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Atmosphere Academy: Math and Weather


Remember when you were in elementary school and you had those crazy math problems about trains? You know, if train a leaves and station traveling at x speed, how long will it take to catch up to point a, etc. In the 1920’s, a British meteorologist named Lewis Fry Richardson tried to do the same type of thing with weather systems. Since the atmosphere is a physical system, it can be represented mathematically.

Think about Physics 101. According to Newton’s basic laws of fluid motion, if a force is applied to the atmosphere, it should accelerate. Sounds like the premise for forecasting the movement of low and high pressure systems, doesn’t it? Richardson was on to something, but he was also in over his head.

You see, the atmosphere has many more variables to consider besides just pressure forces. You have gravity, friction, electrical forces, and thermal variation. And through the years, new equations were needed to take these variables into account. From the ideal gas law to the basic principles of thermodynamics, meteorology is full of equations.

Accurately forming equation models that represent every part of the atmosphere is simply impossible for our human minds to comprehend. For hurricane prediction alone, there are more than a dozen different models, each examining a different set of data. That’s why some models handle certain situations better than others. We need the processing power of the most advanced computer systems in the world to run these models, and even then, the computer’s solutions are only approximations. That’s why meteorologists still err on the forecast, every now and then.

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videoWhen it comes to forecasting, especially hurricane forecasting, computer models are invaluable. But what is a computer model? Class is in session, in the Atmosphere Academy.

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