Modern physics is critical to global warming research

March 11, 2008
More Robust Models of the Big Picture
Even a highly simplified model of the Earth's atmosphere shows great complexity in jet streams and macroturbulence. Mathematical approaches that focus on average statistics rather than detailed patterns can deepen our understanding of climate and climate change. Credit: Brad Marston, Brown University

Science has come a long way with predicting climate. Increasingly sophisticated models and instruments can zero in on a specific storm formation or make detailed weather forecasts – all useful to our daily lives. But to understand global climate change, scientists need more than just a one-day forecast. They need a deeper understanding of the complex and interrelated forces that shape climate.

This is where modern physics can help, argues Brad Marston, professor of physics at Brown University. Marston is working on sets of equations that can be used to more accurately explain climate patterns. Marston will explain his research as part of a panel discussion titled “The Physics of Climate and Climate Change,” today at the American Physical Society’s meeting in New Orleans.

“Climate is a statement about the statistics of weather, not the day-to-day or minute-by-minute fluctuations,” Marston said. “That’s really the driving concept. We know we can’t predict the weather more than a couple of weeks out. But we can turn that to our advantage, by using statistical physics to look directly at the climate itself.”

Take the drying of Lake Mead in the western United States. Scientists think the lake, which straddles Nevada and Arizona, may already be getting less rain due to shifting weather patterns caused by a warming world. Computer models can follow those rainfall patterns and forecast the likely effects on the lake. But current models obscure the larger mechanisms – such as shifting storm tracks – that can drive changes in rainfall.

“If we’re just mesmerized by the details of the model,” Marston said, “we could be missing the big picture of why it’s happening.”

Marston’s statistical approach can be used to help crack the code of complicated, dynamic atmospheric processes poorly understood through models, such as convection, cloud formation, and macroturbulence, which refers to the currents, swirls and eddies in the global atmosphere. More fundamentally, Marston said this approach can help to deepen understanding of what is happening in today’s climate and what those changes can mean for climate in the future.

“We’re trying to make the models more robust, to give better insights into what is actually going on,” he said.

Marston’s research, on which he teamed with former Brown undergraduate Emily Conover and Tapio Schneider of the California Institute of Technology, was selected last fall for publication in the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences. Marston’s ultimate research goal is to create a more realistic rendering of the global atmospheric system that can be used to understand the atmosphere of the past and to gauge future changes.

“We’re improving the statistical methods themselves, so that they’re more accurate,” Marston said. “At the same time we are applying the methods to progressively more complete models of the Earth’s atmosphere.”

Source: Brown University

Explore further: Statistical physics offers a new way to look at climate

Related Stories

Statistical physics offers a new way to look at climate

March 5, 2013

Scientists are using ever more complex models running on ever more powerful computers to simulate the earth's climate. But new research suggests that basic physics could offer a simpler and more meaningful way to model key ...

Award-winning A/C uses old idea, new materials

December 18, 2012

If thirst is crucial to knowledge, then one crucial step in the evolution of air conditioning was born in the 1970s, when Ron Judkoff was a hot, thirsty Peace Corp volunteer in Kedougou, Senegal, one of the warmest places ...

Recommended for you

Test racetrack dipole magnet produces record 16 tesla field

November 30, 2015

A new world record has been broken by the CERN magnet group when their racetrack test magnet produced a 16.2 tesla (16.2T) peak field – nearly twice that produced by the current LHC dipoles and the highest ever for a dipole ...

Turbulence in bacterial cultures

November 30, 2015

Turbulent flows surround us, from complex cloud formations to rapidly flowing rivers. Populations of motile bacteria in liquid media can also exhibit patterns of collective motion that resemble turbulent flows, provided the ...

CERN collides heavy nuclei at new record high energy

November 25, 2015

The world's most powerful accelerator, the 27 km long Large Hadron Collider (LHC) operating at CERN in Geneva established collisions between lead nuclei, this morning, at the highest energies ever. The LHC has been colliding ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Mar 12, 2008
Where in this article is anything that implies that "modern physics is critical to global warming research"?!
5 / 5 (1) Mar 12, 2008
They PhysOrg.asm didn't understand the significance of the 'post' in post-modern physics and so edited it out. You know, it's the same thing. MoveOn now, nothing new here.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.