Virtually reality

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This is part 2 of a series of introductory posts about the principles of climate modelling. Others in the series: 1.

The second question I want to discuss is this:

How can we do scientific experiments on our planet?

In other words, how do we even do climate science? Here is the great, charismatic physicist Richard Feynman, describing the scientific method in one minute:

If you can’t watch this charming video, here’s my transcript:

“Now I’m going to discuss how we would look for a new law. In general, we look for a new law by the following process:

First, we guess it.

Then we — no, don’t laugh, that’s the real truth — then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what, if this is right, if this law that we guessed is right, we see what it would imply.

And then we compare the computation result to nature, or we say compare to experiment, or experience, compare it directly with observations to see if it works.

If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t make a difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is — if it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

What is the “experiment” in climate science? We don’t have a mini-Earth in a laboratory to play with. We are changing things on the Earth, by farming, building, and putting industrial emissions into the atmosphere, but it’s not done in a systematic and rigorous way. It’s not a controlled experiment. So we might justifiably wonder how we even do climate science.

Climate science is not the only science that can’t do controlled experiments of the whole system being studied. Astrophysics is another: we do not explode stars on a lab bench. Feynman said that we can compare with experience and observations. We would prefer to experience and observe things we can control, because it is much easier to draw conclusions from the results. Instead we can only watch as nature acts.

What is the “guess” in climate science? These are the climate models. A model is just a representation of a thing (I wrote more about this here). A climate model is a computer program that represents the whole planet, or part of it.* It’s not very different to a computer game like Civilisation or SimCity, in which you have a world to play with, in which you can tear up forests and build cities. In a climate model we can do much the same: replace forests with cities, alter the greenhouse gas concentrations, let off volcanoes, change the energy reaching us from the sun, move the continents. The model produces a simulation of how the world responds to those changes: how they affect temperature, rainfall, ocean circulation, the ice in Antarctica, and so on.

How do they work? The general idea is to stuff as much science as possible into them without making them too slow to use. At the heart of them are basic laws of physics, like Newton’s laws of motion and the laws of thermodynamics. Over the past decades we’ve added more to them: not just physics but also chemistry, such as the reactions between gases in the atmosphere; biological processes, like photosynthesis; and geology, like volcanoes. The most complicated climate models are extremely slow. Even on supercomputers it can take many weeks or months to get the results.

Here is a state-of-the-art simulation of the Earth by NASA.

The video shows the simulated patterns of air circulation, such as the northern hemisphere polar jet stream, then patterns of ocean circulation, such as the Gulf Stream. The atmosphere and ocean models used to make this simulation are high resolution: they have a lot of pixels so, just like in a digital camera, they show a lot of detail.

A horizontal slice through this atmosphere model has 360 x 540 pixels, or 0.2 megapixels. That’s about two thirds as many as a VGA display (introduced by IBM in 1987) or the earliest consumer digital camera (the Apple QuickTake from 1994). It’s also about the same resolution as my blog banner. The ocean model is a lot higher resolution: 1080 x 2160 pixels, or 2.3 megapixels, which is about the same as high definition TV. The video above has had some extra processing to smooth the pixels out and draw the arrows.

I think it’s quite beautiful. It also seems to be very realistic, a convincing argument that we can simulate the Earth successfully. But the important question is: how successfully? This is the subject of my next post:

Can we ever have a perfect “reality simulator”?

The clue’s in the name of the blog…

See you next time.


* I use the term climate model broadly here, covering any models that describe part of the planet. Many have more specific names, such as “ice sheet model” for Antarctica.


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