The Climate Modelling Primer

Kendal McGuffie + Ann Henderson-Sellers

Wiley-Blackwell 2014
A book review by Danny Yee © 2017
The Climate Modelling Primer is wide-ranging, not just in covering everything from simple radiation balance models to Global Circulation and Earth System Models, but in considering many different aspects of models and modelling. It surveys different kinds of models and explains how they work, but it also considers the purposes they serve, how they connect to one another, their history and the people who work on them, how they can be explained to the public, and so forth.

The first chapter, "Why Model Climate?", is an introduction to the role of models in climate science. Modelling is at the core of climate science — as it is with all sciences, more or less explicitly — but the Primer makes no attempt to cover the general science and assumes the reader has done at least an undergraduate climate science course (or equivalent). A second chapter looks at different types of climate models and how they have evolved over time, highlighting concepts of equilibrium and sensitivity, parametrisation, and simulation by full climate system coupled models. And then there are chapters on radiation balance models, intermediate complexity models, and coupled climate system models.

The most striking feature of the Primer is how much it is broken into short chunks. Each chapter has sections ("4.4 Experiments with radiative-convective models", for example) with subsections ("4.4.2 One-dimensional radiative-convective model applied to the very early Earth"). Then there are specialised breakouts, typically half to one-and-a-half pages in length, often built around a key paper. Speed Dating boxes rapidly introduce a specific model ("IMAGE: moving up dimensions") and Spotlight boxes examine one aspect of a model ("EBM early analysis"). Feedback and Wiring boxes illustrate the components that make up models and the links between them ("Oceanic thermohaline modelling" and "Nitrogen Cycling"). Model Validation boxes look at comparisons between model results and observations ("Checking the Holocene"). Short Tech boxes elaborate on technical issues ("Slicing space spectrally"). Climate Simulation Intrigue (CSI) boxes explore some curious or intriguing topic ("Committing to confidence: credibility and truth"). Biography boxes look at the life and work of a practicing climate scientist and Communication boxes address an aspect of communicating climate science. And each chapter ends with a Climate Model Showcase box ("Charney's deserts"). Each chapter also begins with Learning Goals, offers Reflections on Learning and ends with Research and Review questions.

This approach can be annoying, and it's taken to quite an extreme here, with the chapter "Intermediate Complexity Models", for example, broken up into more than fifty components! But the presentation of the boxes is succinct and effective, there's no repetition between them, and I found the overall effect engaging rather than frustrating.

The other notable feature of the Primer is its hands-on approach, encouraging readers to experiment with models themselves and to start reading the primary literature. I didn't explore them to the extent a student might have, but it offers a wealth of resources for those learning how to do climate science as well as for those after a multi-faceted understanding of how it is done.

November 2017

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%T The Climate Modelling Primer
%A McGuffie, Kendal
%A Henderson-Sellers, Ann
%I Wiley-Blackwell
%D 2014
%O paperback, 4th edition, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9781119943372
%P 439pp