the announced follow-up overview of NCSU’s MEAS Dept.

July 21 update: Dr Robinson’s pres courtesy copy

At the invitation of UT’s Department of Physics, Atmospheric Physics Research Group, Dr Walter Robinson, Professor at the Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, North Carolina State University, presented a talk entitled “It’s All Connected: Model Biases, Gravity Waves, and the Dynamics of General Circulation”.

Dr Paul Kushner, formerly of GFDL, Prinston University, currently professor of Physics, UT, acted as host of the talk.

CONGRATULATIONS to him and his student, Lei Wang, for the successful thesis defence, which preceded the lecture!!!

After the talk, Lei Wang, theoretical physics no-longer-GS (!), and Yonggang Liu, paleo-physics GS, kindly provided useful pointers where to look for what I’m interested in – climate modelling heuristics, climate science for policy making, science~general public epistemic exchanges. We shared the observation that due to the tug-and-pull of specialization and genericity, it is not at all easy for a student (obviously, for a well established prof, too!!!) to go in sufficient depth for their research to “count”, while also obtaining at least a bird’s eye view of “hot topics” on the broader terrain of science. E.g., not all theoretical physicists would have more than an inkling of climate modelling, which is also a legit topic in theo phys. Neither would paleo physicists necessarily be ardent climate model developers, “training” a model to put out data that match the available record, however partial.

In anticipation of a courtesy copy of the PPt for the talk, I’m pasting the abstract below. [July 8 add-on: A few precious slides toward the end of the presentation, which deal with issues Dr Robinson officially labelled “general”, and during the pres referred to as “philosophical”, would be really good to link to! Right up ES’s alley, as already explored in a short series of posts commencing with <a href=”“Notes on Dr Balaji’s Talk…” .]


As global models evolve from climate models into Earth-system models, it is generally assumed that the basic dynamics of Earth’s fluids are simulated well. There remain, however, persistent biases in how models represent the dynamics of Earth’s atmosphere, even on the largest and putatively well-resolved scales. Thus, the development of better Earth-system models requires continued attention to how they represent the basic dynamics of the atmosphere and the ocean, at the same time that novel new processes are introduced. The best possible treatment of a biogeochemical process will likely fail if driven by erroneous dynamics.
No process in an Earth-system model is less glamorous than the extratropical zonal winds and their maintenance, yet significant model biases in zonal winds remain. These can be traced to uncertainties in gravity-wave drag, a which is poorly observed and understood but which plays a crucial role in the momentum budget of the atmosphere. Model zonal winds are sensitive to small errors in gravity-wave drag, for reasons that have only recently been understood and that will be elucidated in this seminar.
Failing to offer an immediate solution to this problem, a less hubristic approach to Earth-system modeling than that currently in vogue will be advocated.

I brought to the lecture my usual research questions:

  • Jim Hansen’s point about the impossibility for climate models to capture climate sensitivity, since there may (in his book, will) always be feedbacks we do not know about (The Storms of My Grandchildren, 2009; for the precise quote(s), see ES post Notes on Dr Balaji’s Talk, section Re the Computational Complexity of Models).
  • Uncertainty of climate forecasting (NB! which is NOT weather forecasting) as a routine factor in “doing climate science”
  • The importance of the ability of scientists to convey to the general public and policy makers that “uncertainty” IS NOT “unreliability” of science! To quote Dr Robinson, “We should be honest about uncertainty… It is a uniquely challenging problem that society is expecting us to do [me: in view of the implications for policy decisions invloving astronomical investments]”. I’d add, key players on the national and international politics scene to this day justify, e.g., not including climate change on the agendas of the June 2010 G8 and G20 meetings with scientists themselves not being “sure” Cf. post-G20 CBC interviews with former cabinet ministers of Canada!
  • The importance of educating non-climatologists [including scientists!] how to determine if they are being served “good” science, or politics-driven talking points (cf. James Hoggan’s exemplary investigative journalism account on the subject)
  • The ES audience can also expect some more text on the interdisicplinarity & collaboration profile of NCSU’s Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, including their Climate Modelling Lab. Same as what I did for Prinston’s GFDL. (See post a-whole-prof-all-to-yourself-enviro-edu-prinstonu)