My Research with Steve

Almost four years ago I took a job as a summer student of Dr. Steve Easterbrook, in the software engineering lab of the University of Toronto. This was my first time taking part in research, but also my first time living away from home and my first time using a Unix terminal (both of which are challenging, but immensely rewarding, life skills).

While working with Steve I discovered that climate model output is really pretty (an opinion which hasn’t changed in the four years since) and that climate models are really hard to install (that hasn’t changed either).

At Steve’s suggestion I got a hold of the code for various climate models and started to pick it apart. By the end of the summer I had created a series of standardised diagrams showing the software architecture of each model.

These diagrams proved to be really useful communication tools: we presented our work at AGU the following December, and at NCAR about a year after that, to very positive feedback. Many climate modellers we met at these conferences were pleased to have a software diagram of the model they used (which is very useful to show during presentations), but they were generally more interested in the diagrams for other models, to see how other research groups used different software structures to solve the same problems. “I had no idea they did it like that,” was a remark I heard more than a few times.

Between my undergrad and PhD, I went back to Toronto for a month where I analysed the model code more rigorously. We made a new set of diagrams which was more accurate: the code was sorted into components based on dependency structure, and the area of each component in a given diagram was exactly proportional to the line count of its source code.

Here is the diagram we made for the GFDL-ESM2M model, which is developed at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton:

We wrote this all up into a paper, submitted it to GMD, and after several months and several rounds of revision it was published just yesterday! The paper is open access, and can be downloaded for free here. It’s my first paper as lead author which is pretty exciting.

I could go on about all the interesting things we discovered while comparing the diagrams, but that’s all in the paper. Instead I wanted to talk about what’s not in the paper: the story of the long and winding journey we took to get there, from my first day as a nervous summer student in Toronto to the final publication yesterday. These are the stories you don’t read about in scientific papers, which out of necessity detail the methodology as if the authors knew exactly where they were going and got there using the shortest possible path. Science doesn’t often work like that. Science is about messing around and exploring and getting a bit lost and eventually figuring it out and feeling like a superhero when you do. And then writing it up as if it was easy.

I also wanted to express my gratitude to Steve, who has been an amazing source of support, advice, conversations, book recommendations, introductions to scientists, and career advice. I’m so happy that I got to be your student. See you before long on one continent or another!


6 thoughts on “My Research with Steve

  1. Coupling *all* the ocean through the sea ice model seems pretty weird and on the surface of it, unphysical (though its nice to be able to see this clearly in the pic). Presumably though this is hiding the fact taht the sea ice model, for areas of no ice, is passing the fluxes straight through itself?

    • Yes, the sea ice component acts as an interface between the atmosphere and the ocean which may or may not contain ice. If there is no ice the air-sea fluxes are unmodified.

  2. Does your most excellent definition for science serve for art as well? Your diagram is beautiful work.

    “Suggestions Copied from the Main” was me explaining how to prove we are responsible by using Mathematics. I think the video near the bottom showing satellite imagery for 2006 qualifies as more excellent work that is also both science and art ( = sci-art?… as in sci-art to death? or at least sci-art enough to Change to Prevent Change?).

    Thanks for your work as a sci-art-ist…promoting interest in what is relevant.

  3. It’s the clocking when you couple systems that makes for messes like these. Even if co-designed, the component models necessarily have different time steps.

    Not only is it a kluge to make the ice the main(), as far as I understand nobody has investigated the dynamic implications of various coupling strategies and I haven’t totally convinced myself that this isn’t, as NCAR’s infelicitous jargon would have it, “answer-changing”.

  4. Dear Kate,

    If you want to become a world renowned Climate Scientist, you may consider training your Climate Change computer models on:

    “Indeed, scientists have discovered a simple statistic that underscores the scale of the potential problem: There may be more than twice as much carbon contained in northern permafrost as there is in the atmosphere itself. That’s a staggering thought.”

    “Greenhouse gas emissions rise at fastest rate for 30 years”

    There seems to be much confusion about the effects of CH4 in the atmosphere. Some say it is 100 times worse than CO2 and others say 10 times worse. Some say CH4 is here today and gone tomorrow. This much I know: CH4 is combustible and will readily combine with oxygen to form CO2 and H2O. I’m not a chemist so I don’t know the exact rates of CH4 conversion, but I would guess that conversion rates are higher where UV radiation and lightening are more prevalent. UV radiation and lightening are less intense and less frequent in the Arctic, exactly where CH4 release from melting permafrost may dramatically increase in coming decades, exactly where atmospheric CH4 may do the most damage.

    When some scientists say CH4 is 100 times worse than CO2 and others say 10 times worse, I agree. When some scientists say CH4 remains in the atmosphere only a few years and other say decades, I agree. But when scientists say that CH4 is not as dangerous as CO2 I don’t agree. I believe that Climate Scientists have a good handle on the rates at which CH4 converts to CO2 everywhere, and my guess is that CH4 conversion rates over the Arctic may be the smallest, exactly where permafrost CH4 releases may be increasing exponentially in the coming decades. My guess is that over the Arctic, CH4 in the atmosphere will be 100 times worse than CO2, precisely where CH4 is being released at the highest rates. My guess is that runaway CH4 release over the Arctic will be the source of positive global warming feedback that Climate Scientists have been warning us about.

    Modern Climate Scientists need to transition the old Fortran Climate Change models into the 21st Century; they need to incorporate the best Arctic permafrost and CH4 knowledge available. Climate Scientists must brave the guillotine; they must use their modernized Climate Change models to extrapolate decades into the future. Using the best Climate Change models based on the most current and accurate scientific knowledge will be orders of magnitude better than pure speculation or doing nothing. It is time for 97% of Climate Scientists to agree that in coming decades runaway CH4 release from melting permafrost will be the greatest contributor to increasing CO2 ppm, global warming, melting glaciers, and rising ocean levels.

    Unborn generations are depending on our decisions today, so the time to act is now.

    Best regards,

    Roger A. Wehage

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