The philosophy of climate science


On the recommendation of my supervisor, I along with Javier Amezcua, Vicky Lucas and Benedict Hyland represented Reading Meteorology at the Institute of Physics (IOP) “Studying the Climate: A Challenge of Complexity” conference on February 6th, 2020. The programme and speaker list can be viewed here. It was a fantastic set of speakers delivering many a killer point in front of an engaged audience.

While some may consider the philosophy of science a complicating distraction, I think I ignore it at my peril. Certainly climate science is not without its philosophical issues; one might even say it is riddled with them…

David Stainforth (LSE), the keynote speaker stated it thus:
“The study of anthropogenic climate change presents a range of fundamental challenges for scientific and wider academic inquiry. The essential nature of these challenges are often not well appreciated.”

So how does climate science compare with other natural sciences? Opinions abounded, but here are just some I can recall:
1 – We can’t really conduct controlled experiments in the way that other natural scientists can, as we have just the one Earth and can’t turn back time (we have to beware of post-hoc explanations, and some of our predictions may never be verifiable/falsifiable).
2 – We therefore rely heavily on numerical models.
3 – We’re also doing our science while the climate is changing around us, and thus there is a strong sense of urgency.
4 – There is therefore a pressure to be multidisciplinary.

On a more practical side, David’s talk left me with a novel way of thinking about ‘climate’. Thinking about a climate metric, such as temperature, I would have thought hitherto of simply a mean and a standard deviation (a very Gaussian way of looking at it!). But David argued that climate is often best conceived of as a more generalised distribution. While a bell curve is symmetric, unimodal, a distribution need not be (and this can be true in the climate system). Studying and predicting a stable climate distribution may already be difficult but studying and predicting a changing one is even harder!

A visualisation of global sea surface temperatures. (Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory)

Now for a bit of a whirlwind tour of other arguments/points. There was Reading’s own Ted Shepherd arguing that in climate science we often over focus on avoiding false positives (type I errors) at the expense of incurring false negatives (type II). In other words, we get reliability at the price of informativeness, especially at the regional level where policy makers are somewhat eager to be informed.

Then there was Geoff Vallis (University of Exeter) who posed the question “If models were perfect, would we care how they worked?”. Perhaps a pertinent question, as there appears to be a trade-off, an inverse correlation between complexity of models and our ability to understand them. If the models became so complex that they were beyond the abilities of any human past or future to comprehend, what would we do then? If they become as complicated as the Earth system itself, surely we would have long since lost any grasp on them? Indeed, models already appear to be predicting phenomena without us understanding why. Complexity is not necessarily accuracy (How do we assess accuracy in climate science?) and Erica Thompson (LSE) highlighted the importance of ‘getting out of model land’, and staying with the real world, something some of us may need occasional reminding of.

What even are models? Two expressions given were ‘book-keeping devices’ (Wendy Parker) and ‘Prosthesis of your brain (Erica Thompson). No doubt there were others.

Marina Baldissera Pacchetti (University of Leeds) talked about her work on climate information for adaptation that gives us: “guidelines on when quantitative statements about future climate are warranted and potentially decision-relevant, when these statements would be more valuable taking other forms (for example, qualitative statements), and when statements about future climate are not warranted at all.”

In the afternoon, there were breakout ‘lightning’ discussions. We could choose to join 1 of the following 8 groups:

1. Should we aim to estimate the mean/expectation behaviour of the climate or focus on the worst-case?
2. Is the way we go about climate science now the only way of doing it?
3. If our computers were infinitely fast, what science would we do with them?
4. If our models were infinitely good, what science would be left to do?
5. What fact, if only we knew it, would have the biggest impact on climate change?
6. How should climate science approach the question of geoengineering?
7. What is the benefit to society of general circulation models?
8. What is the public needing to know, and are we working enough on these questions?

My group was 3, but we ended up accidentally merging with 4 and made for a very interesting and varied discussion!

Which group would you have been most pulled towards had you been there? What philosophical thoughts on climate science have you had? What do you think is the most under-appreciated? I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

Many thanks to the event organiser Goodwin Gibbins (Imperial) and all involved for a thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating day.

If anyone would like to get more into the Philosophy of Science, I would recommend this thoroughly engaging 10-hour course of lecture by the Uni of Toronto on YouTube, the trailer of which can be viewed here.

Fluid Dynamics of Sustainability and the Environment Summer School


From the 1st – 12th of July 2019, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Fluid Dynamics of Sustainability and the Environment (FDSE) summer school held at Ecole Polytechnique on the southern outskirts of Paris. Although it was held at Ecole Polytechnique this year, it alternates with the University of Cambridge, where it will be held in 2020.

As hinted at in the title, the summer school explores the fluid dynamical aspects of planet Earth, including, but not limited to: the atmosphere, the ocean, the cryosphere and the solid Earth, and was of particular relevance to me because I study clear-air turbulence (a fluid dynamical phenomenon) and its impact on aviation. To get a better sense of the summer school, have a watch of this 3-minute promotion video:

It was a busy, action-packed 2 weeks. The days consisted of: 4 hours of lectures held each morning (coffee was provided), followed by either lab or numerical practical sessions in the afternoons and something social (wine was provided) such as a poster session, barbecue, and an environmentally-themed film night followed by a discussion of the film’s (The Day After Tomorrow) fluid dynamical accuracy (or not, as the case may be!). During the mid-programme weekend, we were put up in a hostel in central Paris, treated to an evening on a moored boat on the Seine (champagne was provided) and then left to our own devices to explore Paris.

The boat on the Seine even had its own dance floor.

The other students were great, with all sorts of backgrounds/PhD projects that linked in one way or another to the FDSE theme. Many interesting and diverse conversations were had, as well as a great deal of fun and laughter! No doubt many of the people who met here both this year and others will collaborate scientifically in the future.

Not having come from a maths/physics background, I found a lot of the mathematical content quite challenging, but I made copious notes and my interest in and appreciation for the subject greatly increased. As I progress throughout my PhD (I am currently still in my first year), I feel many of the concepts that I encountered here are likely to resurface in a slow-burn fashion and I can see myself returning to the lecture material as and when I meet related concepts.

In particular, gaining an understanding of what an instability is and studying the different types was eye-opening, and seeing Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities — which cause the shear that generates the clear-air turbulence I study in my PhD — form in a tube of dyed fluid was a particularly memorable moment for me.

Kelvin-Helmholtz billows forming in a tube.

Apart from being very interesting theoretically, fluid dynamics also has many practical applications. For example, insufficient understanding and modelling of the behaviour of plumes at the Fukushima nuclear reactor led to hydrogen gas concentrations exceeding 8%, resulting in dangerous explosions. Many other such examples could be given.

The summer school was well-organised and many of the lecturers and guest speakers were both highly entertaining and informative, and really bought the subject to life with their enthusiasm for it. I highly recommend it to anyone with a related PhD!

The 2019 cohort in front of Ecole Polytechnique.

Met Department Summer BBQ 2019

On Friday the 14th of June at 6.30pm the Department of Meteorology had its 2019 summer BBQ! And what a fun, pleasant and well attended affair it was.

BBQ turnout – downtime for the department!

The weather that week had been especially awful, and the prospects of being able to have the BBQ outside were looking distinctly grim, but in a rather fluky stroke of luck, the weather took a rather unexpected turn for the better… and almost unbelievably, by Friday PM the grass was deemed dry enough – and therefore safe enough – for the event to be an outdoor, in-the-sun affair!

The event required a lot of preparation. For the most part this went smoothly, save for one or two things:

1: A sudden and panicky realisation on my part on the morning of the BBQ (thanks Michael L!) that we probably weren’t going to get very far without tongs/cooking implements of some kind! (This is my first Met BBQ, okay!)

2: The butcher delivery van going seriously AWOL (even from the butchers themselves). The van apparently departed the Reading depot at 9am and must have then gotten lost as it took them some 8 hours to find us! This caused some nerves to fray…

The event took off at 6.30pm and thanks to a small army of well-trained BBQing PhD students, both meat and plant-based sausages and burgers soon began to appear and (as we had slightly over ordered on the food front) attendees got offered seconds! No one present was to go hungry!

The BBQing army.

At around 8pm the perennial Hogs Back Band & caller began their ceilidh/barn dance. Many of us were duly terrified of this part of the evening, but such concerns quickly vanished following a few nervous giggles, a couple of bungled dance steps… and of course one or two beers. Before long, everyone, both dancers and onlookers, children and staff alike were totally caught up in the band’s buoyant jig, and all feeling of self-consciousness evaporated!

2 hours of ceilidh as it turns out, is incredibly tiring! I managed about half of the 10 dances and towards the end was beginning to seriously unravel at the seams. Perhaps a prize in future years for he or she who can manage to stick out every single dance? Surely one of the Met runners has the stamina?

As the evening drew to a close at 10pm I was impressed by the sustained, voluntary and joint effort of many to return the area to its original clean state. And, for those with energy to spare, the after-party with DJ Shonk and his new disco ball awaited!

A special thanks to Dan Shipley (one of the 2018 organisers) who despite supposedly having retired the year before, provided much help and advice at all stages of the planning and on the day! Numerous others also contributed in ways both big and small to make the event the success that it was. Thank you! Long live this particular Met Department tradition!

The ceilidh in full swing!

Is our “ECO mode” hot water boiler eco-friendly?

A lesson in practical thermodynamics.

Maarten Ambaum (
Mark Prosser (

Everybody knows that the key boundary condition for a successful PhD is the provision of plenty of coffee during the day (tea, for some). Our Department has a hot water boiler with a 10 litre water tank capacity to provide an unlimited supply of hot water (it is connected to the tap to keep it topped up automatically). For historical reasons we actually call it the “urn” – I like that word so we stick to it here. 

When we got a new urn recently (a “Marco Ecoboiler T10”) we were intrigued to see it had an ECO mode button, presumably promising a lower energy consumption. Indeed, when anyone in the morning saw that the urn was not in “ECO mode”, it was swiftly switched on; green credentials and all that. 

One of our postdocs dug up the specs from the internet, where we learned that “ECO mode” actually makes the urn operate with 5 litres of water, which is half full. The specs suggest that when switching the urn on you then only need to heat half the amount of water. But is there more to it? Would the urn working with a half-full tank actually use less energy? 

I teach atmospheric physics to our Masters and PhD students and this is precisely the kind of question I would ask them to think about. In fact I sent out an email to all members of the Department, and it turned out that there were different opinions, even amongst those who should know better, although in my view obviously only one physically correct outcome. 

So, let us find out. First some theory (some basic thermodynamics), then experiment, and conclusions at the end. 

One of the first things we learn in thermodynamics is conservation of energy: energy in equals energy out. The energy in is the electrical power that the urn uses, the energy out is the hot water we consume, heated up from around 15C to around 95C, as well as thermal losses, and running the internal electronics of the urn. The last bit is very marginal, just a controller and a few LEDs. We are going to ignore that. The thermal loss may well be substantial, but the water tank of the urn is actually quite well insulated with Styrofoam, so who knows. 

Given that we drink the same amount of coffee, whether the urn is in ECO mode or not, the energy cost for producing the hot water does not depend on whether we run at half tank capacity or full tank capacity. We still need to heat up the same amount of water for our coffee consumption. 

What is left is the energy loss. But the energy loss is proportional to the temperature difference between the inside of the tank and the outside. The inside of the tank remains close to 95C all the time, so it looks like the energy loss also cannot depend on whether we are in ECO mode or not. 

Energy in equals energy out, energy out remains the same, so energy in should remain the same, ECO mode or not. 

Did we miss something? Surely, a feature that is advertised as ECO mode should consume less energy? 

We should give the manufacturer some credit. They claim: “This mode saves energy by minimising the energy wasted during machine down-time. The ECO mode is most effective in installations where the machine has a regular ‘off’ period.” Perhaps; perhaps not. 

Unfortunately they also claim: “During the ‘off’ period as there is less water in the tank there will be less energy lost to the surrounding environment resulting in an energy saving.” This latter claim is a tricky one: Energy loss is proportional to the temperature difference between the tank and the exterior irrespective of how much water is in the tank. As the heat capacity of the full tank is higher, it will reduce its temperature more slowly, possibly leading to a higher total energy loss, as the temperature differential is kept higher on average for a full tank. So after switching on the urn again, this increased energy loss needs to be topped up. Is that then the way ECO mode helps us being green? 

We did what any scientist would do, faced with such a question: do the experiment; this is where Mark comes in. Easy enough: these days you can buy power adaptors that plug in the wall socket and accumulate the total amount of electrical energy used over some period. 

We did four experiments: two midweek ones running for three consecutive 24 hour periods from Tuesday to Thursday, two weekend ones running from 6pm on Friday to 9am on Monday. In half of the experiments we left the ECO mode button on, and in the other half, the ECO mode button was left switched off. 

Straight to the results: 

ECO mode Non-ECO mode
Midweek (3 days) 21.77 KWh 20.25 KWh
Weekends 4.2 KWh 4.05 KWh

Lo and behold: it does not make much difference at all and, if anything, ECO mode uses more energy! 

Of course the experiment is not carefully controlled: perhaps we drank more coffee during the ECO mode periods, but both weeks were pretty similar in coffee room usage, there were no big events, and the two weekends were pretty much completely quiet. In fact the weekend usage is probably dominated by the usage before 9am on a Monday. We have cleaners that come in very early, and there are quite a few members of staff that come in before nine in the morning, and perhaps even some PhD students! 

Let’s do some more analysis of the data: daily normal usage is about 7KWh per day, as in the midweek data. That means that from the 4.1KWh weekend usage less than about 1KWh (about one seventh of a normal day’s usage to account for the Monday am usage – I know it is a rough estimate) corresponds to normal usage, and the rest is energy loss when the urn is switched on but not used. I estimate the loss to be 1.7KWh per day, so that a weekend, including the Monday early rush hour, corresponds to about 3.4KWh losses and about 0.7KWh normal usage. 

So, from the 7KWh daily energy usage, about 1.7KWh is thermal energy loss (and other bits and bobs, such as the lovely LEDs at the front of the urn), with an error bar, I guess, of possibly 30%. Is this a lot of energy loss? 1.7KWh per day corresponds to 70W loss, about the same as the lighting of a single-person office. Not bad. The Marco Ecoboiler is probably pretty “eco”, but not because of its ECO mode. 

We are then left with 5.3KWh each day to make coffee. A coffee cup is about 200ml, and assuming the water for the coffee needs heating from 15C to 95C, each cup of coffee requires 0.2kg x 80K x 4200 J/kg/K = 67KJ of energy, or 0.019KWh. That means that 5.3KWh corresponds to about 280 cups of coffee per day. Probably quite realistic, given the size of our Department. 

Should we switch off the urn overnight? Well, an overnight period (all losses, as there is no usage of the urn, perhaps for about 11 hours) would use about 0.8KWh. But, of course, the tank will have cooled down, perhaps to 30C, and needs reheating to 95C. This costs for a 10 litre tank about 0.8KWh. Funny that is: probably better to just leave the tank on overnight to prevent people from using highly inefficient kitchen kettles, and prevent people from having to wait for the urn to heat up in the morning. 

Actually, this is not as much coincidence as it may seem: the thermal loss during the night switch off period must of course equal the loss in thermal energy of the water, which then needs to be replenished when we reheat the water back to 95C. 

As I said before, the full tank could well lose more energy as it keeps relatively warmer during the cooling off period compared to the half full tank of ECO mode. But a quick calculation, assuming a well-insulated tank, shows that the temperature reduction is proportional to (T0-Te) / k with T0 the initial tank temperature (95C), Te the external temperature, and k the heat capacity of the tank. So, indeed, a full tank, with larger k, has a smaller temperature reduction with time, and remains warmer on average. But the energy cost of this reduction of course equals the heat capacity k times the change in temperature: k x (T0-Te) / k = (T0-Te), so we get an energy loss proportional to (T0-Te), but independent of the heat capacity k of the tank. It looks like the engineers at the manufacturers overlooked some basic physics. 

By the way: how long would it take to reheat the tank in the morning if it had cooled down to 30C overnight? Well, at full pelt the urn uses 2.8KW, so a required energy of 0.8KWh takes about 15 minutes to produce. Pretty long wait. Probably not worth the frustration. 

So, to conclude: our Ecoboiler is quite “eco”: it wastes only about 70W in thermal losses, not so bad for a Department that uses big computing resources (not so “eco”).  

The thermal energy losses from the urn are pretty modest in the grand scheme of things, and it turns out to be better to just leave the urn on overnight, as the cost of reheating the cold urn in the morning is nearly the same as the energy cost of leaving it on. Leaving the urn on over the weekend is probably also better than switching off, because the occasional weekend user will end up using a highly inefficient kitchen kettle. 

The “ECO mode” button makes the urn operate at half tank capacity, but the thermodynamical arguments as well as the measurements show that it actually uses at least the same amount of energy in ECO mode. In fact, at half capacity the tank has more steam in it, and the steam is possibly slightly hotter, on average, than the liquid, and thus more energy may be lost through conduction. Just leave the ECO mode button switched off; it doesn’t do any good. 

My tips, strategies and hacks as a PhD student


Having been a PhD student for a little over 3 months I am perhaps ill-qualified to write such a ‘PhD tips’ type of blog post, but write one I appear to be doing! It’s probably actually more accurately titled ‘study tips in general but ones which are highly relevant to science PhDs.’

The following are just my tips on what have helped me over the course of my studies and may be obvious or not suitable for others, but I write them on the off-chance that something here is useful to someone out there. No doubt I will have many more such strategies by the end of my time here in Reading!

Papers and articles
As a science student you may have encountered these from time to time. The better ones are clearly written and succinct, the worse ones are verbose and obscurantist. If you’re not the quickest reader in the world, getting through papers can end up consuming a great deal of your time.

I’m going to advocate speed reading in a bit but when you start learning speed reading, one of the things they ask you to think about first is “Do I really need to read this?”. If the answer is yes, then the next question is “Do I really need to read all of it?”. Perhaps you only need to glance at just the abstract, figures and conclusion? After all, time spent reading this is time not spent doing something else, something more profitable perhaps, so do check that it really is worth your time before diving in.

So once I’ve ascertained that the article is indeed worth my time, I sit down with a pencil (or the equivalent for a PDF) and read through the sections I’ve decided on. Anything that makes my neurons spike (“oh that’s interesting….”), I underline or highlight. Any thoughts or questions that occur to me, I write in the margin. If I feel the need to criticise the paper for being insufficiently clear then I write down these remarks, too.

Once I get to the end, I put the article away out of sight and sit down with a blank piece of paper (or on a computer) and try and write something very informally about what I’ve just read. Quite often my mind will go helpfully blank at this point, so I try and finish the following sentence: “The biggest thing (if anything) I learned from this article was….”. Completing this one sentence then tends to lead to other stuff tumbling out and in no particular order I jot these all down. Only once the majority of it is down on paper do I take a peek at the annotated piece to see what I missed (For heaven’s sake avoid painting the article yellow with a highlighter!)

Please, please, please, don’t.

This personal blurb that you have produced is then a good way to quickly remind yourself of the contents of that article in the future without having to reread it from scratch. This post-reading exercise need not take more than 15 minutes but if you’re worried about spending this extra time, don’t be. You’ll save yourself a heap of time in future by not having to reread the damn thing.

Random piece of advice – if you are unaware of the Encyclopedia of Atmospheric Sciences, then check it out. Whatever your PhD topic I guarantee there’ll be 10 or so shortish entries which are all highly relevant to your particular PhD topic and consequently worth knowing about!

Speed reading
Really still on the previous paragraph but as is often the way, between the valuable articles that you really should be reading and the stuff for which life’s really too short there’s a grey area.
For such grey areas I am an advocate of speed reading.
For any electronic texts check out this free website:

Just copy, paste and go!

The pace the words flash up doesn’t have to be particularly fast (I suggest trying 300 wpm to start with) but the golden rule is to never press pause once you’ve started. No going back to read stuff you’ve missed (well not until you’ve reached the end first at least!). This method of reading is especially useful for any articles that feel like quagmires into which you are slowly drowning. Paradoxically reading faster in such instances often increases one’s comprehension.

A good way to develop the skill of speed reading is to start on articles you see posted on social media, articles that you are not too fussed about getting every single detail. Just let it wash over you!

Talks and lectures
I have found it useful to make audio recordings of these. I don’t usually tend to listen back, but if there is something that was particularly interesting or dense that might be worth revisiting then it can be very worthwhile. I make a note of the time this something was said at the time it was said and can thus track it down in the recording fairly painlessly afterwards.

One tip about note taking that has stayed with me since I first heard it several years back was the following: after writing down the title, only make notes on what is surprising or interesting to you, just that! This may result in many lines of notes or no lines at all, but whatever you do, don’t just make notes of everything that was said. This advice has been very useful for me.

Ask me in person if you would like to know my thoughts on this.

Programming to help physical intuition.
This is probably more relevant to students like me who didn’t come from a maths or physics undergrad and consequently aren’t quite as fluent in the old maths….or perhaps undergrads for that matter…
….but in my undergrad (environmental science) I spent quite a lot of the time spent studying maths (and to a lesser extent) physics involved memorising complicated procedures. The best example of this was a lecture on Fourier Series where the professor took the whole hour to work through the process of getting from an input (x^2) to the output (first n terms of the Fourier series). Because it took so much space/effort for me to remember this lengthy process, it ended up crowding out the arguably more important conceptual stuff, such as what a Fourier series actually does and why it is it so useful. When all is said and done and the final exam is handed in, these concepts are what should (ideally) stick with you even if the details of how, don’t.
So here’s where I think programming can come in. Firstly, there’s nothing like coding up some process to check whether you understand the nuts and bolts of it, but more importantly once it has been coded up properly you can then play about with the inputs to see how these affect the graphed outputs. Being able to ‘play’ about like this gives you a more intuitive feel for the model/process that wouldn’t be possible if you had to manually redo the laborious calculations each time you wanted to change the input parameters. 3 examples of where I have done this myself are the following:
1. Getting my head around the thermal inertia of the oceans by varying the depth of the surface and deep layer of the ocean in a simple model.
2. Playing around graphically with dispersion.
3. Convincing myself that it really is true that in the middle of the Northern Hemisphere summer the north pole receives more energy per day than the equator.

And you?
So do you have any hard won study/research tips? If so do email me as I would be interested in hearing about them!
Which study hack do you think I (or others) are most lacking?