New IPCC Report (Part 5)

14 April, 2014

guest post by Steve Easterbrook

(5) Current rates of ocean acidification are unprecedented.

The IPCC report says:

The pH of seawater has decreased by 0.1 since the beginning of the industrial era, corresponding to a 26% increase in hydrogen ion concentration. […] It is virtually certain that the increased storage of carbon by the ocean will increase acidification in the future, continuing the observed trends of the past decades. […] Estimates of future atmospheric and oceanic carbon dioxide concentrations indicate that, by the end of this century, the average surface ocean pH could be lower than it has been for more than 50 million years.

(Fig SPM.7c) CMIP5 multi-model simulated time series from 1950 to 2100 for global mean ocean surface pH. Time series of projections and a measure of uncertainty (shading) are shown for scenarios RCP2.6 (blue) and RCP8.5 (red). Black (grey shading) is the modelled historical evolution using historical reconstructed forcings

(Fig SPM.7c) CMIP5 multi-model simulated time series from 1950 to 2100 for global mean ocean surface pH. Time series of projections and a measure of uncertainty (shading) are shown for scenarios RCP2.6 (blue) and RCP8.5 (red). Black (grey shading) is the modelled historical evolution using historical reconstructed forcings. [The numbers indicate the number of models used in each ensemble.]

Ocean acidification has sometimes been ignored in discussions about climate change, but it is a much simpler process, and is much easier to calculate (notice the uncertainty range on the graph above is much smaller than most of the other graphs). This graph shows the projected acidification in the best and worst case scenarios (RCP2.6 and RCP8.5). Recall that RCP8.5 is the “business as usual” future.

Note that this doesn’t mean the ocean will become acid. The ocean has always been slightly alkaline—well above the neutral value of pH 7. So “acidification” refers to a drop in pH, rather than a drop below pH 7. As this continues, the ocean becomes steadily less alkaline. Unfortunately, as the pH drops, the ocean stops being supersaturated for calcium carbonate. If it’s no longer supersaturated, anything made of calcium carbonate starts dissolving. Corals and shellfish can no longer form. If you kill these off, the entire ocean food chain is affected. Here’s what the IPCC report says:

Surface waters are projected to become seasonally corrosive to aragonite in parts of the Arctic and in some coastal upwelling systems within a decade, and in parts of the Southern Ocean within 1–3 decades in most scenarios. Aragonite, a less stable form of calcium carbonate, undersaturation becomes widespread in these regions at atmospheric CO2 levels of 500–600 ppm.


You can download all of Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis here. Click below to read any part of this series:

  1. The warming is unequivocal.
  2. Humans caused the majority of it.
  3. The warming is largely irreversible.
  4. Most of the heat is going into the oceans.
  5. Current rates of ocean acidification are unprecedented.
  6. We have to choose which future we want very soon.
  7. To stay below 2°C of warming, the world must become carbon negative.
  8. To stay below 2°C of warming, most fossil fuels must stay buried in the ground.

Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis is also available chapter by chapter here:

  1. Front Matter
  2. Summary for Policymakers
  3. Technical Summary
    1. Supplementary Material

Chapters

  1. Introduction
  2. Observations: Atmosphere and Surface
    1. Supplementary Material
  3. Observations: Ocean
  4. Observations: Cryosphere
    1. Supplementary Material
  5. Information from Paleoclimate Archives
  6. Carbon and Other Biogeochemical Cycles
    1. Supplementary Material
  7. Clouds and Aerosols

    1. Supplementary Material
  8. Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing
    1. Supplementary Material
  9. Evaluation of Climate Models
  10. Detection and Attribution of Climate Change: from Global to Regional
    1. Supplementary Material
  11. Near-term Climate Change: Projections and Predictability
  12. Long-term Climate Change: Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility
  13. Sea Level Change
    1. Supplementary Material
  14. Climate Phenomena and their Relevance for Future Regional Climate Change
    1. Supplementary Material

Annexes

  1. Annex I: Atlas of Global and Regional Climate Projections
    1. Supplementary Material: RCP2.6, RCP4.5, RCP6.0, RCP8.5
  2. Annex II: Climate System Scenario Tables
  3. Annex III: Glossary
  4. Annex IV: Acronyms
  5. Annex V: Contributors to the WGI Fifth Assessment Report
  6. Annex VI: Expert Reviewers of the WGI Fifth Assessment Report

New IPCC Report (Part 4)

11 April, 2014

guest post by Steve Easterbrook

(4) Most of the heat is going into the oceans

The oceans have a huge thermal mass compared to the atmosphere and land surface. They act as the planet’s heat storage and transportation system, as the ocean currents redistribute the heat. This is important because if we look at the global surface temperature as an indication of warming, we’re only getting some of the picture. The oceans act as a huge storage heater, and will continue to warm up the lower atmosphere (no matter what changes we make to the atmosphere in the future).

(Box 3.1 Fig 1) Plot of energy accumulation in ZJ (1 ZJ = 1021 J) within distinct components of Earth’s climate system relative to 1971 and from 1971–2010 unless otherwise indicated. See text for data sources. Ocean warming (heat content change) dominates, with the upper ocean (light blue, above 700 m) contributing more than the deep ocean (dark blue, below 700 m; including below 2000 m estimates starting from 1992). Ice melt (light grey; for glaciers and ice caps, Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet estimates starting from 1992, and Arctic sea ice estimate from 1979–2008); continental (land) warming (orange); and atmospheric warming (purple; estimate starting from 1979) make smaller contributions. Uncertainty in the ocean estimate also dominates the total uncertainty (dot-dashed lines about the error from all five components at 90% confidence intervals).

(Box 3.1 Fig 1) Plot of energy accumulation in zettajoules within distinct components of Earth’s climate system relative to 1971 and from 1971–2010 unless otherwise indicated. Ocean warming (heat content change) dominates, with the upper ocean (light blue, above 700 m) contributing more than the deep ocean (dark blue, below 700 m; including below 2000 m estimates starting from 1992). Ice melt (light grey; for glaciers and ice caps, Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet estimates starting from 1992, and Arctic sea ice estimate from 1979–2008); continental (land) warming (orange); and atmospheric warming (purple; estimate starting from 1979) make smaller contributions. Uncertainty in the ocean estimate also dominates the total uncertainty (dot-dashed lines about the error from all five components at 90% confidence intervals).

Note the relationship between this figure (which shows where the heat goes) and the figure from Part 2 that showed change in cumulative energy budget from different sources:

The Earth's energy budget from 1970 to 2011. Cumulative energy flux (in zettajoules) into the Earth system from well-mixed and short-lived greenhouse gases, solar forcing, changes in tropospheric aerosol forcing, volcanic forcing and surface albedo, (relative to 1860–1879) are shown by the coloured lines and these are added to give the cumulative energy inflow (black; including black carbon on snow and combined contrails and contrail induced cirrus, not shown separately).

(Box 13.1 fig 1) The Earth’s energy budget from 1970 to 2011. Cumulative energy flux (in zettajoules) into the Earth system from well-mixed and short-lived greenhouse gases, solar forcing, changes in tropospheric aerosol forcing, volcanic forcing and surface albedo, (relative to 1860–1879) are shown by the coloured lines and these are added to give the cumulative energy inflow (black; including black carbon on snow and combined contrails and contrail induced cirrus, not shown separately).

Both graphs show zettajoules accumulating over about the same period (1970-2011). But the graph from Part 1 has a cumulative total just short of 800 zettajoules by the end of the period, while today’s new graph shows the earth storing “only” about 300 zettajoules of this. Where did the remaining energy go? Because the earth’s temperature rose during this period, it also lost increasingly more energy back into space. When greenhouse gases trap heat, the earth’s temperature keeps rising until outgoing energy and incoming energy are in balance again.


You can download all of Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis here. Click below to read any part of this series:

  1. The warming is unequivocal.
  2. Humans caused the majority of it.
  3. The warming is largely irreversible.
  4. Most of the heat is going into the oceans.
  5. Current rates of ocean acidification are unprecedented.
  6. We have to choose which future we want very soon.
  7. To stay below 2°C of warming, the world must become carbon negative.
  8. To stay below 2°C of warming, most fossil fuels must stay buried in the ground.

Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis is also available chapter by chapter here:

  1. Front Matter
  2. Summary for Policymakers
  3. Technical Summary
    1. Supplementary Material

Chapters

  1. Introduction
  2. Observations: Atmosphere and Surface
    1. Supplementary Material
  3. Observations: Ocean
  4. Observations: Cryosphere
    1. Supplementary Material
  5. Information from Paleoclimate Archives
  6. Carbon and Other Biogeochemical Cycles
    1. Supplementary Material
  7. Clouds and Aerosols

    1. Supplementary Material
  8. Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing
    1. Supplementary Material
  9. Evaluation of Climate Models
  10. Detection and Attribution of Climate Change: from Global to Regional
    1. Supplementary Material
  11. Near-term Climate Change: Projections and Predictability
  12. Long-term Climate Change: Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility
  13. Sea Level Change
    1. Supplementary Material
  14. Climate Phenomena and their Relevance for Future Regional Climate Change
    1. Supplementary Material

Annexes

  1. Annex I: Atlas of Global and Regional Climate Projections
    1. Supplementary Material: RCP2.6, RCP4.5, RCP6.0, RCP8.5
  2. Annex II: Climate System Scenario Tables
  3. Annex III: Glossary
  4. Annex IV: Acronyms
  5. Annex V: Contributors to the WGI Fifth Assessment Report
  6. Annex VI: Expert Reviewers of the WGI Fifth Assessment Report

Life’s Struggle to Survive

19 December, 2013

Here’s the talk I gave at the SETI Institute:

When pondering the number of extraterrestrial civilizations, it is worth noting that even after it got started, the success of life on Earth was not a foregone conclusion. In this talk, I recount some thrilling episodes from the history of our planet, some well-documented but others merely theorized: our collision with the planet Theia, the oxygen catastrophe, the snowball Earth events, the Permian-Triassic mass extinction event, the asteroid that hit Chicxulub, and more, including the massive environmental changes we are causing now. All of these hold lessons for what may happen on other planets!

To watch the talk, click on the video above. To see
slides of the talk, click here!

Here’s a mistake in my talk that doesn’t appear in the slides: I suggested that Theia started at the Lagrange point in Earth’s orbit. After my talk, an expert said that at that time, the Solar System had lots of objects with orbits of high eccentricity, and Theia was probably one of these. He said the Lagrange point theory is an idiosyncratic theory, not widely accepted, that somehow found its way onto Wikipedia.

Another issue was brought up in the questions. In a paper in Science, Sherwood and Huber argued that:

Any exceedence of 35 °C for extended periods should
induce hyperthermia in humans and other mammals, as dissipation of metabolic heat becomes impossible. While this never happens now, it would begin to occur with global-mean warming of about 7 °C, calling the habitability of some regions into question. With 11-12 °C warming, such regions would spread to encompass the majority of the human population as currently distributed. Eventual warmings of 12 °C are
possible from fossil fuel burning.

However, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum seems to have been even hotter:

So, the question is: where did mammals live during this period, which mammals went extinct, if any, and does the survival of other mammals call into question Sherwood and Huber’s conclusion?


Monte Carlo Methods in Climate Science

23 July, 2013

joint with David Tweed

One way the Azimuth Project can help save the planet is to get bright young students interested in ecology, climate science, green technology, and stuff like that. So, we are writing an article for Math Horizons, an American magazine for undergraduate math majors. This blog article is a draft of that. You can also see it in PDF form here.

We’d really like to hear your comments! There are severe limits on including more detail, since the article should be easy to read and short. So please don’t ask us to explain more stuff: we’re most interested to know if you sincerely don’t understand something, or feel that students would have trouble understanding something. For comparison, you can see sample Math Horizons articles here.

Introduction

They look placid lapping against the beach on a calm day, but the oceans are actually quite dynamic. The ocean currents act as ‘conveyor belts’, transporting heat both vertically between the water’s surface and the depths and laterally from one area of the globe to another. This effect is so significant that the temperature and precipitation patterns can change dramatically when currents do.

For example: shortly after the last ice age, northern Europe experienced a shocking change in climate from 10,800 to 9,500 BC. At the start of this period temperatures plummeted in a matter of decades. It became 7° Celsius colder, and glaciers started forming in England! The cold spell lasted for over a thousand years, but it ended as suddenly as it had begun.

Why? The most popular theory is that that a huge lake in North America formed by melting glaciers burst its bank—and in a massive torrent lasting for years, the water from this lake rushed out to the northern Atlantic ocean. By floating atop the denser salt water, this fresh water blocked a major current: the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation. This current brings warm water north and helps keep northern Europe warm. So, when iit shut down, northern Europe was plunged into a deep freeze.

Right now global warming is causing ice sheets in Greenland to melt and release fresh water into the North Atlantic. Could this shut down the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation and make the climate of Northern Europe much colder? In 2010, Keller and Urban [KU] tackled this question using a simple climate model, historical data, probability theory, and lots of computing power. Their goal was to understand the spectrum of possible futures compatible with what we know today.

Let us look at some of the ideas underlying their work.

Box models

The earth’s physical behaviour, including the climate is far too complex to simulate from the bottom up using basic physical principles, at least for now. The most detailed models today can take days to run on very powerful computers. So to make reasonable predictions on a laptop in a tractable time-frame, geophysical modellers use some tricks.

First, it is possible to split geophysical phenomena into ‘boxes’ containing strongly related things. For example: atmospheric gases, particulate levels and clouds all affect each other strongly; likewise the heat content, currents and salinity of the oceans all interact strongly. However, the interactions between the atmosphere and the oceans are weaker, and we can approximately describe them using just a few settings, such as the amount of atmospheric CO2 entering or leaving the oceans. Clearly these interactions must be consistent—for example, the amount of CO2 leaving the atmosphere box must equal the amount entering the ocean box—but breaking a complicated system into parts lets different specialists focus on different aspects; then we can combine these parts and get an approximate model of entire planet. The box model used by Keller and Urban is shown in Figure 1.



1. The box model used by Keller and Urban.

 
Second, it turn out that simple but effective box models can be distilled from the complicated physics in terms of forcings and feedbacks. Essentially a forcing is a measured input to the system, such as solar radiation or CO2 released by burning fossil fuels. As an analogy, consider a child on a swing: the adult’s push every so often is a forcing. Similarly a feedback describes how the current ‘box variables’ influence future ones. In the swing analogy, one feedback is how the velocity will influence the future height. Specifying feedbacks typically uses knowledge of the detailed low-level physics to derive simple, tractable functional relationships between groups of large-scale observables, a bit like how we derive the physics of a gas by thinking about collisions of lots of particles.

However, it is often not feasible to get actual settings for the parameters in our model starting from first principles. In other words, often we can get the general form of the equations in our model, but they contain a lot of constants that we can estimate only by looking at historical data.

Probability modeling

Suppose we have a box model that depends on some settings S. For example, in Keller and Urban’s model, S is a list of 18 numbers. To keep things simple, suppose the settings are element of some finite set. Suppose we also have huge hard disc full of historical measurements, and we want to use this to find the best estimate of S. Because our data is full of ‘noise’ from other, unmodeled phenomena we generally cannot unambiguously deduce a single set of settings. Instead we have to look at things in terms of probabilities. More precisely, we need to study the probability that S take some value s given that the measurements take some value. Let’s call the measurements M, and again let’s keep things simple by saying M takes values in some finite set of possible measurements.

The probability that S = s given that M takes some value m is called the conditional probability P(S=s | M=m). How can we compute this conditional probability? This is a somewhat tricky problem.

One thing we can more easily do is repeatedly run our model with randomly chosen settings and see what measurements it predicts. By doing this, we can compute the probability that given setting values S = s, the model predicts measurements M=m. This again is a conditional probability, but now it is called P(M=m|S=s).

This is not what we want: it’s backwards! But here Bayes’ rule comes to the rescue, relating what we want to what we can more easily compute:

\displaystyle{ P(S = s | M = m) = P(M = m| S = s) \frac{P(S = s)}{P(M = m)} }

Here P(S = s) is the probability that the settings take a specific value s, and similarly for P(M = m). Bayes’ rule is quite easy to prove, and it is actually a general rule that applies to any random variables, not just the settings and the measurements in our problem [Y]. It underpins most methods of figuring out hidden quantities from observed ones. For this reason, it is widely used in modern statistics and data analysis [K].

How does Bayes’ rule help us here? When we repeatedly run our model with randomly chosen settings, we have control over P(S = s). As mentioned, we can compute P(M=m| S=s). Finally, P(M = m) is independent of our choice of settings. So, we can use Bayes’ rule to compute P(S = s | M = m) up to a constant factor. And since probabilities must sum to 1, we can figure out this constant.

This lets us do many things. It lets us find the most likely values of the settings for our model, given our hard disc full of observed data. It also lets us find the probability that the settings lie within some set. This is important: if we’re facing the possibility of a climate disaster, we don’t just want to know the most likely outcome. We would like to know to know that with 95% probability, the outcome will lie in some range.

An example

Let us look at an example much simpler than that considered by Keller and Urban. Suppose our measurements are real numbers m_0,\dots, m_T related by

m_{t+1} = s m_t - m_{t-1} + N_t

Here s, a real constant, is our ‘setting’, while N_t is some ‘noise': an independent Gaussian random variable for each time t, each with mean zero and some fixed standard deviation. Then the measurements m_t will have roughly sinusoidal behavior but with irregularity added by the noise at each time step, as illustrated in Figure 2.



2. The example system: red are predicted measurements for a given value of the settings, green is another simulation for the same s value and blue is a simulation for a slightly different s.

 
Note how there is no clear signal from either the curves or the differences that the green curve is at the correct setting value while the blue one has the wrong one: the noise makes it nontrivial to estimate s. This is a baby version of the problem faced by Keller and Urban.

Markov Chain Monte Carlo

Having glibly said that we can compute the conditional probability P(M=m | S=s), how do we actually do this? The simplest way would be to run our model many, many times with the settings set at S=s and determine the fraction of times it predicts measurements equal to m. This gives us an estimate of P(M=m | S=s). Then we can use Bayes’ rule to work out P(M=m|S=s), at least up to a constant factor.

Doing all this by hand would be incredibly time consuming and error prone, so computers are used for this task. In our example, we do this in Figure 3. As we keep running our model over and over, the curve showing P(M=m |S=s) as a function of s settles down to the right answer.


3. The estimates of P(M=m | S=s) as a function of s using uniform sampling, ending up with 480 samples at each point.

 

However, this is computationally inefficient, as shown in the probability distribution for small numbers of samples. This has quite a few ‘kinks’, which only disappear later. The problem is that there are lots of possible choices of s to try. And this is for a very simple model!

When dealing with the 18 settings involved in the model of Keller and Urban, trying every combination would take far too long. A way to avoid this is Markov Chain Monte Carlo sampling. Monte Carlo is famous for its casinos, so a ‘Monte Carlo’ algorithm is one that uses randomness. A ‘Markov chain’ is a random walk: for example, where you repeatedly flip a coin and take one step right when you get heads, and one step right when you get tails. So, in Markov Chain Monte Carlo, we perform a random walk through the collection of all possible settings, collecting samples.

The key to making this work is that at each step on the walk a proposed modification s' to the current settings s is generated randomly—but it may be rejected if it does not seem to improve the estimates. The essence of the rule is:

The modification s \mapsto s' is randomly accepted with a probability equal to the ratio

\displaystyle{ \frac{P(M=m | S=s')}{ P(M=m | S=s)} }

Otherwise the walk stays at the current position.

If the modification is better, so that the ratio is greater than 1, the new state is always accepted. With some additional tricks—such as discarding the very beginning of the walk—this gives a set of samples from which can be used to compute P(M=m | S=s). Then we can compute P(S = s | M = m) using Bayes’ rule.

Figure 4 shows the results of using the Markov Chain Monte Carlo procedure to figure out P(S= s| M= m) in our example.


4. The estimates of P(S = s|M = m) curves using Markov Chain Monte Carlo, showing the current distribution estimate at increasing intervals. The red line shows the current position of the random walk. Again the kinks are almost gone in the final distribution.

 

Note that the final distribution has only peformed about 66 thousand simulations in total, while the full sampling peformed over 1.5 million. The key advantage of Markov Chain Monte Carlo is that it avoids performing many simulations in areas where the probability is low, as we can see from the way the walk path remains under the big peak in the probability density almost all the time. What is more impressive is that it achieves this without any global view of the probability density, just by looking at how P(M=m | S=s) changes when we make small changes in the settings. This becomes even more important as we move to dealing with systems with many more dimensions and settings, where it proves very effective at finding regions of high probability density whatever their shape.

Why is it worth doing so much work to estimate the probability distribution for settings for a climate model? One reason is that we can then estimate probabilities of future events, such as the collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Ocean Current. And what’s the answer? According to Keller and Urban’s calculation, this current will likely weaken by about a fifth in the 21st century, but a complete collapse is unlikely before 2300. This claim needs to be checked in many ways—for example, using more detailed models. But the importance of the issue is clear, and we hope we have made the importance of good mathematical ideas for climate science clear as well.

Exploring the topic

The Azimuth Project is a group of scientists, engineers and computer programmers interested in questions like this [A]. If you have questions, or want to help out, just email us. Versions of the computer programs we used in this paper will be made available here in a while.

Here are some projects you can try, perhaps with the help of Kruschke’s textbook [K]:

• There are other ways to do setting estimation using time series: compare some to MCMC in terms of accuracy and robustness.

• We’ve seen a 1-dimensional system with one setting. Simulate some multi-dimensional and multi-setting systems. What new issues arise?

Acknowledgements. We thank Nathan Urban and other
members of the Azimuth Project for many helpful discussions.

References

[A] Azimuth Project, http://www.azimuthproject.org.

[KU] Klaus Keller and Nathan Urban, Probabilistic hindcasts and projections of the coupled climate, carbon cycle and Atlantic meridional overturning circulation system: a Bayesian fusion of century-scale measurements with a simple model, Tellus A 62 (2010), 737–750. Also available free online.

[K] John K. Kruschke, Doing Bayesian Data Analysis: A Tutorial with R and BUGS, Academic Press, New York, 2010.

[Y] Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, An intuitive explanation of Bayes’ theorem.


Petri Net Programming (Part 2)

20 December, 2012

guest post by David A. Tanzer

An introduction to stochastic Petri nets

In the previous article, I explored a simple computational model called Petri nets. They are used to model reaction networks, and have applications in a wide variety of fields, including population ecology, gene regulatory networks, and chemical reaction networks. I presented a simulator program for Petri nets, but it had an important limitation: the model and the simulator contain no notion of the rates of the reactions. But these rates critically determine the character of the dynamics of network.

Here I will introduce the topic of ‘stochastic Petri nets,’ which extends the basic model to include reaction dynamics. Stochastic means random, and it is presumed that there is an underlying random process that drives the reaction events. This topic is rich in both its mathematical foundations and its practical applications. A direct application of the theory yields the rate equation for chemical reactions, which is a cornerstone of chemical reaction theory. The theory also gives algorithms for analyzing and simulating Petri nets.

We are now entering the ‘business’ of software development for applications to science. The business logic here is nothing but math and science itself. Our study of this logic is not an academic exercise that is tangential to the implementation effort. Rather, it is the first phase of a complete software development process for scientific programming applications.

The end goals of this series are to develop working code to analyze and simulate Petri nets, and to apply these tools to informative case studies. But we have some work to do en route, because we need to truly understand the models in order to properly interpret the algorithms. The key questions here are when, why, and to what extent the algorithms give results that are empirically predictive. We will therefore be embarking on some exploratory adventures into the relevant theoretical foundations.

The overarching subject area to which stochastic Petri nets belong has been described as stochastic mechanics in the network theory series here on Azimuth. The theme development here will partly parallel that of the network theory series, but with a different focus, since I am addressing a computationally oriented reader. For an excellent text on the foundations and applications of stochastic mechanics, see:

• Darren Wilkinson, Stochastic Modelling for Systems Biology, Chapman and Hall/CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, 2011.

Review of basic Petri nets

A Petri net is a graph with two kinds of nodes: species and transitions. The net is populated with a collection of ‘tokens’ that represent individual entities. Each token is attached to one of the species nodes, and this attachment indicates the type of the token. We may therefore view a species node as a container that holds all of the tokens of a given type.

The transitions represent conversion reactions between the tokens. Each transition is ‘wired’ to a collection of input species-containers, and to a collection of output containers. When it ‘fires’, it removes one token from each input container, and deposits one token to each output container.

Here is the example we gave, for a simplistic model of the formation and dissociation of H2O molecules:

The circles are for species, and the boxes are for transitions.

The transition combine takes in two H tokens and one O token, and outputs one H2O token. The reverse transition is split, which takes in one H2O, and outputs two H’s and one O.

An important application of Petri nets is to the modeling of biochemical reaction networks, which include the gene regulatory networks. Since genes and enzymes are molecules, and their binding interactions are chemical reactions, the Petri net model is directly applicable. For example, consider a transition that inputs one gene G, one enzyme E, and outputs the molecular form G • E in which E is bound to a particular site on G.

Applications of Petri nets may differ widely in terms of the population sizes involved in the model. In general chemistry reactions, the populations are measured in units of moles (where a mole is ‘Avogadro’s number’ 6.022 · 1023 entities). In gene regulatory networks, on the other hand, there may only be a handful of genes and enzymes involved in a reaction.

This difference in scale leads to a qualitative difference in the modelling. With small population sizes, the stochastic effects will predominate, but with large populations, a continuous, deterministic, average-based approximation can be used.

Representing Petri nets by reaction formulas

Petri nets can also be represented by formulas used for chemical reaction networks. Here is the formula for the Petri net shown above:

H2O ↔ H + H + O

or the more compact:

H2O ↔ 2 H + O

The double arrow is a compact designation for two separate reactions, which happen to be opposites of each other.

By the way, this reaction is not physically realistic, because one doesn’t find isolated H and O atoms traveling around and meeting up to form water molecules. This is the actual reaction pair that predominates in water:

2 H2O ↔ OH- + H3O+

Here, a hydrogen nucleus H+, with one unit of positive charge, gets removed from one of the H2O molecules, leaving behind the hydroxide ion OH-. In the same stroke, this H+ gets re-attached to the other H2O molecule, which thereby becomes a hydronium ion, H3O+.

For a more detailed example, consider this reaction chain, which is of concern to the ocean environment:

CO2 + H2O ↔ H2CO3 ↔ H+ + HCO3-

This shows the formation of carbonic acid, namely H2CO3, from water and carbon dioxide. The next reaction represents the splitting of carbonic acid into a hydrogen ion and a negatively charged bicarbonate ion, HCO3-. There is a further reaction, in which a bicarbonate ion further ionizes into an H+ and a doubly negative carbonate ion CO32-. As the diagram indicates, for each of these reactions, a reverse reaction is also present. For a more detailed description of this reaction network, see:

• Stephen E. Bialkowski, Carbon dioxide and carbonic acid.

Increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere will change the balance of these reactions, leading to a higher concentration of hydrogen ions in the water, i.e., a more acidic ocean. This is of concern because the metabolic processes of aquatic organisms is sensitive to the pH level of the water. The ultimate concern is that entire food chains could be disrupted, if some of the organisms cannot survive in a higher pH environment. See the Wikipedia page on ocean acidification for more information.

Exercise. Draw Petri net diagrams for these reaction networks.

Motivation for the study of Petri net dynamics

The relative rates of the various reactions in a network critically determine the qualitative dynamics of the network as a whole. This is because the reactions are ‘competing’ with each other, and so their relative rates determine the direction in which the state of the system is changing. For instance, if molecules are breaking down faster then they are being formed, then the system is moving towards full dissociation. When the rates are equal, the processes balance out, and the system is in an equilibrium state. Then, there are only temporary fluctuations around the equilibrium conditions.

The rate of the reactions will depend on the number of tokens present in the system. For example, if any of the input tokens are zero, then the transition can’t fire, and so its rate must be zero. More generally, when there are few input tokens available, there will be fewer reaction events, and so the firing rates will be lower.

Given a specification for the rates in a reaction network, we can then pose the following kinds of questions about its dynamics:

• Does the network have an equilibrium state?

• If so, what are the concentrations of the species at equilibrium?

• How quickly does it approach the equilibrium?

• At the equilibrium state, there will still be temporary fluctuations around the equilibrium concentrations. What are the variances of these fluctuations?

• Are there modes in which the network will oscillate between states?

This is the grail we seek.

Aside from actually performing empirical experiments, such questions can be addressed either analytically or through simulation methods. In either case, our first step is to define a theoretical model for the dynamics of a Petri net.

Stochastic Petri nets

A stochastic Petri net (with kinetics) is a Petri net that is augmented with a specification for the reaction dynamics. It is defined by the following:

• An underlying Petri net, which consists of species, transitions, an input map, and an output map. These maps assign to each transition a multiset of species. (Multiset means that duplicates are allowed.) Recall that the state of the net is defined by a marking function, that maps each species to its population count.

• A rate constant that is associated with each transition.

• A kinetic model, that gives the expected firing rate for each transition as a function of the current marking. Normally, this kinetic function will include the rate constant as a multiplicative factor.

A further ‘sanity constraint’ can be put on the kinetic function for a transition: it should give a positive value if and only if all of its inputs are positive.

• A stochastic model, which defines the probability distribution of the time intervals between firing events. This specific distribution of the firing intervals for a transition will be a function of the expected firing rate in the current marking.

This definition is based on the standard treatments found, for example in:

• M. Ajmone Marsan, Stochastic Petri nets: an elementary introduction, in Advances in Petri Nets, Springer, Berlin, 1989, 1–23.

or Wilkinson’s book mentioned above. I have also added an explicit mention of the kinetic model, based on the ‘kinetics’ described in here:

• Martin Feinberg, Lectures on chemical reaction networks.

There is an implied random process that drives the reaction events. A classical random process is given by a container with ‘particles’ that are randomly traveling around, bouncing off the walls, and colliding with each other. This is the general idea behind Brownian motion. It is called a random process because the outcome results from an ‘experiment’ that is not fully determined by the input specification. In this experiment, you pour in the ingredients (particles of different types), set the temperature (the distributions of the velocities), give it a stir, and then see what happens. The outcome consists of the paths taken by each of the particles.

In an important limiting case, the stochastic behavior becomes deterministic, and the population sizes become continuous. To see this, consider a graph of population sizes over time. With larger population sizes, the relative jumps caused by the firing of individual transitions become smaller, and graphs look more like continuous curves. In the limit, we obtain an approximation for high population counts, in which the graphs are continuous curves, and the concentrations are treated as continuous magnitudes. In a similar way, a pitcher of sugar can be approximately viewed as a continuous fluid.

This simplification permits the application of continuous mathematics to study of reaction network processes. It leads to the basic rate equation for reaction networks, which specifies the direction of change of the system as a function of the current state of the system.

In this article we will be exploring this continuous deterministic formulation of Petri nets, under what is known as the mass action kinetics. This kinetics is one implementation of the general specification of a kinetic model, as defined above. This means that it will define the expected firing rate of each transition, in a given marking of the net. The probabilistic variations in the spacing of the reactions—around the mean given by the expected firing rate—is part of the stochastic dynamics, and will be addressed in a subsequent article.

The mass-action kinetics

Under the mass action kinetics, the expected firing rate of a transition is proportional to the product of the concentrations of its input species. For instance, if the reaction were A + C → D, then the firing rate would be proportional to the concentration of A times the concentration of C, and if the reaction were A + A → D, it would be proportional to the square of the concentration of A.

This principle is explained by Feinberg as follows:

For the reaction A+C → D, an occurrence requires that a molecule of A meet a molecule of C in the reaction, and we take the probability of such an encounter to be proportional to the product [of the concentrations of A and C]. Although we do not presume that every such encounter yields a molecule of D, we nevertheless take the occurrence rate of A+C → D to be governed by [the product of the concentrations].

For an in-depth proof of the mass action law, see this article:

• Daniel Gillespie, A rigorous definition of the chemical master equation, 1992.

Note that we can easily pass back and forth between speaking of the population counts for the species, and the concentrations of the species, which is just the population count divided by the total volume V of the system. The mass action law applies to both cases, the only difference being that the constant factors of (1/V) used for concentrations will get absorbed into the rate constants.

The mass action kinetics is a basic law of empirical chemistry. But there are limits to its validity. First, as indicated in the proof in the Gillespie, the mass action law rests on the assumptions that the system is well-stirred and in thermal equilibrium. Further limits are discussed here:

• Georg Job and Regina Ruffler, Physical Chemistry (first five chapters), Section 5.2, 2010.

They write:

…precise measurements show that the relation above is not strictly adhered to. At higher concentrations, values depart quite noticeably from this relation. If we gradually move to lower concentrations, the differences become smaller. The equation here expresses a so-called “limiting law“ which strictly applies only when c → 0.

In practice, this relation serves as a useful approximation up to rather high concentrations. In the case of electrically neutral substances, deviations are only noticeable above 100 mol m−3. For ions, deviations become observable above 1 mol m−3, but they are so small that they are easily neglected if accuracy is not of prime concern.

Why would the mass action kinetics break down at high concentrations? According to the book quoted, it is due to “molecular and ionic interactions.” I haven’t yet found a more detailed explanation, but here is my supposition about what is meant by molecular interactions in this context. Doubling the number of A molecules doubles the number of expected collisions between A and C molecules, but it also reduces the probability that any given A and C molecules that are within reacting distance will actually react. The reaction probability is reduced because the A molecules are ‘competing’ for reactions with the C molecules. With more A molecules, it becomes more likely that a C molecule will simultaneously be within reacting distance of several A molecules; each of these A molecules reduces the probability that the other A molecules will react with the C molecule. This is most pronounced when the concentrations in a gas get high enough that the molecules start to pack together to form a liquid.

The equilibrium relation for a pair of opposite reactions

Suppose we have two opposite reactions:

T: A + B \stackrel{u}{\longrightarrow} C + D

T': C + D \stackrel{v}{\longrightarrow} A + B

Since the reactions have exactly opposite effects on the population sizes, in order for the population sizes to be in a stable equilibrium, the expected firing rates of T and T' must be equal:

\mathrm{rate}(T') = \mathrm{rate}(T)

By mass action kinetics:

\mathrm{rate}(T) = u [A] [B]

\mathrm{rate}(T') = v [C] [D]

where [X] means the concentration of X.

Hence at equilibrium:

u [A] [B] = v [C] [D]

So:

\displaystyle{ \frac{[A][B]}{[C][D]} = \frac{v}{u} = K }

where K is the equilibrium constant for the reaction pair.

Equilibrium solution for the formation and dissociation of a diatomic molecule

Let A be some type of atom, and let D = A2 be the diatomic form of A. Then consider the opposite reactions:

A + A \stackrel{u}{\longrightarrow} D

D \stackrel{v}{\longrightarrow} A + A

From the preceding analysis, at equilibrium the following relation holds:

u [A]^2 = v [D]

Let N(A) and N(B) be the population counts for A and B, and let

N = N(A) + 2 N(D)

be the total number of units of A in the system, whether they be in the form of atoms or diatoms.

The value of N is an invariant property of the system. The reactions cannot change it, because they are just shuffling the units of A from one arrangement to the other. By way of contrast, N(A) is not an invariant quantity.

Dividing this equation by the total volume V, we get:

[N] = [A] + 2 [D]

where [N] is the concentration of the units of A.

Given a fixed value for [N] and the rate constants u and v, we can then solve for the concentrations at equilibrium:

\displaystyle{u [A]^2 = v [D] = v ([N] - [A]) / 2 }

\displaystyle{2 u [A]^2 + v [A] - v [N] = 0 }

\displaystyle{[A] = (-v \pm \sqrt{v^2 + 8 u v [N]}) / 4 u }

Since [A] can’t be negative, only the positive square root is valid.

Here is the solution for the case where u = v = 1:

\displaystyle{[A] = (\sqrt{8 [N] + 1} - 1) / 4 }

\displaystyle{[D] = ([N] - [A]) / 2 }

Conclusion

We’ve covered a lot of ground, starting with the introduction of the stochastic Petri net model, followed by a general discussion of reaction network dynamics, the mass action laws, and calculating equilibrium solutions for simple reaction networks.

We still have a number of topics to cover on our journey into the foundations, before being able to write informed programs to solve problems with stochastic Petri nets. Upcoming topics are (1) the deterministic rate equation for general reaction networks and its application to finding equilibrium solutions, and (2) an exploration of the stochastic dynamics of a Petri net. These are the themes that will support our upcoming software development.


Tsunami

12 March, 2011

I hope everyone reading this, and everyone they know, is okay…

Stories, anyone?

Check out this animation from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

The tsunami was unnoticeable here in Singapore. It was just 10 centimeters tall when it hit the North Maluku islands in Indonesia, and we’re protected from the open Pacific by lots of Indonesian islands.

Of course, this “protection” has its own dangers, since Indonesia is geologically active: since I’ve lived here there have been two volcanic eruptions in Java, and an earthquake in western Sumatra created a tsunami that killed over 282 people in the Mentawai islands. An earthquake in eastern Sumatra could cause a tsunami here, perhaps—Sumatra is visible from tall buildings downtown. But today things are fine, here.

They’re worse in California!—though as you might expect, some there took advantage of the tsunami for surfing.


This Week’s Finds (Week 307)

14 December, 2010

I’d like to take a break from interviews and explain some stuff I’m learning about. I’m eager to tell you about some papers in the book Tim Palmer helped edit, Stochastic Physics and Climate Modelling. But those papers are highly theoretical, and theories aren’t very interesting until you know what they’re theories of. So today I’ll talk about "El Niño", which is part of a very interesting climate cycle. Next time I’ll get into more of the math.

I hadn’t originally planned to get into so much detail on the El Niño, but this cycle is a big deal in southern California. In the city of Riverside, where I live, it’s very dry. There is a small river, but it’s just a trickle of water most of the time: there’s a lot less "river" than "side". It almost never rains between March and December. Sometimes, during a "La Niña", it doesn’t even rain in the winter! But then sometimes we have an "El Niño" and get huge floods in the winter. At this point, the tiny stream that gives Riverside its name swells to a huge raging torrent. The difference is very dramatic.

So, I’ve always wanted to understand how the El Niño cycle works — but whenever I tried to read an explanation, I couldn’t follow it!

I finally broke that mental block when I read some stuff on William Kessler‘s website. He’s an expert on the El Niño phenomenon who works at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. One thing I like about his explanations is that he says what we do know about the El Niño, and also what we don’t know. We don’t know what triggers it!

In fact, Kessler says the El Niño would make a great research topic for a smart young scientist. In an email to me, which he has allowed me to quote, he said:

We understand lots of details but the big picture remains mysterious. And I enjoyed your interview with Tim Palmer because it brought out a lot of the sources of uncertainty in present-generation climate modeling. However, with El Niño, the mystery is beyond Tim’s discussion of the difficulties of climate modeling. We do not know whether the tropical climate system on El Niño timescales is stable (in which case El Niño needs an external trigger, of which there are many candidates) or unstable. In the 80s and 90s we developed simple "toy" models that convinced the community that the system was unstable and El Niño could be expected to arise naturally within the tropical climate system. Now that is in doubt, and we are faced with a fundamental uncertainty about the very nature of the beast. Since none of us old farts has any new ideas (I just came back from a conference that reviewed this stuff), this is a fruitful field for a smart young person.

So, I hope some smart young person reads this and dives into working on El Niño!

But let’s start at the beginning. Why did I have so much trouble understanding explanations of the El Niño? Well, first of all, I’m an old fart. Second, most people are bad at explaining stuff: they skip steps, use jargon they haven’t defined, and so on. But third, climate cycles are hard to explain. There’s a lot about them we don’t understand — as Kessler’s email points out. And they also involve a kind of "cyclic causality" that’s a bit tough to mentally process.

At least where I come from, people find it easy to understand linear chains of causality, like "A causes B, which causes C". For example: why is the king’s throne made of gold? Because the king told his minister "I want a throne of gold!" And the minister told the servant, "Make a throne of gold!" And the servant made the king a throne of gold.

Now that’s what I call an explanation! It’s incredibly satisfying, at least if you don’t wonder why the king wanted a throne of gold in the first place. It’s easy to remember, because it sounds like a story. We hear a lot of stories like this when we’re children, so we’re used to them. My example sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale, where the action is initiated by a "prime mover": the decree of a king.

There’s something a bit trickier about cyclic causality, like "A causes B, which causes C, which causes A." It may sound like a sneaky trick: we consider "circular reasoning" a bad thing. Sometimes it is a sneaky trick. But sometimes this is how things really work!

Why does big business have such influence in American politics? Because big business hires lots of lobbyists, who talk to the politicians, and even give them money. Why are they allowed to do this? Because big business has such influence in American politics. That’s an example of a "vicious circle". You might like to cut it off — but like a snake holding its tail in its mouth, it’s hard to know where to start.

Of course, not all circles are "vicious". Many are "virtuous".

But the really tricky thing is how a circle can sometimes reverse direction. In academia we worry about this a lot: we say a university can either "ratchet up" or "ratchet down". A good university attracts good students and good professors, who bring in more grant money, and all this makes it even better… while a bad university tends to get even worse, for all the same reasons. But sometimes a good university goes bad, or vice versa. Explaining that transition can be hard.

It’s also hard to explain why a La Niña switches to an El Niño, or vice versa. Indeed, it seems scientists still don’t understand this. They have some models that simulate this process, but there are still lots of mysteries. And even if they get models that work perfectly, they still may not be able to tell a good story about it. Wind and water are ultimately described by partial differential equations, not fairy tales.

But anyway, let me tell you a story about how it works. I’m just learning this stuff, so take it with a grain of salt…

The "El Niño/Southern Oscillation" or "ENSO" is the largest form of variability in the Earth’s climate on times scales greater than a year and less than a decade. It occurs across the tropical Pacific Ocean every 3 to 7 years, and on average every 4 years. It can cause extreme weather such as floods and droughts in many regions of the world. Countries dependent on agriculture and fishing, especially those bordering the Pacific Ocean, are the most affected.

And here’s a cute little animation of it produced by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology:



Let me tell you first about La Niña, and then El Niño. If you keep glancing back at this little animation, I promise you can understand everything I’ll say.

Winds called trade winds blow west across the tropical Pacific. During La Niña years, water at the ocean’s surface moves west with these winds, warming up in the sunlight as it goes. So, warm water collects at the ocean’s surface in the western Pacific. This creates more clouds and rainstorms in Asia. Meanwhile, since surface water is being dragged west by the wind, cold water from below gets pulled up to take its place in the eastern Pacific, off the coast of South America.

I hope this makes sense so far. But there’s another aspect to the story. Because the ocean’s surface is warmer in the western Pacific, it heats the air and makes it rise. So, wind blows west to fill the "gap" left by rising air. This strengthens the westward-blowing trade winds.

So, it’s a kind of feedback loop: the oceans being warmer in the western Pacific helps the trade winds blow west, and that makes the western oceans even warmer.

Get it? This should all make sense so far, except for one thing. There’s one big question, and I hope you’re asking it. Namely:

Why do the trade winds blow west?

If I don’t answer this, my story so far would work just as well if I switched the words "west" and "east". That wouldn’t necessarily mean my story was wrong. It might just mean that there were two equally good options: a La Niña phase where the trade winds blow west, and another phase — say, El Niño — where they blow east! From everything I’ve said so far, the world could be permanently stuck in one of these phases. Or, maybe it could randomly flip between these two phases for some reason.

Something roughly like this last choice is actually true. But it’s not so simple: there’s not a complete symmetry between west and east.

Why not? Mainly because the Earth is turning to the east.

Air near the equator warms up and rises, so new air from more northern or southern regions moves in to take its place. But because the Earth is fatter at the equator, the equator is moving faster to the east. So, the new air from other places is moving less quickly by comparison… so as seen by someone standing on the equator, it blows west. This is an example of the Coriolis effect:



By the way: in case this stuff wasn’t tricky enough already, a wind that blows to the west is called an easterly, because it blows from the east! That’s what happens when you put sailors in charge of scientific terminology. So the westward-blowing trade winds are called "northeasterly trades" and "southeasterly trades" in the picture above. But don’t let that confuse you.

(I also tend to think of Asia as the "Far East" and California as the "West Coast", so I always need to keep reminding myself that Asia is in the west Pacific, while California is in the east Pacific. But don’t let that confuse you either! Just repeat after me until it makes perfect sense: "The easterlies blow west from West Coast to Far East".)

Okay: silly terminology aside, I hope everything makes perfect sense so far. The trade winds have a good intrinsic reason to blow west, but in the La Niña phase they’re also part of a feedback loop where they make the western Pacific warmer… which in turn helps the trade winds blow west.

But then comes an El Niño! Now for some reason the westward winds weaken. This lets the built-up warm water in the western Pacific slosh back east. And with weaker westward winds, less cold water is pulled up to the surface in the east. So, the eastern Pacific warms up. This makes for more clouds and rain in the eastern Pacific — that’s when we get floods in Southern California. And with the ocean warmer in the eastern Pacific, hot air rises there, which tends to counteract the westward winds even more!

In other words, all the feedbacks reverse themselves.

But note: the trade winds never mainly blow east. During an El Niño they still blow west, just a bit less. So, the climate is not flip-flopping between two symmetrical alternatives. It’s flip-flopping between two asymmetrical alternatives.

I hope all this makes sense… except for one thing. There’s another big question, and I hope you’re asking it. Namely:

Why do the westward trade winds weaken?

We could also ask the same question about the start of the La Niña phase: why do the westward trade winds get stronger?

The short answer is that nobody knows. Or at least there’s no one story that everyone agrees on. There are actually several stories… and perhaps more than one of them is true. But now let me just show you the data:



The top graph shows variations in the water temperature of the tropical Eastern Pacific ocean. When it’s hot we have El Niños: those are the red hills in the top graph. The blue valleys are La Niñas. Note that it’s possible to have two El Niños in a row without an intervening La Niña, or vice versa!

The bottom graph shows the "Southern Oscillation Index" or "SOI". This is the air pressure in Tahiti minus the air pressure in Darwin, Australia. You can see those locations here:



So, when the SOI is high, the air pressure is higher in the east Pacific than in the west Pacific. This is what we expect in an La Niña: that’s why the westward trade winds are strong then! Conversely, the SOI is low in the El Niño phase. This variation in the SOI is called the Southern Oscillation.

If you look at the graphs above, you’ll see how one looks almost like an upside-down version of the other. So, El Niño/La Niña cycle is tightly linked to the Southern Oscillation.

Another thing you’ll see from is that ENSO cycle is far from perfectly periodic! Here’s a graph of the Southern Oscillation Index going back a lot further:



This graph was made by William Kessler. His explanations of the ENSO cycle are the first ones I really understood:

My own explanation here is a slow-motion, watered-down version of his. Any mistakes are, of course, mine. To conclude, I want to quote his discussion of theories about why an El Niño starts, and why it ends. As you’ll see, this part is a bit more technical. It involves three concepts I haven’t explained yet:

  • The "thermocline" is the border between the warmer surface water in the ocean and the cold deep water, 100 to 200 meters below the surface. During the La Niña phase, warm water is blown to the western Pacific, and cold water is pulled up to the surface of the eastern Pacific. So, the thermocline is deeper in the west than the east:

    When an El Niño occurs, the thermocline flattens out:

  • "Oceanic Rossby waves" are very low-frequency waves in the ocean’s surface and thermocline. At the ocean’s surface they are only 5 centimeters high, but hundreds of kilometers across. They move at about 10 centimeters/second, requiring months to years to cross the ocean! The surface waves are mirrored by waves in the thermocline, which are much larger, 10-50 meters in height. When the surface goes up, the thermocline goes down.
  • The "Madden-Julian Oscillation" or "MJO" is the largest form of variability in the tropical atmosphere on time scales of 30-90 days. It’s a pulse that moves east across the Indian Ocean and Pacific ocean at 4-8 meters/second. It manifests itself as patches of anomalously high rainfall and also anomalously low rainfall. Strong Madden-Julian Oscillations are often seen 6-12 months before an El Niño starts.

With this bit of background, let’s read what Kessler wrote:

There are two main theories at present. The first is that the event is initiated by the reflection from the western boundary of the Pacific of an oceanic Rossby wave (type of low-frequency planetary wave that moves only west). The reflected wave is supposed to lower the thermocline in the west-central Pacific and thereby warm the SST [sea surface temperature] by reducing the efficiency of upwelling to cool the surface. Then that makes winds blow towards the (slightly) warmer water and really start the event. The nice part about this theory is that the Rossby waves can be observed for months before the reflection, which implies that El Niño is predictable.

The other idea is that the trigger is essentially random. The tropical convection (organized largescale thunderstorm activity) in the rising air tends to occur in bursts that last for about a month, and these bursts propagate out of the Indian Ocean (known as the Madden-Julian Oscillation). Since the storms are geostrophic (rotating according to the turning of the earth, which means they rotate clockwise in the southern hemisphere and counter-clockwise in the north), storm winds on the equator always blow towards the east. If the storms are strong enough, or last long enough, then those eastward winds may be enought to start the sloshing. But specific Madden-Julian Oscillation events are not predictable much in advance (just as specific weather events are not predictable in advance), and so to the extent that this is the main element, then El Niño will not be predictable.

In my opinion both these two processes can be important in different El Niños. Some models that did not have the MJO storms were successful in predicting the events of 1986-87 and 1991-92. That suggests that the Rossby wave part was a main influence at that time. But those same models have failed to predict the events since then, and the westerlies have appeared to come from nowhere. It is also quite possible that these two general sets of ideas are incomplete, and that there are other causes entirely. The fact that we have very intermittent skill at predicting the major turns of the ENSO cycle (as opposed to the very good forecasts that can be made once an event has begun) suggests that there remain important elements that are await explanation.

Next time I’ll talk a bit about mathematical models of the ENSO and another climate cycle — but please keep in mind that these cycles are still far from fully understood!


To hate is to study, to study is to understand, to understand is to appreciate, to appreciate is to love. So maybe I’ll end up loving your theory. – John Archibald Wheeler


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