Storylines: an alternative approach to representing uncertainty in physical aspects of climate change

Theodore G. Shepherd*, Emily Boyd, Raphael A. Calel, Sandra C. Chapman, Suraje Dessai, Ioana M. Dima-West, Hayley J. Fowler, Rachel James, Douglas Maraun, Olivia Martius, Catherine A. Senior, Adam H. Sobel, David A. Stainforth, Simon F.B. Tett, Kevin E. Trenberth, Bart J.J.M. van den Hurk, Nicholas W. Watkins, Robert L. Wilby, Dimitri A. Zenghelis

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


As climate change research becomes increasingly applied, the need for actionable information is growing rapidly. A key aspect of this requirement is the representation of uncertainties. The conventional approach to representing uncertainty in physical aspects of climate change is probabilistic, based on ensembles of climate model simulations. In the face of deep uncertainties, the known limitations of this approach are becoming increasingly apparent. An alternative is thus emerging which may be called a ‘storyline’ approach. We define a storyline as a physically self-consistent unfolding of past events, or of plausible future events or pathways. No a priori probability of the storyline is assessed; emphasis is placed instead on understanding the driving factors involved, and the plausibility of those factors. We introduce a typology of four reasons for using storylines to represent uncertainty in physical aspects of climate change: (i) improving risk awareness by framing risk in an event-oriented rather than a probabilistic manner, which corresponds more directly to how people perceive and respond to risk; (ii) strengthening decision-making by allowing one to work backward from a particular vulnerability or decision point, combining climate change information with other relevant factors to address compound risk and develop appropriate stress tests; (iii) providing a physical basis for partitioning uncertainty, thereby allowing the use of more credible regional models in a conditioned manner and (iv) exploring the boundaries of plausibility, thereby guarding against false precision and surprise. Storylines also offer a powerful way of linking physical with human aspects of climate change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)555-571
Number of pages17
JournalClimatic Change
Issue number3-4
Early online date10 Nov 2018
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2018


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