Earth’s surface climate is controlled by turbulent atmospheric dynamics. Turbulent dynamics on scales of tens of meters and less control the distribution and properties of clouds, which regulate the energy input into the climate system. Macroturbulence on scales of thousands of kilometers transports heat, angular momentum, and water vapor and thereby shapes the distributions of surface temperatures, surface winds, and precipitation. So any theory of climate must build upon a theory of atmospheric turbulence across a vast range of scales.

We use observational data and simulations to develop theories of how turbulent atmospheric dynamics shape climatic features. Questions we are addressing include: How do storminess and precipitation change as atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations increase? How do monsoons and the intertropical convergence zone respond to the changes in insolation that accompany variations in Earth’s orbit around the sun? How does cloudiness change with climate, and how does that amplify or dampen the climate system’s response to perturbations?

Our goal, in short, is to develop a set of fundamental physical laws governing climate.

Progress toward this goal helps us understand and interpret the climate changes that occurred over our planet’s history and that are likely to occur in the future. We also strive to translate such progress into improvement of climate and weather forecasting models.

Both an introductory lecture on Grand Challenges in Climate Dynamics, which summarizes some of our past and ongoing research on Earth’s climate, as well as a Watson Lecture on Where the Wind Comes From, with a historical perspective, are available on our Talks video page.

Other Planets

Physical laws governing atmospheric dynamics should be general enough to apply not only to Earth, but to other planets as well. Although our ability to observe and simulate the atmospheres of other planets is limited, explaining what we do know about these atmospheres provides an intellectual adventure into distant worlds, testing our understanding of atmospheric dynamics.

The sparseness (or newness) of data about other planets means that explanations of their climate dynamics must have a firm basis in theories. It also means that we can focus on the “biggest picture” questions: How did the jets on the giant planets come about? Why are there methane lakes on Titan—but only at its poles? What temperature and precipitation patterns can be expected on an Earth-like, tidally locked exoplanet?

Our research in this area helps interpret both ground-based and space-based observations, as well as providing constraints on what future space missions may find.