Yesterday, we mentioned a RealClimate article discussing the value of climate models. In a bit of fortuitous timing, Columbia University, the National Science Foundation's Paleoclimate Program and NASA's Earth Science Directorate have released "EdGCM," Global Climate Model software for use by students and educators, allowing non-specialists to examine climate simulations for themselves. It uses the same NASA global climate model that real climate researchers use, wrapped up in a comfortable graphical interface. It comes with a selection of pre-built simulations -- from the ancient "iceball Earth" to changes in solar luminosity to a number of global warming variations -- as well as the tools to tweak the data and assumptions.
Using EdGCM teachers and students can easily create experiments that simulate a wide variety of climates of the past, present and future. In this way the teacher can supplement textbook-based lessons on the fundamentals of the climate system with experiential learning, which involves students in the method that scientists themselves are using to study the Earth’s climate system. Teachers can simulate climates of various periods in geologic history, for example, the Cretaceous Period or the Last Glacial Maximum. They can simulate climate changes that may occur in the future, such as global warming or the effects of deforestation. And, they can simulate the impacts of modern climate events such as El Niño/La Niña cycles or volcanic eruptions. The new interface allows such detailed control over model functions that EdGCM arguably has more user-definable capabilities than does the research-only version.
This is serious software, and requires a combination of serious hardware and serious time to complete useful runs. An old iMac can do about 10 simulated years in a day, while a new dual-G5 machine can do over 200 simulated years in the same amount of time. The software guide suggests that global warming simulations need at least 35 simulated years to generate useful outputs. Once you've completed a run, however, the software includes tables, maps and plots to make it easy to understand (and, as needed, present) the results.
As the underlying database for the software is 4D, a proprietary platform, there's no Linux of F/OSS version, unfortunately (although the Community Atmosphere Model, the current National Center for Atmospheric Research GCM, is F/OSS). Perhaps more surprisingly, while the main software is available for Windows, the complete toolkit requires MacOS X.
Slashdot picked up on the announcement, so the EdGCM servers are a bit shaky at the moment; if you have trouble downloading the software or getting through to some of the pages, be sure to try again later on.