Mathematics of the Environment (Part 2)

Here are some notes for the second session of my seminar. They are shamelessly borrowed from these sources:

• Tim van Beek, Putting the Earth In a Box, Azimuth, 19 June 2011.

Climate model, Azimuth Library.

Climate models

Though it’s not my central concern in this class, we should talk a little about climate models.

There are many levels of sophistication when it comes to climate models. It is wise to start with simple, not very realistic models before ascending to complicated, supposedly more realistic ones. This is true in every branch of math or physics: working with simple models gives you insights that are crucial for correctly handling more complicated models. You shouldn’t fly a fighter jet if you haven’t tried something simpler yet, like a bicycle: you’ll probably crash and burn.

As I mentioned last time, models in biology, ecology and climate science pose new challenges compared to models of the simpler systems that physicists like best. As Chris Lee emphasizes, biology inherently deals with ‘high data’ systems where the relevant information can rarely be captured in a few variables, or even a few field equations.

(Field theories involve infinitely many variables, but somehow the ones physicists like best allow us to make a small finite number of measurements and extract a prediction from them! It would be nice to understand this more formally. In quantum field theory, the ‘nice’ field theories are called ‘renormalizable’, but a similar issue shows up classically, as we’ll see in a second.)

The climate system is in part a system that feels like ‘physics’: the flow of air in the atmosphere and water in the ocean. But some of the equations here, for example the Navier–Stokes equations, are already ‘nasty’ by the standards of mathematical physics, since the existence of solutions over long periods of time has not been proved. This is related to ‘turbulence’, a process where information at one length scale can significantly affect information at another dramatically different length scale, making precise predictions difficult.

Climate prediction is, we hope and believe, somewhat insulated from the challenges of weather prediction: we can hope to know the average temperature of the Earth within a degree or two in 5 years even though we don’t know whether it will rain in Manhattan on October 8, 2017. But this hope is something that needs to be studied, not something we can take for granted.

On top of this, the climate is, quite crucially, a biological system. Plant and animal life really affects the climate, as well as being affected by it. So, for example, a really detailed climate model may have a portion specially devoted to the behavior of plankton in the Mediterranean. This means that climate models will never be as ‘neat and clean’ as physicists and mathematicians tend to want—at least, not if these models are trying to be truly realistic. And as I suggested last time, this general type of challenge—the challenge posed by biosystems too complex to precisely model—may ultimately push mathematics in very new directions.

I call this green mathematics, without claiming I know what it will be like. The term is mainly an incitement to think big. I wrote a little about it here.

However, being a bit of an old-fashioned mathematician myself, I’ll start by talking about some very simple climate models, gradually leading up to some interesting puzzles about the ‘ice ages’ or, more properly, ‘glacial cycles’ that have been pestering the Earth for the last 20 million years or so. First, though, let’s take a quick look at the hierarchy of different climate models.

Different kinds of climate models

Zero-dimensional models are like theories of classical mechanics instead of classical field theory. In other words, they only consider with globally averaged quantities, like the average temperature of the Earth, or perhaps regionally averaged quantities, like the average temperature of each ocean and each continent. This sounds silly, but it’s a great place to start. It amounts to dealing with finitely many variables depending on time:

We might assume these obey a differential equation, which we can always make first-order by introducing extra variables:

This kind of model is studied quite generally in the subject of dynamical systems theory.

In particular, energy balance models try to predict the average surface temperature of the Earth depending on the energy flow. Energy comes in from the Sun and is radiated to outer space by the Earth. What happens in between is modeled by averaged feedback equations.

The Earth has various approximately conserved quantities like the total amount of carbon, or oxygen, or nitrogen—radioactive decay creates and destroys these elements, but it’s pretty negligible in climate physics. So, these things move around from one form to another. We can imagine a model where some of our variables are the amounts of carbon in the air, or in the soil, or in the ocean—different ‘boxes’, abstractly speaking. It will flow from one box to another in a way that depends on various other variables in our model. This idea gives class of models called box models.

Here’s one described by Nathan Urban in “week304” of This Week’s Finds:

I’m interested in box models because they’re a simple example of ‘networked systems’: we’ve got boxes hooked up by wires, or pipes, and we can imagine a big complicated model formed by gluing together smaller models, attaching the wires from one to the wires of another. We can use category theory to formalize this. In category theory we’d call these smaller models ‘morphisms’, and the process of gluing them together is called ‘composing’ them. I’ll talk about this a lot more someday.

One-dimensional models treat temperature and perhaps other quantities as a function of one spatial coordinate (in addition to time): for example, the altitude. This lets us include one dimensional processes of heat transport in the model, like radiation and (a very simplified model of) convection.

Two-dimensional models treat temperature and other quantities as a function of two spatial coordinates (and time): for example, altitude and latitude. Alternatively, we could treat the atmosphere as a thin layer and think of temperature at some fixed altitude as a function of latitude and longitude!

Three-dimensional models treat temperature and other quantities as a function of all three spatial coordinates. At this point we can, if we like, use the full-fledged Navier–Stokes equations to describe the motion of air in the atmosphere and water in the ocean. Needless to say, these models can become very complex and computation-intensive, depending on how many effects we want to take into account and at what resolution we wish to model the atmosphere and ocean.

General circulation models or GCMs try to model the circulation of the atmosphere and/or ocean.

Atmospheric GCMs or AGCMs model the atmosphere and typically contain a land-surface model, while imposing some boundary conditions describing sea surface temperatures. Oceanic GCMs or OGCMs model the ocean (with fluxes from the atmosphere imposed) and may or may not contain a sea ice model. Coupled atmosphere–ocean GCMs or AOGCMs do both atmosphere and ocean. These the basis for detailed predictions of future climate, such as are discussed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC.

• Backing down a bit, we can consider Earth models of intermediate complexity or EMICs. These might have a 3-dimensional atmosphere and a 2-dimensional ‘slab ocean’, or a 3d ocean and an energy-moisture balance atmosphere.

• Alternatively, we can consider regional circulation models or RCMs. These are limited-area models that can be run at higher resolution than the GCMs and are thus able to better represent fine-grained phenomena, including processes resulting from finer-scale topographic and land-surface features. Typically the regional atmospheric model is run while receiving lateral boundary condition inputs from a relatively-coarse resolution atmospheric analysis model or from the output of a GCM. As Michael Knap pointed out in class, there’s again something from network theory going on here: we are ‘gluing in’ the RCM into a ‘hole’ cut out of a GCM.

Modern GCMs as used in the 2007 IPCC report tended to run around 100-kilometer resolution. Individual clouds can only start to be resolved at about 10 kilometers or below. One way to deal with this is to take the output of higher resolution regional climate models and use it to adjust parameters, etcetera, in GCMs.

The hierarchy of climate models

The climate scientist Isaac Held has a great article about the hierarchy of climate models:

• Isaac Held, The gap between simulation and understanding in climate modeling, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (November 2005), 1609–1614.

In it, he writes:

The importance of such a hierarchy for climate modeling and studies of atmospheric and oceanic dynamics has often been emphasized. See, for example, Schneider and Dickinson (1974), and, especially, Hoskins (1983). But, despite notable exceptions in a few subfields, climate theory has not, in my opinion, been very successful at hierarchy construction. I do not mean to imply that important work has not been performed, of course, but only that the gap between comprehensive climate models and more idealized models has not been successfully closed.

Consider, by analogy, another field that must deal with exceedingly complex systems—molecular biology. How is it that biologists have made such dramatic and steady progress in sorting out the human genome and the interactions of the thousands of proteins of which we are constructed? Without doubt, one key has been that nature has provided us with a hierarchy of biological systems of increasing complexity that are amenable to experimental manipulation, ranging from bacteria to fruit fly to mouse to man. Furthermore, the nature of evolution assures us that much of what we learn from simpler organisms is directly relevant to deciphering the workings of their more complex relatives. What good fortune for biologists to be presented with precisely the kind of hierarchy needed to understand a complex system! Imagine how much progress would have been made if they were limited to studying man alone.

Unfortunately, Nature has not provided us with simpler climate systems that form such a beautiful hierarchy. Planetary atmospheres provide insights into the range of behaviors that are possible, but the known planetary atmospheres are few, and each has its own idiosyncrasies. Their study has connected to terrestrial climate theory on occasion, but the influence has not been systematic. Laboratory simulations of rotating and/or convecting fluids remain valuable and underutilized, but they cannot address our most complex problems. We are left with the necessity of constructing our own hierarchies of climate models.

Because nature has provided the biological hierarchy, it is much easier to focus the attention of biologists on a few representatives of the key evolutionary steps toward greater complexity. And, such a focus is central to success. If every molecular biologist had simply studied his or her own favorite bacterium or insect, rather than focusing so intensively on E. coli or Drosophila melanogaster, it is safe to assume that progress would have been far less rapid.

It is emblematic of our problem that studying the biological hierarchy is experimental science, while constructing and studying climate hierarchies is theoretical science. A biologist need not convince her colleagues that the model organism she is advocating for intensive study is well designed or well posed, but only that it fills an important niche in the hierarchy of complexity and that it is convenient for study. Climate theorists are faced with the difficult task of both constructing a hierarchy of models and somehow focusing the attention of the community on a few of these models so that our efforts accumulate efficiently. Even if one believes that one has defined the E. coli of climate models, it is difficult to energize (and fund) a significant number of researchers to take this model seriously and devote years to its study.

And yet, despite the extra burden of trying to create a consensus as to what the appropriate climate model hierarchies are, the construction of such hierarchies must, I believe, be a central goal of climate theory in the twenty-first century. There are no alternatives if we want to understand the climate system and our
comprehensive climate models. Our understanding will be embedded within these hierarchies.

It is possible that mathematicians, with a lot of training from climate scientists, have the sort of patience and delight in ‘study for study’s sake’ to study this hierarchy of models. Here’s one that Held calls ‘the fruit fly of climate models’:

For more, see:

• Isaac Held, The fruit fly of climate models.

The very simplest model

The very simplest model is a zero-dimensional energy balance model. In this model we treat the Earth as having just one degree of freedom—its temperature—and we treat it as a blackbody in equilibrium with the radiation coming from the Sun.

A black body is an object that perfectly absorbs and therefore also perfectly emits all electromagnetic radiation at all frequencies. Real bodies don’t have this property; instead, they absorb radiation at certain frequencies better than others, and some not at all. But there are materials that do come rather close to a black body. Usually one adds another assumption to the characterization of an ideal black body: namely, that the radiation is independent of the direction.

When the black body has a certain temperature it will emit electromagnetic radiation, so it will send out a certain amount of energy per second for every square meter of surface area. We will call this the energy flux and denote this as The SI unit for is W/m2: that is, watts per square meter. Here the watt is a unit of energy per time.

Electromagnetic radiation comes in different wavelengths. So, can ask how much energy flux our black body emits per change in wavelength. This depends on the wavelength. We will call this the monochromatic energy flux The SI unit for is W/m2μm, where μm stands for micrometer: a millionth of a meter, which is a unit of wavelength. We call the ‘monochromatic’ energy flux because it gives a number for any fixed wavelength When we integrate the monochromatic energy flux over all wavelengths, we get the energy flux

Max Planck was able to calculate for a blackbody at temperature but only by inventing a bit of quantum mechanics. His result is called the Planck distribution: if

where is Planck’s constant, is the speed of light, and is Boltzmann’s constant. Deriving this would be tons of fun, but also a huge digression from the point of this class.

You can integrate over all wavelengths to get the total energy flux—that is, the total power per square meter emitted by a blackbody. The answer is surprisingly simple: if the total energy flux is defined by

then in fact we can do the integral and get

for some constant This fact is called the Stefan–Boltzmann law, and is called the Stefan-Boltzmann constant:

Using this formula, we can assign to every energy flux a black body temperature which is the temperature that an ideal black body would need to have to emit

Let’s use this to calculate the temperature of the Earth in this simple model! A planet like Earth gets energy from the Sun and loses energy by radiating to space. Since the Earth sits in empty space, these two processes are the only relevant ones that describe the energy flow.

The sunshine near Earth carries an energy flux of about 1370 watts per square meter. If the temperature of the Earth is constant, as much energy is coming in as going out. So, we might try to balance the incoming energy flux with the outgoing flux of a blackbody at temperature :

and then solve for :

We’re making a big mistake here. Do you see what it is? But let’s go ahead and see what we get. As mentioned, the Stefan–Boltzmann constant has a value of

so we get

This is much too hot! Remember, this temperature is in kelvin, so we need to subtract 273 to get Celsius. Doing so, we get a temperature of 121 °C. This is above the boiling point of water!

Do you see what we did wrong? We neglected a phenomenon known as night. The Earth emits infrared radiation in all directions, but it only absorbs sunlight on the daytime side. Our calculation would be correct if the Earth were a flat disk of perfectly black stuff facing the Sun and perfectly insulated on the back so that it could only emit infrared radiation over the same area that absorbs sunlight! But in fact emission takes place over a larger area than absorption. This makes the Earth cooler.

To get the right answer, we need to take into account the fact that the Earth is round. But just for fun, let’s see how well a flat Earth theory does. A few climate skeptics may even believe this theory. Suppose the Earth were a flat disk of radius made of black stuff facing the Sun but not insulated on back. Then it would absorb power equal to

since the area of the disk is but it would emit power equal to

since it emits from both the front and back. Setting these equal, we now get


This reduces the temperature by a factor of from our previous estimate. So now the temperature works out to be less:

But this is still too hot! It’s 58 °C, or 136 °F for you Americans out there who don’t have a good intuition for Celsius.

So, a flat black Earth facing the Sun would be a very hot Earth.

But now let’s stop goofing around and do the calculation with a round Earth. Now it absorbs a beam of sunlight with area equal to its cross-section, a circle of area But it emits infrared over its whole area of : four times as much. So now we get

so the temperature is reduced by a further factor of We get

That’s 6 °C. Not bad for a crude approximation! Amusingly, it’s crucial that the area of a sphere is 4 times the area of a circle of the same radius. The question if there is some deeper reason for this simple relation was posed as a geometry puzzle here on Azimuth.

I hope my clowning around hasn’t distracted you from the main point. On average our simplified blackbody Earth absorbs 1370/4 = 342.5 watts of solar power per square meter. So, that’s how much infrared radiation it has to emit. If you can imagine how much heat a 60-watt bulb puts out when it’s surrounded by black paper, we’re saying our simplified Earth emits about 6 times that heat per square meter.

The second simplest climate model

The next step is to take into account the ‘albedo’ of the Earth. The albedo is the fraction of radiation that is instantly reflected without being absorbed. The albedo of a surface does depend on the material of the surface, and in particular on the wavelength of the radiation, of course. But in a first approximation for the average albedo of earth we can take:

This means that 30% of the radiation is instantly reflected and only 70% contributes to heating earth. So, instead of getting heated by an average of 342.5 watts per square meter of sunlight, let’s assume it’s heated by

watts per square meter. Now we get a temperature of

This is -18 °C. The average temperature of earth is actually estimated to be considerably warmer: about +15 °C. This should not be a surprise: after all, 70% of the planet is covered by liquid water! This is an indication that the average temperature is most probably not below the freezing point of water.

So, our new ‘improved’ calculation gives a worse agreement with reality. The actual Earth is roughly 33 kelvin warmer than our model Earth! What’s wrong?

The main explanation for the discrepancy seems to be: our model Earth doesn’t have an atmosphere yet! Thanks in part to greenhouse gases like water vapor and carbon dioxide, sunlight at visible frequencies can get into the atmosphere more easily than infrared radiation can get out. This warms the Earth. This, in a nutshell, is why dumping a lot of extra carbon dioxide into the air can change our climate. But of course we’ll need to turn to more detailed models, or experimental data, to see how strong this effect is.

Besides the greenhouse effect, there are many other things our ultra-simplified model leaves out: everything associated to the atmosphere and oceans, such as weather, clouds, the altitude-dependence of the temperature of the atmosphere… and also the way the albedo of the Earth depends on location and even on temperature and other factors. There is much much more to say about all this… but not today!