Climate Change: a Movie and the Math
By Ian Roulstone and John Norbury
Next week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release the first of three reports that constitute their Fifth Assessment Report on climate change. This first report, The Physical Science Basis, will cover a huge range of topics from the carbon cycle to extreme weather. But climate prediction also relies heavily on mathematics, which is used to quantify uncertainties and improve the models.
The role of math is illustrated by a remarkable video of our ever-changing weather. Last month the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) decommissioned Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite 12 (GOES-12), which monitored our weather for the past 10 years from its isolated vantage point 36,000 kilometers above America and the Atlantic Ocean.
GOES-12 had seen it all – from wildfires, volcanic ash, and landscape parched by drought, to Hurricanes Ike, Katrina and Sandy, and the blizzards that gripped the central United States in the winter of 2009-10. NOAA created a video – 187 seconds and 3641 images – one snapshot from each day of its operational life, which amounts to 10 years’ weather flashing before our eyes in just over 3 minutes. It’s dramatic and amazing:
In Scientific American, Evelyn Lamb commented on how this video highlights “a tension between the unpredictability of the weather and its repetitiveness”. Even after a few seconds it becomes clear that the patterns revealed by clouds differ from one part of the globe to another. Great towering cumulonimbus bubble up and unleash thunderstorms in tropical regions every day, while in more temperate mid-latitudes, the ubiquitous low pressure systems whirl across the Atlantic carrying their warm and cold fronts to Europe. The occasional hurricane, spawned in the tropics, careers towards the United States (Hurricane Sandy can be seen at about 2’50’’). But the mayhem is orchestrated: the cyclones almost seem like a train of ripples or waves, following preferred tracks, and the towering storms are confined largely to the tropics.
In fact, this movie is affording us a glimpse of a remarkable world – it is a roller-coaster ride on the ‘weather attractor’.
An ‘attractor’ is a mathematician’s way of representing recurring behavior in complex systems, such as our atmosphere. A familiar illustration of an attractor can be seen in the figure below, and it is named after one of the fathers of chaos, Edward Lorenz.
It is impossible to illustrate the weather attractor for the atmosphere in terms of a simple three-dimensional image: Lorenz’s very simple model of a circulating cell had only three variables. Our modern computer models used in climate prediction have around 100 million variables, so the attractor resides in a space we cannot even begin to visualise. And this is why the movie created by NOAA is so valuable: it gives us a vivid impression of the repetitiveness emerging from otherwise complex, chaotic behaviour.
Weather forecasters try to predict how our atmosphere evolves and how it moves around the attractor – a hugely difficult task that requires us to explore many possible outcomes (called an ensemble of forecasts) when trying to estimate the weather several days ahead. But climate scientists are faced with a very different problem: instead of trying to figure out which point on the 100 million-dimensional attractor represents the weather 100 years from now, they are trying to figure out whether the shape of the attractor is changing. In other words, are the butterfly wings ‘folding’ as the average weather changes? This is a mathematician’s way of quantifying climate change.
If 100 years from now, when a distant successor of GOES-12 is retired, our descendants create a movie of this future weather, will they see the same patterns of recurring behaviour, or will there be more hurricanes? Will the waves of cyclones follow different tracks? And will tropical storms be more intense? Math enables us to “capture the pattern” even though chaos stops us from saying exactly what will happen, and to calculate answers to these questions we have to calculate how the weather attractor is changing.
This article is cross-posted with the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ian-roulstone/climate-prediction-mathematics_b_3961853.html
For further insights into the math behind weather and climate prediction, see Roulstone and Norbury’s new book Invisible in the Storm: The Role of Mathematics in Understanding Weather.