The significance of simulations

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: Sea Level Dips Spur Volcanic Eruptions / View Guide

Directions for teachers:

The first set of questions can be discussed as a class, or you could ask students to answer the questions with a partner. Then have students read the online Science News article “Greece’s Santorini volcano erupts more often when sea level drops” and answer the last two sets of questions on their own. A version of the article appears in the August 28, 2021 issue of Science News.

Directions for students:

Answer the first set of questions as directed by your teacher, then read the online Science News article “Greece’s Santorini volcano erupts more often when sea level drops.” Answer the last two sets of questions on your own. A version of the article appears in the August 28, 2021 issue of Science News.

Defining simulations

1. What is a computer simulation and what is it used for in science? Name one example of a system that scientists study with computer simulations.

Computer simulations are representations of real-life systems or situations; simulations use mathematical equations and real-world data to imitate the conditions and functions of those systems. Scientists use simulations to test how a system would respond to certain stresses. Scientists simulate Earth’s climate system to study climate change.

2. What are the benefits of using a computer simulation? When might it be necessary?

Computer simulations allow scientists to evaluate processes that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Some real-world systems are too large or too small to investigate by other means. A process in a real-world system that scientists want to investigate might occur over very long or very short timescales. Or perhaps a real-world system might be inaccessible or too dangerous for a scientist to investigate in person. Simulations also allow scientists to forecast outcomes for hypothetical situations and situations that could occur in the future.

3. What might be some challenges or limitations of using a computer simulation?

A simulation is only as good as the data, equations and rules used to create it. Mistakes made in the programming or rules can throw off the simulation’s accuracy. And it can be very difficult to create an entirely realistic simulation in the first place — simulations exist in a vacuum and may not account for all variables in a real-world system. What’s more, a lack of good data can lead to necessary assumptions that may also affect a simulation’s accuracy.

4.What is a visualization?How do visualizations differ from simulations?

A visualization depicts a set of data to aid interpretation of that data set. Visualizations differ from computer simulations in that visualizations aren’t used to predict outcomes to alternative conditions.

The Santorini simulation

1. What complex problem did the scientists investigate with a computer simulation? List some basic components of the system that scientists simulated.

The researchers investigated how sea level affects Santorini’s volcanic activity. The simulation modeled the Santorini volcano’s magma chamber and included Earth’s crust and the Aegean Sea in the system.

2. Why do you think the scientists used a computer simulation? What scientific relationships or principles might scientists have used to create the simulation?

Scientists likely used a computer simulation because it helped them test the impact of past sea level changes on volcanic activity over hundreds of thousands of years. Testing sea level change on volcanic activity is something scientists are unable to do in person in real time. Scientists might be able to use equipment to gather data on sea level, Earth’s crust and a volcano’s magma chamber, but the relationship between these components plays out over very long time periods. The simulation likely incorporated data on the physical conditions of the magma chamber such as its depth, volume and pressure; properties of the magma such as temperature and volume; properties of Aegean Sea water including its level; and properties of Earth’s crust including its geologic makeup and how much pressure it is under. The simulation’s mathematical algorithms define relationships among the variables in the system, such as the relationship between sea level and the pressure on Earth’s crust.

3. What variables did scientists alter to get relevant predictions, or output, from the simulation? How did scientists test the accuracy of the simulation?

Scientists varied sea level and thus the pressure the water exerts on Earth’s crust. Scientists tested the accuracy of their simulation by comparing the output data with the historical sea level and volcanic eruption data.

Create your own simulation

1. Brainstorm a complex, real-world issue that affects your life and that could be investigated with a computer simulation.

Student answers will vary.

2.What background knowledge would you need to create the simulation?

Student answers will vary, but should include an understanding that simulations are based on data and mathematical algorithms as well as an understanding of the basic science behind what the students would investigate.

3. Define the system that the computer simulation would model. What basic components of the system would the simulation include? List your simulation’s variables and describe the scientific relationships or principles that you would incorporate in your simulation.

Student answers will vary.

4. What variables would you test, and what is the simulation’s output? How would you test the effectiveness of your simulation?

Student answers will vary. Students should describe how they would manipulate the variables to gather useful data. To test the effectiveness of the simulation, students might mention that they would compare the results of their simulation with related historical data similar to what the scientists did as described in the Science News article.