Wise Wizard Weighs in on Climate Change in Middle Earth

Some climate scientists are using humor and fantasy to combat the dark forces of ignorance and denialism.

Published January 16, 2014

Wise Wizard Weighs in on Climate Change in Middle Earth

Climate science can be frustratingly difficult to understand for the uninitiated. Debate is often drawn along politicized lines, with vitriol and smear tactics sometimes casting doubt on scientific consensus. The accuracy of climate models is frequently called into question, and this can be a tricky point for science communicators to rebut because most non-scientists don't completely understand how these models work. (For a good introduction, see this article at Skeptical Science.)

Recently, climate scientists have made a few fun moves to close the gap between their work and the general public, using humor to make climate modeling and other climate research methodologies a little more accessible. Riffing off the word "model," scientists from the International Research for Climate and Society and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory posed for a climate science calendar. "From researchers studying tree rings to tracking satellite data, the calendar surveys the wide range of approaches that are being used to understand and predict climate change," explains this Tree Hugger article, which features video interviews with some of the scientists involved in the project.

Across the pond, University of Bristol climate change researcher Dr. Dan Lunt used the supercomputers at the Advanced Computing Research Centre to model the climate of JRR Tolkien's Middle Earth. (Apparently, Los Angeles is a lot like Mount Doom.)

The actual, scientific goal of Lunt's project was to simulate and compare modern-day Earth to Earth from the Cretaceous period. The study of past climates helps us better understand the processes that brought us to where we are. It also helps climate scientists to make better predictions about the future by vetting models against known geological history.

The analysis and interpretation of ancient climates involves modeling an Earth that would seem alien today. "The continents were in very different positions, as were the mountains and the ocean floor very different," explains Dr. Lunt. "So, we're used to moving things around in the models to simulate worlds that are very different than our own. It seemed natural to additionally simulate a fantasy world to try to catch people's imagination while discussing serious points about climate science."

The results of the Middle Earth-Modern Earth-Cretaceous Earth models are described in a mock paper on the project published under the pseudonym Radagast the Brown, a sort of magical environmentalist wizard friend of Gandalf's. "The serious side is that the climate models I used, and those [other models] out there, are actually based on our fundamental understanding of science, of fluid mechanics, fluid motion, the science of convection in clouds, radiation from the sun, and the science of biology," Lunt says. "Because of that, they're not just tuned for the modern earth, they can simulate any climate."

Listen to Dr. Lunt, a.k.a. Radagast the Brown, clarify the methodologies of climate science and some of the findings of the last Intergovernmental (or "Interkingdom") Panel on Climate Change report to an angry Uruk-hai Middle Earth warming denialist in this podcast.

 


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