools so contributing researchers can retain credit and users can easily adopt datasets to their own scientific needs.

The Integrative Ecosystem Science group  primarily studies carbon cycle processes and feedbacks, such as the influence of rising carbon dioxide concentrations on land ecosystems. Researchers estimate that 50 percent of the world’s carbon is stored in soil and vegetation, which humans have a unique ability to manipulate through such land use as agriculture and deforestation. Some members of the group conduct large-scale field experiments that test stressors, such as elevated carbon dioxide and temperature, on the peatlands of northern Minnesota. Others are applying a similar, large-scale multidisciplinary approach in the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiment, or NGEE Arctic, which aims to quantify the physical, chemical, and biological behavior of terrestrial ecosystems in Alaska.

The Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability Science group develops analysis tools and methods for assessing adaptation strategies and advising stakeholders who must prepare people and infrastructure for risks associated with climate change. Many of these analysis methods span multiple scales, from local to global, and rely on advanced computer models and diverse datasets that include social, political, and economic, as well as environmental, assessments. Some of the group’s major research initiatives involve modeling the performance of energy infrastructure in response to climate change and developing climate change information portals for the Department of Defense.