Numerical weather prediction (NWP) is like excellent coffee in the Bay Area: so common that it is now taken for granted, obscuring the decades of expertise, knowledge, and technique underlying the whole operation. In episode 77 of Forecast, Peter Bauer from the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts tells Mike about the massive and decades-long efforts that have made NWP so incredibly useful for modern society.
But the field still grapples with historically-intractable issues, such as the need to parameterize critical processes like cloud convection, ocean eddies, and atmospheric gravity waves. Maybe the best way to deal with parameterizations … is not to do them at all. Towards this goal, Peter and his colleagues are now pushing forward on a preposterously ambitious proposal called Extreme Earth, in which they would conduct NWP at ~ 1 km resolution, thereby allowing simulation of the key physical processes. Doing so, however, demands a 10,000x increase in computational power, a mind-boggling challenge that goes way beyond the usual approach of bolting together thousands of processors.
Extreme Earth also proposes to invert the usual scientific information flow in NWP in particular and application-oriented science in general. The normal process goes something like: (1) scientists decide what they think the user community might want (2) scientists spend years developing such products (3) scientists show policy/management/public the new product (4) intended audience yawns (5) repeat process. In Extreme Earth, the goal instead would be to hand the reins over to the users, so that they would be able to design the experiments and information flow that would best suit their needs.
How any of this would work is a research question, but it’s one that Peter and the Extreme Earth community are keen to tackle. If funded, to the tune of about a billion euro, the project would certainly represent the most ambitious current program to take weather and climate modeling to a new phase of scientific rigor and societal relevance.
In episode 58 of Forecast, Mike talks with Henri Drake, Jennifer Carman, and Molly Keogh, three of the attendees at the 11th Graduate Climate Conference. The meeting itself is a great chance for grad students working on climate change — broadly defined — to get together with their immediate peers, away from, ahem, pesky senior scientists. The interviews span physical oceanography, wetland restoration, environmental psychology, education, and behavior change. A tiny window into the inspiring work being done by the next generation of climate researchers!
Most of the big stuff in Earth system science arises from the small stuff. The Keeling curve is the balance between an unknowably large number of microorganisms and the cellular fixation of carbon. Clouds, covering more than half of the planet at any one time, are created at the sub-cm scale. And, increasingly, we are realizing that ocean circulation — once conceived as a sort of monstrous conveyor belt — is instead a motley crew of what Jennifer MacKinnon from the Scripps Institution calls “the swirly things”. Eddies, turbulent billows … “there’s just a ton of animals in the zoo”. Jen talks Mike through the close linkage between observations and theory: it’s hard to conceive of an Antarctic Circumpolar Current composed of a horde of eddies if you can only look over the side of one ship at a time. And the more we observe the ocean, the more interesting it becomes. It now looks, for example, that there may be super-weird interactions between internal waves and mesoscale eddies. More is coming, too, probably from Deep Argo. Yet beyond observations and theory — and as we also heard from Bill Boos — Jen’s kind of science can play a key role in advancing societally-relevant prediction systems. Plus, sabbatical in Palau*, wrestling, and Walter Munk is turning 100 — the party is on!
Credit: Thomas Moore
Jen with Amy Waterhouse, laughing at the absurdity of observing the ocean.
Work/life balance in Palau. Credit: Shaun Johnston
Jen and Tom Peacock in the Arctic Ocean. Credit: Greg Wagner
Music: Springish, All Eventualities and The Everlasting Itch For Things Remote by Gillicuddy. CC BY-NC 3.0.
*In the interview I said that Palau is in the Eastern Pacific. It is, of course, in the Western Pacific.
I met Lixin Wu when I was at the Ocean University of China in Qingdao for a writing workshop (now called Nature Masterclasses). Several things impressed me about Lixin right away. First, he’s a lot of fun to be around and equally at ease in formal situations and banquets. Then, he’s clearly an inspiration to his staff and colleagues. Finally, he has big visions for his own science, the OUC, and Chinese marine science in general.