Scripps Oceanography gets share of California Energy Commission contract to simulate climate change

This SIO figure shows projected changes in California’s average hottest day of the year by the end of this century.
This figure shows projected changes in California’s average hottest day of the year by the end of this century (2070-2100) produced by researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.

The California Energy Commission has awarded a $1.5 million contract to three University of California campuses, including UC San Diego, that will work in tandem to better simulate climate change scenarios that can be used by utilities and others to anticipate the effects.

The contract, split among UCLA, UC Berkeley and UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, will be used to “provide what are called downscaled climate simulations over the state of California,” said Dan Cayan, a climate scientist at SIO and principal investigator for the project.

The Energy Commission contract “is certainly significant, and it will float all of our boats as far as achieving better projections of climate change through research,” Cayan said. “Over the approximately three to four years of this activity, we hope to be in better shape as far as anticipating California climate than we are presently.”

Downscaling techniques, Cayan said, “essentially drape larger-scale climate solutions over the more detailed structure of our coast and land area” wherever they are used, zooming in on various landscape features.

“These days,” he said, “our view into the future is, to a large extent, provided by global climate model simulations that are run under certain assumptions of greenhouse gas emissions” and other scenarios.

“Those calculations with the global models are very useful in a broad-scale context,” Cayan said, “but they don’t get down to the detail that a lot of stakeholders in California are concerned about.

“There’s all sorts of texture in our landscape that needs to be accounted for.”

Current climate models, he said, also often have a spatial resolution of 100 kilometers, or just over 62 miles. The SIO team has developed a “statistical technique” to downscale to “a spatial resolution of three kilometers, which is a little over a mile and a half,” he said.

Cayan said the technique “uses past observations of temperature or precipitation together with forward projections,” melding two forms of information to develop a more detailed picture of climate change.

The simulations, he said, offer “reasonable, useful details. These techniques are not perfect, but they are proven. We’ve tested them on observational data sets and they actually work pretty good at replicating what’s gone on historically.”

SIO scientist Dan Cayan (center) is the principal investigator for a project intended to better simulate climate change.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist Dan Cayan (center) is the principal investigator for a project intended to better simulate climate change.

The SIO effort will be integrated with that from a team at UCLA, whose work uses a different downscaling technique, Cayan said.

“They solve a detailed weather model and produce those kinds of spatial details [and] depictions of the weather. One of the differences is that those models are expensive and computationally not affordable to run many solutions, whereas the statistical techniques that we’re using are much quicker as far as computational abilities, and we can afford to run these things in a higher volume,” he said.

“The UCLA technique will be used to provide better detail, more variables [and] a structure of the atmosphere that we don’t achieve with the statistical technique,” Cayan said. “This effort, where we combine the two techniques, will be one that we think will be quite powerful.”

The UC Berkeley team will be involved in evaluating the results, Cayan said. “We have to look at what they mean and whether they are reasonable.”

The Berkeley team “will also interface with stakeholders, such as the major utilities, in making sure that the experiments and the climate runs and climate output is compatible with their needs and answers their questions,” he said. “The outreach part of it is a way of making sure that this project actually bears some fruit as far as making better adaptation planning.”

The utilities and others need the information to address several concerns related to climate change, Cayan said.

“We are in an era of rapidly rising temperatures,” he said. According to SIO, “all five of the warmest years ever recorded across the planet have occurred since 2015.”

“Regionally, California has undergone some remarkably warm temperatures going back to 2012,” Cayan said. “Those warming temperatures have lots of implications on the uses, the needs for energy.

“In California, our peak energy season is summer, when people are air conditioning. ... As temperatures get warmer, those needs will likely increase.”

Climate change also affects other things, “like conveying water resources,” Cayan said. “And as far as supplying energies ... power lines, for example, when they’re heated up don’t operate as well as when it’s cold.”

The work also will help address wildfires, which Cayan said are “very drastically impacted by climate. All of the utilities now are embarking on programs to better anticipate, both in the short and longer term, what kind of challenges they’ll be facing along those lines.”

Birch Aquarium at SIO launches online lecture series on climate change

Birch Aquarium at Scripps Oceanography kicked off the next iteration of its Jeffrey B. Graham Perspectives on Ocean Science Lecture Series at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 8, online.

The first lecture, “The Art and Science of Atmospheric Rivers and the Changing Hydroclimate of the West,” featured meteorologist Alexander Gershunov discussing the mechanisms behind projected precipitation changes, their anticipated impacts on California and how art can help convey the science.

The three-part series continues March 8 with “Getting Warmer? Ocean Temperatures off the California Coast,” during which oceanographer Katherine Zaba will explain how scientists deploy innovative ocean technology to monitor and understand ocean warming phenomena, such as marine heat waves and El Niño events, that affect California’s coastline.

The concluding lecture April 12 is “Fire, Extreme Rainfall and Debris Flows: Cascading Disasters in a Changing Climate.” Meteorologist Nina Oakley will discuss how research is helping people understand, anticipate and prepare for disasters, from drought to wildfires.

Lecture admission is free. Register at