The Most Difficult Aspect of the Climate System to Model: Unpredictable Feedback Mechanisms

Choose the aspect you think is the most difficult!

Author: Gregor Krambs
Updated on Apr 14, 2024 06:36
Are you fascinated by the complexities of the climate system and its modelling? Do you have a burning curiosity about the most difficult aspects to model within it? Then you have landed in the right place! StrawPoll is excited to bring you a gripping ranking that delves into the enigmatic world of climate system modelling. Join thousands of inquisitive minds as they vote for "What is the most difficult aspect of the climate system to model?" and share their thoughts on this challenging subject. Don't see your top pick on the list? No worries, simply suggest a missing option and watch as the rankings evolve! Unravel the mysteries of climate modelling and cast your vote now, because every perspective counts in this intriguing quest for knowledge.

What Is the Most Difficult Aspect of the Climate System to Model?

  1. 1
    Clouds play a crucial role in regulating Earth's climate by reflecting sunlight and trapping heat. However, they are complex and dynamic, making them difficult to model accurately.
    Clouds are a complex aspect of the climate system that pose several challenges when trying to model them. They consist of a collection of tiny water droplets or ice crystals suspended in the Earth's atmosphere. Clouds play a crucial role in regulating the Earth's energy balance by reflecting sunlight back into space and trapping heat emitted from the Earth's surface. Understanding and accurately modeling clouds is important for predicting climate change and weather patterns.
    • Dynamic Behavior: Clouds exhibit complex and ever-changing dynamics, making them difficult to capture accurately in models.
    • Spatial Variability: Clouds occur in different forms, shapes, and sizes across various geographic locations, posing a challenge for modeling their spatial variability.
    • Vertical Structure: Clouds have a vertical structure, with different cloud layers at various altitudes. Modeling this vertical complexity accurately is crucial for understanding their impact on climate.
    • Microphysics: The microphysics of clouds, including processes like condensation, evaporation, and ice formation, are complex and difficult to simulate accurately.
    • Cloud Feedbacks: Clouds can both directly and indirectly influence the Earth's climate by affecting the distribution of solar radiation and the greenhouse effect. Capturing and modeling these feedback mechanisms is a challenge.
  2. 2
    The ocean's currents transport heat around the globe and influence weather patterns, but they are difficult to measure and model due to their complexity and variability.
    Ocean currents are continuous, directed movements of seawater generated by a combination of factors, including wind patterns, temperature variations, and the rotating Earth. These currents play a crucial role in regulating global climate and redistributing heat around the planet. Modeling ocean currents accurately is one of the most challenging aspects of studying the climate system.
    • Complexity: Ocean currents are incredibly complex and influenced by various interconnected factors.
    • Multiple Scales: Ocean currents can occur at various scales, from small-scale eddies to large-scale global currents.
    • Nonlinear Dynamics: The movement of ocean currents follows nonlinear dynamics, making them highly difficult to predict.
    • Interaction with Atmosphere: Ocean currents interact with atmospheric circulation patterns, further complicating the modeling process.
    • Feedback Loops: Ocean currents have intricate feedback loops with other components of the climate system, creating complex interactions.
  3. 3
    Tiny particles in the atmosphere, such as dust, soot, and pollution, can have a significant impact on the climate by reflecting or absorbing sunlight. However, their effects are difficult to predict and can vary widely depending on their size and composition.
    Aerosols refer to tiny particles suspended in the earth's atmosphere. These particles can be solid or liquid and include substances like dust, soot, pollutants, and volcanic ash. Aerosols play a crucial role in the climate system as they interact with sunlight and influence the planet's energy balance.
    • Size: Aerosol particles typically range in size from a few nanometers to several micrometers.
    • Composition: Aerosols can be composed of various substances, including organic and inorganic materials.
    • Sources: Aerosols can be emitted from natural sources such as volcanoes and wildfires, as well as human activities like industrial processes and vehicle emissions.
    • Distribution: Aerosols can be distributed globally, but their concentration varies depending on local emissions, atmospheric conditions, and transport mechanisms.
    • Lifetime: Aerosol particles can have short lifetimes in the atmosphere, ranging from a few hours to several weeks.
  4. 4
    The climate system contains many feedback loops, where changes in one part of the system can influence other parts. These feedbacks can amplify or dampen the effects of climate change, but they are difficult to model and predict.
    Feedback loops in the climate system refer to complex interactions that can amplify or dampen the effects of climate change. These loops involve various components, such as air temperature, sea ice, carbon dioxide levels, and vegetation, among others. Understanding and accurately modeling feedback loops is crucial for predicting the behavior and impacts of the climate system.
    • Nonlinear nature: Feedback loops can exhibit non-linear behavior, leading to unexpected outcomes.
    • Positive feedback: Certain feedback loops can amplify the initial climate change signal, magnifying its effects.
    • Negative feedback: Other feedback loops can work to counteract or dampen the initial climate change signal.
    • Time scales: Feedback loops can operate on various time scales, from short-term to long-term.
    • Cascade effects: Feedback loops can trigger cascades of changes throughout the climate system.
  5. 5

    Land use changes

    Various scientific researchers
    Human activities such as deforestation, urbanization, and agriculture can alter the Earth's surface and affect the climate. However, the interactions between land use and the climate system are complex and difficult to model.
    Land use changes refer to the human-induced alterations of the Earth's surface cover, including deforestation, urbanization, agricultural expansion, and changes in vegetation patterns. These changes directly impact the distribution of energy, water, and carbon within the climate system, contributing to climate change.
    • Complexity: Land use changes involve a complex interplay of environmental, social, and economic factors that make modeling challenging.
    • Spatial heterogeneity: Land use changes occur at local and regional scales, leading to significant spatial heterogeneity in the climate system.
    • Temporal dynamics: Land use changes evolve over time, and their effects on climate are not immediate but occur gradually.
    • Uncertainty: Predicting future land use changes is uncertain due to factors like human decision-making, economics, and policy changes.
    • Feedback loops: Land use changes can create positive or negative feedback loops within the climate system, influencing further changes.
  6. 6
    The melting of ice sheets and glaciers can have a significant impact on sea level rise and global climate patterns. However, they are difficult to model accurately due to their size and complexity.
    Ice sheets refer to large expanses of ice that cover land masses, such as Antarctica and Greenland. They are an integral part of the climate system and play a crucial role in regulating global climate patterns. Ice sheets are formed over thousands of years through the accumulation and compaction of snow. They are constantly in motion, with ice flowing from the interior towards the coasts, where it can break off and form icebergs. Modeling ice sheets accurately is a challenging task due to their complex nature and the numerous processes involved, including snowfall, ice flow, melting, and calving. Understanding how ice sheets respond to climate change is critical for predicting future sea-level rise.
    • Size: Antarctic ice sheet: ~14 million square kilometers. Greenland ice sheet: ~2.1 million square kilometers.
    • Thickness: Antarctic ice sheet: Up to ~4,776 meters. Greenland ice sheet: Up to ~3,000 meters.
    • Ice Mass: Antarctic ice sheet: ~24 million cubic kilometers. Greenland ice sheet: ~2.85 million cubic kilometers.
    • Sea-Level Contribution: Antarctic ice sheet: Contains 90% of the world's ice and has the potential to raise sea levels by ~58 meters if fully melted. Greenland ice sheet: Has the potential to raise sea levels by ~7 meters if fully melted.
    • Ice Flow Velocity: Varies across the ice sheet, reaching speeds of several meters per day in certain regions.
  7. 7
    Changes in the Sun's energy output can influence the Earth's climate, but predicting these changes is challenging due to the complex interactions between the Sun and the Earth's atmosphere.
    Solar variability refers to the natural fluctuations in the output of energy from the Sun. It plays a significant role in Earth's climate system. Understanding and accurately modeling solar variability is crucial for understanding the climate dynamics and making reliable climate predictions.
    • Sunspot Cycle: The 11-year cycle of sunspots, indicating variations in solar activity.
    • Solar Radiation: Fluctuations in the amount of solar radiation received by the Earth.
    • Solar Irradiance: Changes in the total amount of energy emitted by the Sun.
    • Solar Magnetic Field: Variations in the Sun's magnetic field strength and orientation.
    • Solar Flares: Eruptions of magnetic energy on the Sun's surface, releasing intense bursts of radiation.
  8. 8
    Natural disasters
    Dave Harlow, USGS · Public domain
    Events such as volcanic eruptions and wildfires can release large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but their effects on the climate are difficult to predict and can vary widely depending on the specifics of each event.
    Natural disasters refer to extreme events caused by natural forces, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, wildfires, and tsunamis. These events can cause significant damage to property, infrastructure, and ecosystems, and often result in the loss of human lives. Modeling natural disasters is challenging because they are influenced by a wide range of complex factors, including atmospheric conditions, geological phenomena, and the interaction between different climate systems. Predicting their occurrence, intensity, and impact requires the integration of various scientific disciplines and the analysis of vast amounts of data.
    • Complexity: Natural disasters involve multiple interacting factors, making their modeling complex.
    • Uncertainty: There are inherent uncertainties associated with predicting the occurrence and impact of natural disasters.
    • Data availability: Accurate prediction of natural disasters relies on high-quality data, which may not always be readily available.
    • Scale: Natural disasters occur at various scales, from localized events to global phenomena, requiring models to accommodate different spatial and temporal scales.
    • Non-linear behavior: Natural disasters often exhibit non-linear behavior, where slight changes in initial conditions can lead to significantly different outcomes.
    Natural disasters in other rankings
  9. 9
    Human behavior, such as energy use and transportation patterns, can have a significant impact on the climate. However, predicting how people will behave in the future is difficult, making it challenging to model the effects of these factors on the climate.
    Human behavior is the most difficult aspect of the climate system to model due to its inherent complexity and unpredictable nature. It involves various social, cultural, economic, and psychological factors that influence how individuals and societies respond to climate change. Understanding and accurately representing human behavior is crucial for developing effective climate policies, predicting future emissions, and assessing the impact of climate change mitigation strategies.
    • Complexity: Human behavior is influenced by a complex web of factors, such as individual beliefs, values, attitudes, social norms, and cultural practices.
    • Heterogeneity: People's behavior varies widely across different regions, cultures, socioeconomic groups, and demographic factors.
    • Adaptability: Human behavior is highly adaptable and can change in response to various stimuli, including policy interventions, technological advancements, and economic conditions.
    • Feedback loops: Human behavior can create positive or negative feedback loops that amplify or dampen the impacts of climate change.
    • Uncertainty: Predicting how individuals and societies will respond to climate change is highly uncertain due to the dynamic and unpredictable nature of human behavior.
  10. 10
    Despite advances in climate modeling, there is still a high degree of uncertainty in predicting future climate patterns due to the complexity and variability of the Earth's climate system.

Missing your favorite aspect?


Ranking factors for difficult aspect

  1. Clouds
    Clouds play a crucial role in regulating Earth's temperature and energy balance. However, modeling clouds accurately is difficult as they have complex microphysical processes, varying spatial scales, and diverse interactions with radiation and aerosols.
  2. Aerosols
    Aerosols (tiny particles suspended in the atmosphere) can have significant direct and indirect effects on the climate system. Directly, they can scatter and absorb radiation, changing the energy balance. Indirectly, aerosols can affect cloud formation and properties. Accurately modeling these interactions is challenging due to the complexity and wide range of aerosol sources, sizes, and chemical compositions.
  3. Ocean processes
    The ocean is a key component of the climate system, acting as a major heat and carbon sink. Modeling ocean processes such as ocean currents, mixing, and sea ice melting is challenging due to their complex interactions with atmospheric circulation and their sensitivity to small changes in initial conditions.
  4. Feedback mechanisms
    There are multiple feedbacks within the climate system that can amplify or dampen climate change effects. For example, the ice-albedo feedback, where melting ice exposes darker surfaces that absorb more heat and trigger further melting. Understanding and modeling these feedbacks accurately can be difficult.
  5. Land surface processes
    The interactions between land surfaces, vegetation, and the atmosphere (e.g., evapotranspiration, soil moisture, and carbon sequestration) play important roles in climate regulation but can be challenging to model due to their complexity and spatial variability.
  6. Climate sensitivity
    Climate sensitivity refers to how much Earth's surface temperature will change in response to a change in radiative forcing (such as an increase in greenhouse gases). Accurately estimating climate sensitivity is a significant challenge, as it depends on various factors and different models yield different results.
  7. Regional climate variability
    Regional climate variability is influenced by many factors such as elevation, terrain, and ocean currents, making it challenging to model local climate changes accurately.
  8. Extreme events
    Predicting extreme weather events such as hurricanes, droughts, and heatwaves is a major challenge in climate modeling, as these events depend on various complex factors and interactions, and their likelihood can change in response to changing climate conditions.
  9. Model resolution
    High-resolution models can provide more accurate representations of the atmosphere and ocean dynamics, but they require more computational resources and may still struggle to capture smaller-scale processes adequately.
  10. Model uncertainty and validation
    There is always some degree of uncertainty in climate models due to limitations in our understanding of the climate system, simplifications used in models, and the natural variability of the climate. Properly assessing and validating model performance is essential to improve their accuracy and confidence in their projections.

About this ranking

This is a community-based ranking of the most difficult aspect of the climate system to model. We do our best to provide fair voting, but it is not intended to be exhaustive. So if you notice something or aspect is missing, feel free to help improve the ranking!


  • 218 votes
  • 10 ranked items

Voting Rules

A participant may cast an up or down vote for each aspect once every 24 hours. The rank of each aspect is then calculated from the weighted sum of all up and down votes.


Trendings topics

Don't miss out on the currently trending topics of StrawPoll Rankings!

More information on most difficult aspect of the climate system to model

The Earth's climate is a complex system that involves numerous interrelated factors, making it difficult to accurately model and predict changes in the climate. While advancements in technology and scientific research have improved our understanding of the climate system, there are still many challenges that remain. One of the most difficult aspects of the climate system to model is the feedback loops that occur between different components of the system, such as the interactions between the atmosphere, oceans, and land surfaces. Additionally, there are natural variations in climate that occur over long periods of time, such as changes in solar radiation and volcanic activity, which can further complicate modeling efforts. Despite these challenges, ongoing research and modeling efforts are helping to improve our understanding of the climate system and inform policies and decisions related to climate change.

Share this article