APS News

New Topical Group on Climate Actively Seeks Members

At its meeting on April 29, APS Council voted to establish the new Topical Group on the Physics of Climate. The group’s organizers hope to reach out to the physics community to draw in a wide swath of expertise to address climate issues. The group is now actively recruiting members, and the organizers hope to set up a website and newsletter soon and begin organizing sessions at meetings.

According to the group’s founding documents, its purview encompasses all research related to the advancement and diffusion of the physics of climate. This includes the measuring and modeling of climate processes as well as what physical effects climate change might have on the planet.

“The group is going to focus on the science of climate and climate change as opposed to the politics or policies, which its charter says specifically not to do,” said organizing committee member Brad Marston of Brown University. “It’s a very rich and complex area of science.”

Organizing committee members emphasized the need to keep the focus on unbiased science rather than politics and partisanship. Council member Robert Austin of Princeton has pushed hard to get the group established, and to keep ideology from dictating the direction of the group’s work.

“You’ll get an unbiased viewpoint,” Austin said, “where you can find clearly written articles that bring the physics out in a major way.”

Understanding climate change is rooted in understanding the physics behind it. Many of the biggest questions facing climatologists have to do with understanding the physical principles of atmospheric thermodynamics, radiant solar energy, the fluid dynamics of oceans and the like.

“There are a number of ways that physicists can contribute to a better understanding of climate and climate change,” Marston said. “Theorists can contribute by bringing in ideas from statistical physics…computational physicists can bring in expertise, for example, for developing new algorithms…experimental physicists can bring their expertise to perhaps develop new tools.”

The group’s charter identifies five main focus areas for the group. These include understanding climate as a complex dynamic system, the physics of climate influences, the sensitivity of climate, methods used to infer past climates and new techniques for gathering and analyzing climate data. It also highlighted specific disciplines in physics especially pertinent to understanding climate science, including fluid dynamics, modeling nonlinear systems, physics of complex systems, gas phase physics and chemistry, heat transfer, phase transitions, measurement science, computational physics, statistics and biophysics.

The group came about after two separate petitions began circulating last year to establish a topical group on climate. Ultimately the two efforts merged, and a single plan for a group was agreed upon at a meeting in December of last year.

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Editor: Alan Chodos