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Physics and Astronomy

Kerry Emanuel on the Physics of Storm Formation

Story posted November 05, 2013

Internationally known atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel of MIT, currently a visiting scholar in physics at Bowdoin, gave a presentation in Searles Science Building on Nov. 1, explaining his research on storm formation and how it relates to climate.

Emanuel is an author of multiple books on climate and was one of Time Magazine’s 100 influential people of 2006 for his insights about Hurricane Katrina. “We’re lucky for many reasons to have Kerry Emanuel with us for a semester,” said Associate Professor of Physics Mark Battle, “and one of those reasons is having the opportunity to hear this talk.”

Emanuel’s lecture revisited “radiative-convective equilibrium,” a relatively simple model explored by climate scientists in the 1960s before powerful computers made possible the highly complex modeling of today. In this model, the energy reaching the earth’s surface is balanced by the energy radiated back to space and the energy transported up into the atmosphere by a process called convection.

According to Emanuel, scientists moved on to complex climate models too soon, before gleaning a crucial insight revealed by recent research: if the ocean surface rises above some critical temperature, radiative-convective equilibrium becomes unstable. Emanuel’s work showed that this instability can lead to large aggregates of clouds through convection. Add in the spinning motion of the planet, and those superclouds can become hurricanes.

Scientists’ oversight of this phenomenon, which may be an important piece of the climate puzzle, has likely been a limiting factor for the accuracy of climate models to date.

Currently on sabbatical from MIT, Emanuel is in residency at Bowdoin as he carries on his research and works to develop a MOOC (massive open online course) in earth sciences. ”It’s really energizing for the students studying climate change here on campus to have someone of Kerry’s stature available as a resource,” Battle said.