Models of the physical and biological environment of the Antarctic
- This page is part of the topic Observations, data accuracy and tools
The operation of the atmosphere or the ocean or the ice sheet, and the interactions between them, whether in the Antarctic or elsewhere, are of such enormous scale and complexity that it is impossible for a given observer to perceive these operations and interactions synoptically, or to envisage how they may change in the future, not to mention the fact that many of the operations are in themselves non-linear and may be chaotic and so are not amenable to simplistic prediction. Atmospheric and ocean physicists and glaciologists have therefore long known that it is necessary to simplify these processes to the point where they can be represented in a numerical model that can be run on a powerful computer. The complexities involved are such that simulating the behaviour of a coupled atmosphere-ocean-ice system requires the use of the most powerful supercomputers available. As we shall see, below, these models have their limitations. Nevertheless, every attempt is made to keep the models ‘honest’ by ensuring that to the extent possible, they can simulate today’s environment (in other words the acid test of a model to be used for indicating what may happen next is to see how well it can reproduce what is happening now). In some fields, conceptual models are valuable for understanding certain aspects of the environment and are still used when analysing some types of data from the Antarctic. But numerical models run on computers are the mainstay of many modern atmospheric, oceanic, sea ice and increasingly, biological studies. In this section we examine some of the major classes of models used in Antarctic studies.