Computer Modeling in Earth & Space Science

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

What is a computer model? Learn how they are used in earth and space science to try to save lives and understand the past, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

What is Computer Modeling?

The world is complex. From the tiny to the huge, understanding the motion of every particle is impossible for a human. There's a reason we struggle to even predict next week's weather. The atmosphere for example is chaotic and turbulent, and even the smallest change can have huge impacts on what things will be like weeks down the road. It's difficult enough with computers, but impossible for the human brain.

But while the world is complex, there is a lot we can still predict with computers. We can predict the weather for the at least the next few days with reasonable accuracy, we can attempt to predict the effects of earthquakes, and figure out what might happen if an asteroid hits the earth. We do this using something called a computer model.

A computer model is a computer program which attempts to simulate what might happen in a situation. To run a computer model you put in all the information that you have, and the computer uses what you've told it about the laws of physics to predict the future results. Models can be presented using 3-D graphics, or be entirely inside a computer in the form of numbers.

NASA supercomputers are used to run computer models
NASA supercomputers are used to run computer models

Computer modeling is useful across all of science, and even in things like business and economics. But in this lesson we're going to talk about how computer modeling is used in earth and space science to help us understand the world better.

Particle system used to model fire
Particle system used to model fire

There are so many possible uses for computer models that we couldn't possibly cover them in a single lesson. So instead, let's go through a few examples of how computer models are used in earth and space science: earthquakes, mountain range formation, asteroid impacts, and climate change models.

Earthquakes

Predicting earthquakes is a major goal of earth science experts, and has been attempted for decades. Earthquakes can cause so much death and destruction that it would be a really big deal if we could warn people of them. We could evacuate cities early and protect valuable property.

Recent models are able to predict where plates are creating the most pressure between each other and use this to figure out where an earthquake is likely to happen. This involves giving the computer data from millions of pressure and velocity values detected underground, and previously was impossible because computers weren't powerful enough. Thankfully, computers are getting more powerful all the time, and we have finally reached a point where predicting earthquakes is realistic.

Mountain Formation

Mountain range formation is another kind of computer model. Using a lot of the same ideas that we use to try to predict earthquakes, we can look into the past instead of the future. We can figure out exactly what processes led to the formation of the mountain ranges of the world. Mountain ranges form when one tectonic plate goes underneath another and pushes the earth upwards. Just like with earthquakes, this is about the flow of rock under our feet, so the principles are similar.

Asteriods

Asteroid impacts are another big fear that people have. There are two types of computer models that relate to asteroid impacts. One is a model that figures out whether an asteroid is going to hit the earth. This kind of computer model is relatively easy to create - the laws of gravity are pretty straightforward. The main difficulty is measuring the size, speed, and direction of the asteroid to input into the model. But if we know that, we can figure out whether the asteroid will hit and where with great accuracy.

The other kind of asteroid impact model attempts to figure out the aftermath of an asteroid hit - to predict the amount of damage, and other effects on the earth. These kinds of models still need a lot of work, but they're useful to increase preparedness and plan for such an emergency.

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