NASA Scientists Draw on Emergence Theory to Predict Climate Change

THE PHYSICS THAT WE KNOW: A Conversation with Gavin Schmidt, courtesy of Edge

THE PHYSICS THAT WE KNOW: A Conversation with Gavin Schmidt, courtesy of Edge

How do you prepare for something that cannot be predicted? This is a major challenge for sustainability with respect to climate change. The best we can do is use what information we have now and employ our best understanding of world systems and processes to find probable future outcomes and prepare accordingly.

Predicting climate change with confidence is crucial to achieving sustainability. Credible predictions of future conditions provide the thrust behind planning and decision making like how close to the coast development should be allowed in a city, for example. It is difficult to argue that certain types of development should be prevented because it is merely a possibility that something may happen (e.g., rapid sea level rise) especially when an individual, community, or city has something to gain from the development.

At NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, climate scientists are searching for emergent phenomena (or properties) in climatic systems to predict global climate change scenarios. Emergent phenomena can be thought of as high-level (macro-scale) simplicity that ’emerges’ from low-level (micro-scale) complexity. In an Edge interview (below), Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climatologist, discusses his approach to finding emergent properties in computer models in an attempt to predict climate change with confidence.

Emergent phenomena (qualities such as solidity, wetness, thoughts, etc.) make it possible to comprehend the behavior of complex systems and navigate the world successfully. People have become experts at predicting things that are familiar “on the ground” in our environment, but identifying emergent phenomena of larger, slower scale systems, such as climate change, so far has been a daunting challenge. I try to think of the difficulty involved by imagining being the size of an electron trying to understand that a quality called “wetness” is occuring by merely observing the behavior of individual water molecules, and then trying to predict how the water will flow according to that property (slow down time to make it even more analogous). Finding emergent phenomena in the world climate system will be difficult, but I think it is necessary to prepare for the future and secure sustainable conditions.


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