Research Themes


CICAR facilitates a multi-disciplinary collaboration between NOAA and Columbia University in Earth climate research and education, and in addressing the need of society to respond to present and future climate risk. CICAR’s major NOAA partners are the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) and the Climate Program Office (CPO). CICAR’s research is organized in three themes:

Theme I: Earth System Modeling — improve the predictive understanding of climate variability and change and make that capability usable to advance the forecasts and climate information products at application centers, such as the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP), and Consortium for Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast (CCRUN)

Theme II: Modern and Paleoclimate Observations develop, collect, analyze, and archive instrumental Earth System data and paleoclimate proxy records to monitor the climate system, provide information for model verification and development, and to enrich the record of past climate variability and change

Theme III: Climate Variability and Change Applications Research -develop tools and methods to provide useful climate information to support impact assessments, planning, and decision making in areas of public health, public policy, water resources management, and agriculture.

CICAR’s research supports NOAA’s Climate Mission Goal to Understand Climate Variability and Change to Enhance Society's Ability to Plan and Respond.



Theme I Earth System Modeling

Research objectives include:

The development and improvement of dynamical models and data assimilation procedures to advance the prediction of climate variability and change, the development of tools and subroutines to improve models of the global atmosphere and ocean, and the use of these models to enhance and expand the fundamental understanding of the climate system, its variability and predictability; the application of statistical tools to data and model output to study observed modes of climate variability, their simulation by climate model, and their predictability; and the analysis of historical data to create spatially and temporally uniform information for research and applications.

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) research into climate modeling and forecasting dates back to the mid-1980s when Mark Cane and Steve Zebiak launched the first successful numerical coupled model to forecast El Niño. Much of this early research was funded by NOAA grants and today, LDEO and Columbia University Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics researchers are developing new tools for ENSO prediction. These researchers are advancing methods for numerical data assimilation in an effort to improve the initiation of prediction models and thereby the forecasts themselves. They develop and maintain a homegrown ocean modeling effort (the Lamont Ocean-Atmosphere model or LOAM) and adopt existing global climate models for use in our local computer facilities. These climate models are used to study and understand key processes and phenomena of climate and climate variability, such as the overall role of the oceans in climate, the links between tropics and high latitudes and its implication to decadal variability and paleoclimate phenomena, the role of tropical ocean-atmosphere interaction outside the Pacific in regional and global climate variability, and the phenomenon of abrupt climate response to slow and relatively weak changes in external forcing. Theme I modeling and model development activities are also important components of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) research. Accordingly, the present and future modeling studies and model development activities under CICAR enrich the hierarchy of numerical tools and modeling scenarios accessible to GFDL and LDEO scientists, thus advancing climate research at both NOAA and Columbia University.  


Theme II Modern and Paleoclimate Observations

Research objectives include:

The development, collection, analysis, archiving, and interpretation of climate proxy data records to improve understanding of past climate variability and change on all time scales and the monitoring and observation of key ocean regions to understand the ocean role in climate and to improve climate models. Based on the paleoclimate observations, scientists expect to better understand the Earth’s climate history, sensitivity to changes in internal and external forcings and processes, and to develop scenarios that can be tested using climate models. The objectives include efforts to refine model predictive skills of important climate phenomena through model data comparisons and to improve the documentation of the state of the oceans. Research under theme II is therefore closely connected with research under Theme I Earth System Modeling.


The LDEO and Ocean and Climate Physics (OCP) scientists use existing observations and plan and execute new observations to advance the knowledge of the state of the ocean and monitor its variability. These modern observations data are used to assess the mass, heat, and fresh water transport through the ocean circulation system, and provide benchmarks for model evaluation. Modern observational data contributes to the formulation of model parameterizations that help address model sub-grid-space processes. In this context, LDEO OCP research is pursuing the collection and interpretation of modern hydrographic and tracer observations in ocean areas such as the Southern Ocean, the North Atlantic, and the boundary between the Indian and Pacific Oceans (Indonesian Throughflow region). LDEO ocean research has a long history of pursuing an approach that is well balanced between observations and modeling.

Modern observations at LDEO are not limited exclusively to hydrographic observations. Within the Geochemistry Division (GD) extensive tracer work is carried out to address issues related to the physical climate system and the environment. Using in-situ observations and remote sensing from space, scientists are observing and studying the uptake of carbon dioxide by the world ocean, a crucial issue in the study of the global carbon cycle, and possible future anthropogenic forcing of climate change. This work has been going on for several decades and involves collaboration with many other national institutions including NOAA laboratories (AOML and PMEL). Another key area where tracer observations are being studied at LDEO is the formation and circulation of Atlantic deep-water masses. Elements of this work are performed in collaboration with the NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML).


In the field of paleoclimate observations, LDEO scientists study the climate history of the Earth over a broad range of time scales and epochs. The LDEO involvement in this area of research is extremely diverse. The study of the pre-instrumental history of the Earth’s climate is critical for evaluating our ability to understand the modern climate system response to a variety of forcing scenarios and internal dynamical mechanisms. It is also a test of our ability to simulate the climate system under different external radiative forcing and the development of reliable climate models. Under CICAR, special efforts are made to emphasize a robust collaboration between the strong numerical modeling elements of GFDL and LDEO and the expertise in proxy data collection and analysis at LDEO.


The collection, archiving, and analysis of paleoclimate data at LDEO are carried out in two of the Observatory divisions: the Geochemistry division and the Biology and Paleo Environment division. Scientists use geochemical measurements of deep-sea sediments to study the geological history of the ocean circulation, particularly fluctuations in the strength of the global thermohaline circulation. Much of this work is done by studying sediment cores (stored at the LDEO Core Laboratory) in key ocean areas such as the Cape Basin in the South Atlantic, the tropical regions, and the polar oceans. Particular emphasis is placed on understanding the ocean and climate signature of the last deglaciation and climate instabilities during subsequent millennia of the current, warm, Holocene period. Lamont scientists are very active in developing paleoclimate records that document amplitudes and timing of abrupt climate changes in the recent geological past. These records provide the most compelling evidence of how dramatically Earth’s climate can respond to modest changes in climate forcing. Some of these climate shifts have been linked to junctures in early human evolution and collapses of ancient urban civilizations. Additionally, Lamont scientists are developing new paleo proxies of ocean and climate processes and examining new geographical locations in order to add new information to the emerging discoveries in this area.

In the Biology and Paleo Environment Division paleoclimate observationalists emphasize, but do not limit themselves to, the use of biological indicators to study the Earth’s climate history. Here too, scientists study deep-sea sediments to uncover climate variations on paleo time scales while others use trees, corals, pollen stored in lake sediments, and sea shells to reconstruct the past. Some of the records studied here have excellent temporal resolution, thus allowing a closer look at the history of phenomena such as El Niño or decadal climate variation, which can be found in the North Atlantic and North Pacific (NAO and PDO, respectively). Key projects are the uncovering of the recent history of centenni
al timescale variability in the North Atlantic and linking it to variations in solar irradiance during the Holocene.

Tree rings are studied intensively at the Lamont Tree Ring Laboratory (TRL) to provide a high-resolution climate history of the last few millennia. The climate information in long annual tree-ring records helps put climate variations and trend found in short instrumental records in a broader temporal perspective, especially related to the temperature variability over the past millennium. Long tree-ring records have been used to develop the first strongly verified multi-proxy reconstruction of the NAO covering the past 600 years and of long-term ENSO decadal variability. Reconstructions of past hydro-climatic variability in North America add important contributions on local to continental scales as well.


Theme III Climate Variability and Change Applications Research

Research objectives include:

The development of applications and tools that enable the translation of climate research and information to decision makers in the areas of agriculture, water resources, health, economics and policy, and the the study of interaction among providers of climate information and users and decision makers to improve communication for the benefit of society.CICAR draws on the strength of the different parts of The Earth Institute, Columbia University, a closely linked network of academic units and institutes, seeking to utilize science and technological tools to improve conditions for the world’s poor while preserving the natural systems that support life on Earth. As part of this goal, Earth Institute scientists study the impact of climate variability and change on society and ways to improve communication between climate scientists and stakeholders around the world. The Earth Institute Cross-Cutting Initiative (CCI) “aims to facilitate studies of complex problems in the field of sustainable development that require bridging disciplines. TheCCI strives to achieve new insights into intrinsically cross-disciplinary problems and to enable solution-oriented outcomes.”  

With the ability to successfully predict seasonal to interannual climate variability, the need to develop tools and methodology to communicate climate information to the user community became a NOAA priority. In recognition of this need, NOAA called for the establishment of an institute dedicated to the study and application of end-to-end climate forecasting methodology. The International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) was established through collaboration between NOAA and Columbia University and is housed on the grounds of the Lamont campus in Palisades, New York. This was in clear recognition of the strengths of the LDEO and Columbia University research in physical climate sciences and in the social, health, and policy sciences. Since then, the link between the study of the physical climate system and its predictability and the social science community at the Earth Institute has intensified, leading to the building of expertise in research consistent with the CICAR Theme III goal. CICAR provides the opportunity to broaden the scope of climate applications research beyond the realm of seasonal to interannual variability to address climate change assessments and decadal variability.


In the context of this theme’s goal to develop methods that facilitate the effective dissemination of the forecasts to decision makers, the Earth Institute Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) operates a number of programs that specialize in communicating scientific data and information. Additional expertise in social applications of climate research are developed at the Center for Climate Systems Research (CCSR) at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) – also an Earth Institute research and education unit. CCSR and GISS scientists conduct extensive work in the context of the national regional climate assessment process. These studies include the use of regional models for the purpose of downscaling global climate model results to a regional scale.


At the Columbia University Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering (DEEE) scientists are conducting research on land surface interactions and climate, water resource management and hydrological processes including the use of climate information for planning and management, carbon sequestration, and novel methods of energy use. CICAR also maintains ties with other Earth Institute centers including the Columbia Climate Center, the Columbia Water Center, the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED), and the Center for Hazard and Risk Assessment (CHRR).