In Lesson 9 I make a common mistake of describing scientific progress in terms of increasing complexity. I explained about “early” climate models that were energy balance models, “later” climate models that included the circulation/convection of the atmosphere and ocean and “modern” climate models that include all these things and also chemistry and biology.
Since I wrote that I’ve been realising that this, while a nice “story”, is not really true. Because I am writing these blog posts and then scheduling them for publication a few days later, I realised I could edit the previous lesson before it was published, or write this follow on post. I went for the latter option, because I think the “nice story” is easier to follow. I guess in that way it’s like the model itself – the nice story of a progression of complexity is a simple model of the history of climate modelling and one that is very helpful to explain why models have got better over time. The nice story models some “big picture” stuff, but gets a lot of details wrong. A fuller story will describe the detail more accurately, but will be messier and we’ll lose information. We’ll be “unable to see the wood for the trees” – metaphorically in the case of how I tell the history.
Being literally “unable to see the wood for the trees” is one of the reasons why we still use simple climate models today. A thorough modelling of all the details can sometimes lose something. Earlier in my career I came across the concept of the “missing sunlight” – what this was telling us was that the detailed modelling of where incoming sunlight went (some reflected from clouds, some from the surface, UV parts absorbed by the ozone layer, some lines absorbed by atmospheric gases, some absorbed by the surface to heat up the Earth …) didn’t add up to what the big picture model of “energy in = energy out” was saying. In our forest, the treatment of individual trees misses some of the interactions between trees. There’s a similar “missing water” problem in the Amazon rainforest where the total rainfall seemed twice as big as the outflow of water from the Amazon river system. Later it was realised that water wasn’t just evaporating from the rivers and oceans, it was also evaporating from leaves and being released by trees – and that water was raining down again: a large proportion of the rain was recycled.
For all these reasons, simpler climate models have a very important part to play in modern climate research. They help us understand the processes and test the complex models, they allow for faster “experimental” tests of different processes. They make sure we continue to see the wood as well as the trees.
Conversely, the first attempt at a fully integrated climate model that considered many different complex interactions and treated the calculations in a three dimensional way, was in the 1950s. Computer power was considerably poorer then, and the models were less sophisticated in some ways, but there was an attempt to model all the interactions together.