Modern-day oracles with a supercomputer

Humans have always sought to see the future and have called on many aids, from the movements of the stars to the fuzzy midsection of a woolly bear caterpillar (a wider brown band supposedly meant a milder winter). Sometimes the divination is all in fun; remember those paper “cootie catcher” fortune-tellers from childhood? But at other times, our lives depend on it. 

For millennia, humans have closely observed changes in the weather in an attempt to deduce patterns that might help predict the next drought, flood or hurricane. By about 650 B.C., the Babylonians had developed weather predictions based on the appearance of clouds and other atmospheric phenomena. Aristotle followed with Meteorologica, a treatise based on his observations of the weather as well as his study of astronomy and chemistry. 

Starting in the Renaissance, scientists invented tools to more precisely monitor weather, forming the basis of atmospheric physics. Nicholas of Cusa designed a hygrometer for measuring humidity in the 15th century; Galileo followed with an early version of a thermometer. By 1643, Evangelista Torricelli had invented a barometer to measure atmospheric pressure.

As people around the world shared observations and data, atmospheric patterns emerged, but prediction remained a challenge. In 1922, mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson tried to calculate a forecast eight hours into the future — and it took him six weeks. He then estimated that it would take 64,000 human “computers” working together in one room to provide timely weather forecasts.

Today, a supercomputer can whip through much more daunting calculations in the blink of an eye, taking in data from around the world and cranking out startlingly accurate forecasts five days out. But we also have a much larger challenge at hand — predicting years, even decades out how increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide will reshape our world. 

For more than half a century, scientists have been building computer programs called climate models to try to figure that out. Beginning in the late 1950s, models looked separately at discrete parts of the planet, such as the atmosphere or oceans. Today’s models powered by supercomputers can bundle together these factors, while also incorporating global data on vegetation, sea ice, dust, sea spray and marine ecosystems. Some track how society, via population or economic growth and global conflict, may affect the climate.  

Recent models are delivering surprises, earth and climate writer Carolyn Gramling reports. “The better they get, the more we realize there are more complexities, and we need more data,” Gramling says. That means more experiments with the models and more data gathered in the field. “These people are really brilliant, and they’re all engaged in trying to solve this problem right now,” Gramling says of the scientists. “It gives me hope, that we have these really wonderful minds hard at work on the problem.”

Considering how much progress we’ve made since Richardson’s imagined room crammed with 64,000 human calculators, there’s room for optimism.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.