Tag Archive: chaos theory


cnfusin rained and chas

Last time, we looked at a very simple atmospheric model known as the Lorenz equations, and saw it exhibit the ‘Butterfly Effect,’ in which even very small changes in initial conditions can dramatically effect which path the system takes. However, we also saw that the initial condition had a relatively small impact on the statistical properties of the system. Because climate is a statistical property of the earth system, asking
“How can we expect to predict future climate when we can’t predict the weather?”
is a lot like asking

“How can we claim to know the half-life of a radioactive element when we can’t predict when a given atom will decay?”

To those familiar with chaos, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Lorenz didn’t just discover apparent disorder in his model, but a deeper, eerie structure lurking in the noise.

The Lorenz Attractor: wibbly-wobbly mess of the millenium. Three simulation runs (red, green, blue) are shown; they start close together but quickly spin off on different trajectories, demonstrating sensitivity to initial conditions. Nonetheless, the trajectories quickly converge on an intricate structure in the phase space, called an 'attractor'. The attractor doesn't vary with initial conditions, but is instead a feature of the Lorenz equations themselves. Image generated with code from TitanLab - click to check them out :)

You may remember that the Lorenz equations relate three variables (X, Y, Z), which vary over time. In the above image, I’ve plotted the evolution of three runs of the Lorenz model by putting a dot at each (X(t), Y(t), Z(t)) coordinate, at every time t in the given interval. The three runs start very close together in this three-dimensional ‘phase space’, but quickly diverge.

However, despite their different individual behaviors, these runs are confined to a structure in phase space, known as the Lorenz attractor – an attractor, because all trajectories converge on it, regardless of their initial conditions. If you perturb the system by bouncing it off the attractor, it quickly settles back into the same loops through phase space. Lorenz (1963) described it: Continue reading

Last time, we saw that some mathematical systems are so sensitive to initial conditions that even very small uncertainties in their initial state can snowball, causing even very similar states to evolve very differently. The equations describing fluid turbulence are examples of such a system; Lorenz’s discovery of extreme sensitivity to initial conditions ended hopes for long term weather forecasting. Because the state of the weather can only be known so well, the small errors and uncertainties will quickly build up, rendering weather simulations useless for looking more than a few days ahead of time.

But Lorenz’s discovery doesn’t have much impact on climate modelling, contrary to the claims of some climate skuptix. Climate is not weather, and modelling is not forecasting.

Weather refers to the state of the atmosphere at a particular time and place: What temperature is it? Is it raining? How hard is the wind blowing, and in which direction? Climate, on the other hand, is defined in terms of the statistical behavior of these quantities:

“Climate in a narrow sense is usually defined as the average weather, or more rigorously, as the statistical description in terms of the mean and variability of relevant quantities over a period of time ranging from months to thousands or millions of years. [...] Climate change refers to a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g., by using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. ” IPCC

Many climate skuptik talking points derive from confusing these two quantities, in much the same way that a gambler might win a few hands of poker and decide that they are on a roll.

Although it is generally not possible to predict a specific future state of the weather (there is no telling what temperature it will be in Oregon on December 21 2012), it is still possible to make statistical claims about the climate (it is very likely that Oregon’s December 2012 temperatures will be colder than its July 2012 temperatures). It is very likely that the reverse will be true in New Zealand. It is safe to conclude that precipitation will be more frequent in the Amazon than in the Sahara, even if you can’t tell exactly when and where that rain will fall.

In fact, Lorenz’s groundbreaking paper, ‘Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow’, would seem to endorse this sort of statistical approach to understanding fluid dynamics:

“Because instantaneous turbulent flow patterns are so irregular, attention is often confined to the statistics of turbulence, which, in contrast to the details of turbulence, often behave in a regular well-organized manner.” (Lorenz 1963)

Let’s take a closer look.

Fig. 1. Three solutions of the Lorenz equations, starting at virtually identical points. Although the solutions are similar at first, they rapidly decouple around T=12.

The Lorenz equations consist of three variables describing turbulent fluid flow (X,Y, and Z), and three controlling parameters (r, b, and s). The equations are differential equations, meaning that a variable is described in terms of how it changes over time- saying ‘Johnny is driving west at 60 miles per hour’ is a simple differential equation. In order to solve a DiffEq, you need an initial condition – “Johnny started in Chicago” is an initial condition; without knowing that, you can’t say where she will be after driving for three hours. Continue reading

Regarding climate models, physician and science fiction writer Michael Crichton had this to say:

“Since climate may be a chaotic system—no one is sure—these predictions are inherently doubtful, to be polite.” (Aliens Cause Global Warming)

What does he mean when he says that climate may be chaotic, and what impact does this have on climate modelling?

Flash back to the early 1960s. Meteorologist Edward Lorenz was studying a bare-bones weather model, consisting of three differential equations. Give the model an initial state and the differential equations would describe how the state changes over time, in much the same way that you can predict where Johnny will be in three hours’ time, given that he starts in Chicago and is driving west at 60 miles per hour. The hope was that with a big enough computer, a powerful enough model, and an accurately measured state of the atmosphere, the weather could one day be predicted far in advance.

Lorenz, the story goes, found a run of the model which interested him, and sat down to replay the simulation. He entered the initial conditions and set the model in motion, only to watch in bewilderment as the replay rapidly diverged from the original simulation.

"From nearly the same starting point, Edward Lorenz saw his computer weather produce patterns that grew farther and farther apart until all resemblance disappeared" (Image and caption from Chaos: Making a New Science, by James Gleick, 1987, p.17)

Lorenz tore his code apart looking for the error, only to realise that the error had been in his assumptions. In a distinctly Crichtonesque twist, the computer worked with numbers to six decimal places (0.123456) but only printed out values to three decimal places (0.123) in order to save space. It was these shortened number which Lorenz entered as the initial conditions for his model. Surely those last digits were inconsequential; after all, they were but a few hundred parts per million, comparable to the atmospheric concentration of the trace gas carbon dioxide.

Oh, but the consequences! Its roots stretched back to earlier anomalies and the term ‘chaos’ would not be introduced for another decade, but it was Lorenz’s observation which heralded the beginnings of chaos theory.

Lorenz had discovered that even very small changes in the state of a chaotic system can quickly and radically change the way that the system develops over time. This property is known as extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, also called the ‘Butterfly Effect’ because it suggested neglecting an event as small as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings could be enough to derail a weather forecast. There is more to chaotic systems than the Butterfly Effect, but this characteristic is one of their best know properties. Lorenz’s work put and end to hopes of long-term weather forecasting. The state of the atmosphere could only be known so well, and even the smallest of imprecisions would lead the simulations to catastrophic failure.

‘Nobody believes a weather prediction twelve hours ahead. Now we’re asked to believe a prediction that goes out 100 years into the future? And make financial investments based on that prediction? Has everybody lost their minds?’ – Crichton

But does chaos theory signal doom for climate modelling? Stay tuned for part II….

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