As an atmospheric scientist, I find that the public is often confused about concepts that seem very natural to me. Let’s face it, most people are not atmospheric scientists. I certainly cannot recite the key elements of a nuclear reactor because it is not what I do. It is understandable that it may be counterintuitive to some people that
- It actually can get cold in deserts,
- A snowy day does not refute climate change, and
- Ground hogs really have very little seasonal predictive skill.
I often challenge ivory tower colleagues to step beyond lecture boards, powerpoint slides, and other tools of “academic inertia” when educating students and the public about science. I recently learned of an effort by Dr. Paul Miller, assistant professor and coastal meteorologist in the Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University (LSU), that is exemplary of innovative science instruction and outreach. Miller used the popular Disney move Frozen to teach students about the complexities of climate and our environment.
The original movie Frozen was released by Walt Disney Pictures as a 3D computer-animated fantasy. With inspiration from the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” the movie follows a princess and companions on their journey to find her sister who happens to control things like snow and ice. Ultimately, the goal of their spectacular trip is to break the Snow Queen’s frigid spell on their kingdom. I haven’t see the movie but apparently the Snow Queen is going around turning any and everything to ice (or something like that).
That all sounds pretty interesting and magical. In fact, it may grab your attention more than a class called “Modelling the Marine Atmosphere” taught this semester by Professor Miller. The former doctoral student at the University of Georgia thought that it would be interesting to teach concepts of meteorological modeling using experiments based on the movie. Meteorological models are a staple of what we use to make your day-to-day weather forecasts. Such models are a part of the broader field of numerical weather prediction. These models use very complex mathematical equations to describe the dynamics, thermodynamics, and complexity of the atmosphere, which is a fluid. Observations, computer grids, and various assumptions go into these models. Weather modeling (and other similar types of modeling like hydrological or climate) is quantitatively rigorous so I applaud Professor Miller’s innovative thinking to reach students.
Miller said “It makes the homework and assignments more engaging….It’s something they can relate to that’s fun to tell their friends and parents about so they retain the information better.” A press release issued by LSU describes the motivation for the lesson:
In the movie, Princess Elsa accidentally starts turning everything to ice at her coronation. When Elsa realizes she can walk across the ocean, turning the seawater to ice beneath her feet, the movie illustrates a clear transition from spring-like to winter-like conditions. It appeared to Miller that Princess Elsa prompted an “ice age” by converting the open seawater to total sea ice. Miller decided to test the meteorological authenticity of this scene with his students by using atmospheric modelling.
Miller goes on in the press release to say, “The idea was to investigate whether a change in the ocean surface from water to ice could actually cause the dramatic cooling that occurred in the movie.”
In the experiments, Miller and his students estimated location, the time of year and season based on visual clues in the story. They estimated the story to take place during the 1840s in Norway based on clothing and other signs. Blooming flowers and short sleeves along the way led to an assumption that late Spring, perhaps May, was the seasonal period. The class conducted two modeling experiments along the Norwegian coast. One of the experiments was an “open water” scenario reflecting how things were before Elsa was coronated and started turning everything to ice. The other experiment was “total sea ice” after Elsa did her damage. Miller and his students found that the outcomes were plausible. He said,
Norway is far enough poleward that without the nearby relatively warm ocean temperatures the climate would be much cooler even during late spring. I was kind of surprised that the change was that dramatic in the simulation that I ran. After the change to complete sea ice, the average temperature dropped from 41°F to 32°F; however, in the simulations it took a little bit longer—about 24 hours, to really achieve that level of cooling
These experiments were intended to use pop culture to teach science, but there are broader implications worth noting. Much of the Arctic region is rapidly losing sea ice. According to a recent study, the Arctic could be ice-free for a portion of the year by 2044. Changes in the Arctic have profound implication for maritime activities, global weather patterns, and ocean circulations.
The graphic below shows Arctic sea ice extent as of October 31, 2019 and how it compares to long-term averages. Miller’s doctoral advisor at the University of Georgia penned an editorial about extensive melting observed in Greenland this summer. Writing in The Hill, cryospheric expert Professor Tom Mote said, “Earth’s complexity and changes are scientifically interesting, but also have real implications for our Arctic policy, national security, and our coastal infrastructure.” While Miller and his students were not trying to solve global climate challenges, their simple experiments illustrate the connectivity of different parts of the Earth system.
Recently, I opined in Forbes about the need to make science accessible, fun, and engaging. Professor Miller hit the mark. Lexi Nelson, one of the students in the class, said, “Completing this assignment enabled me to use my modeling skills I have learned throughout the semester and apply them to a fun, well-thought-out experiment.” She also said that she plans to use the experience in her own research.
Frozen 2 comes out this week in theaters. Let’s see if it generates even more scientific experiments.
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