SWEET Team Blog 3, November 2018

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Charlie – Controlling the world one mouse click at a time – PART 1

As a direct response to the previous blog post by Stephanie, I personally am very much NOT looking forward to the autumnal and winter season and, on a purely selfish note, could happily imagine the UK at 30°C in October! Unfortunately, though, although I might be nice and warm, the risks to life massively outweigh the benefits, and so we need to do everything we can to prevent the current rise in global temperatures. In order to predict the future, we need to better understand the present and the past – that’s where I come in.

My name is Dr Charlie Williams and I am a Climate Scientist (sometimes referred to as a Climatologist). At this stage I usually get asked what the weather will be like tomorrow, but there is an important difference between “weather” and “climate”. Whereas “weather” refers to particular and individual events, such as rain in Bristol this afternoon, “climate” refers to AVERAGE weather. The weather can be averaged either over time (we all know that, on average, July is warmer in the UK than January) or over space (we all know that, on average, south-east England is warmer than Scotland). Climate generally refers to weather that has been average over long periods of time, such as hundreds, thousands or even millions of years. So, whilst I can confidently tell you what the climate was like several million years ago or what it might be like by the end of the 21st century, when it comes to next week, I rely on the weather forecast just like everyone else!

Throughout my career I have studied various aspects of the climate, and I appear to be travelling back in time as my career moves forwards. I started by looking at present-day climate, especially over Africa, and how the rainfall varies year-to-year or season-to-season. My work then travelled back in time to approximately 6000 years ago, a time during which the Sahara was a lush and rich rainforest supporting all sorts of life, including early humans. More recently, my work has travelled back in time still further, and I now focus on a period in the distant past called the early Eocene – approximately 55 million years ago, when the Earth’s temperature was significantly higher than today and Antarctica was covered in vegetation. In fact there was no permanent ice anywhere on the planet.

As a Research Fellow for the Super-Warm Early Eocene Temperatures (SWEET) project, my primary job is as a Climate Modeller. This means I use a very powerful supercomputer to simulate, or “model”, the Earth – essentially a very complex computer program, with billions of lines of code and equations, which breaks down the world into three-dimensional boxes (see image on the right) and then, in each box, works out what we think the climate might have looked like 55 million years ago. I can change this computer program as I see fit, such as increasing the CO2 emissions or changing the vegetation in certain boxes – hence my blog title of controlling the world (albeit an imaginary one) with just my mouse. I then compare my simulation with data collected by other people – if my imaginary world matches what the data say, then great. If not, then I go back to the drawing board and make a few more tweaks.

Before this, however, my first task is to get my imaginary world working in the first place! The computer program is currently based on a modern-day world, with present-day continents, ocean currents, vegetation etc. Imagine, however, having to change everything so that the computer program is instead based on an early Eocene world (see image on the left where, for example, India was a massive island and there were no Himalayas)? How am I going to fundamentally change the code, line by line, to represent this strange old world?

Find out the answer (possibly!) in the second part of Charlie’s blog, coming soon.

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