Trying to understand what's actually going on in the world's climate seems like it might be truly impossible. For one thing, there are so many different factors at work. Everything from how light travels through the atmosphere to how the winds move the ocean around to how rain hits the ground has an effect on what actually happens on Earth both now and in the future. That also means there's absolutely no use in looking at each piece individually ... to understand what's really going on, the climate jigsaw puzzle needs to be complete.

That, says climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, is where climate modeling comes in. The discipline synthesizes data from multiple sources, including satellites, weather stations, even from people camping in the Arctic and submitting measurements of the ice they see around them. Climate modeling, Schmidt says, gives us our best chance of understanding the bigger picture of the world around us. "We take all of the things we can see are going on, put them together with our best estimates of how processes work, and then see if we can understand and explain the emergent properties of climate systems," he says. These four silent animations show what he means.

Cloud patterns over North America

"This is a simulation of clouds over North America, taken from a very high-resolution climate model," says Schmidt. His pithy description of this particular animation: "it's dynamic, chaotic, and yet coherent." Understanding and tracking the patterns within weather systems of the past means that scientists can experiment with what might happen in the future if you changed any of the contributing factors. "We're trying to understand what happens to that chaos and dynamism and those patterns if you kick the system," he says. ...[Continue reading on]