How I teach … using Earth Null School

The key to bringing Geography alive is to help students to understand the real world around them. For many of us, this goal is why we do fieldwork – the ability to take students in to a landscape, environment or challenging human problem, and bring them out of it with more experience, understanding and greater sense of place.

Nowhere is this more important than in understanding our atmosphere. With the climate change debate regularly at the forefront of global issues, and natural hazards becoming more challenging to predict and manage, knowing how the atmosphere works is a vital part of a Geography curriculum.

And yet our teaching of weather and climate is varied. At the microscale, the Royal Meteorological Society’s Met Link website provides excellent resources for understanding process, or for conducting micro-scale fieldwork around the school environment. At the “extreme event” scale, our case study knowledge is superb: located resource material has been produced, with DVDs, links and real examples of what has happened. Both ends of this teaching experience offer opportunities to really engage students, and draw them in to the small or large scale dramas of the atmosphere.

However, our understanding of the day to day working of the atmosphere is often more theoretical; reverting to principles of atmospheric physics. The focus of student learning is to understand the processes that drive the atmosphere, but we tend not to have many opportunities for them to apply this knowledge.

This post is heavily based on an article I wrote for Teaching Geography in 2016, but with added information on how I use it to teach specific aspects of weather and climate, and how we can teach air masses, the jet stream, or just plain old awe and wonder in the classroom/Open Day.

I am always open to discussions and ideas about this – and eternally grateful to Cameron Beccario (@cambecc) who is the original author of the Earth website. If ever it disappears, then a huge part of my teaching world will be sadder!

EARTH.NULLSCHOOL.NET – What is it?

To give students the chance to do real learning and ‘fieldwork’ would require access to a ‘simulated’ Earth – where we can interact with explore live data, and demonstrate to students how the various aspects of the atmospheric and ocean physics correlate. For a long time, this was the domain of expert meteorologists only, with climate models.

Then, in 2014, a visualisation was made available by Cameron Beccario (@cambecc) on the internet which offered this ability on an open source basis. Hosted on a free public website (http://earth.nullschool.net), the visualisation combines a range of data feeds with an open-source model that replicates the flexibility of a Google Earth-style interface. The model is a visualisation of the computer forecasts, and updates every three hours, with further details of data sources on the website.

At the simplest level, the Earth model allows classroom teachers to call up anywhere on the planet and present a visualisation of the live feed conditions. If there is a tropical storm somewhere on the globe, your students can see it happening in front of them, and get a sense of the scale of what they will see on the news. If there’s a significant atmospheric event of another kind (look at Australia’s bush fires of December 2019-Jan 2020 as an example), you can see lots of information and ideas about what’s going on. My students know how obsessed I am with this site – and it’s often the first thing on the board that I show them when they come in: let’s look at what’s going on in the world right now!

Basics: How do you use it?

Finding the resource

The website is available for free on any device: http://earth.nullschool.net

That’s it.

Finding a place:

Click and drag, like you would on Google Earth. Usually, your mouse scroll wheel will zoom in and out – touch screen devices can be operated as normal.

Changing the display mode:

If you want to do anything more complex, you need to open up the menu. This is accessed by pressing the “Earth” button in the bottom left of your screen.

You can change the projection of the map, you can change the data that you are displaying – and be quite specific about how you want it shown, or what level, and you can change the time frame that you want to display.

Changing the projection:

The default setting for the projection is in “O” (orthographic” mode), which shows the globe as a sphere. But if you want to show other ideas, you can play with the projection. Most commonly, I use:

E – Equirectangular – to show a “world map” style projection. Brilliant for seeing whole globe patterns, comparing latitudes, or looking at big oceans trends (e.g. ENSO)

P – Patterson – similar to the world map view, just slightly different projection.

There are a lot of other variants, but I tend not to use them too much. Stereographic mode allows you to put anywhere at the centre of your view, and the other modes allow for very specific analysis to be done. Play with them – they can be brilliant for showing the flaws with the globe modelling in Year 7 map skills, if nothing else!

Display controls

You can move forward and backward through time (or pick a specific date in history) if you wish. Use the “Now” button to go to the immediate display, and scroll in 3hr or 24hr segments using the arrow keys. If you want to pick a specific date, then open up the calendar menu.

“Grid” turns on the model grid, and “>” toggles the animations on/off. HD generates a high-definition mode – ideal for leaving as a background display at Open Evenings and similar.

Developing: How do you play with it?

What makes the Earth model particularly useful for this kind of understanding is the interactive layers. Clicking on the “earth” in the left corner brings up a menu, enabling the user to control what they see in the atmosphere.  You can choose whether to explore atmosphere or ocean, what and how to animate, and how to scan through that in time and spaces. The menu gives you scope to pick different variables from a list that includes wind, temperature, relative humidity, through to cloud water and sea level pressure. Hovering over the menu list gives you a detail of what it is.

Some ideas:

To see the…Have a look at…
Range of different temperatures across the planetMode – Atmosphere
Height – SFC
Overlay – Temp
Proof of the environmental lapse rateMode – Atmosphere
Overlay – Temp Height – change through decreasing, showing what the temperature is at each height
Where it’s raining currentlyMode – Atmosphere
Overlay – 3HPA (three hourly precipitation accumulation)
You can look at TPW – total precipitable water or TCW – total cloud water – if you want something that looks a bit more like the cloud patterns, rather than rainfall specifically.
Distribution of wind patternsMode – Atmosphere
Height – SFC
Overlay – Wind
Link to air masses and the ‘jet stream’Mode – Atmosphere
Height – 250 hPa (technically a pressure rather than a height – but great nonetheless!)
Rossby waves/jet stream meanderingIf you want to teach “Rossby waves” or any complex atmospheric variable – showing meandering or “flow” in the atmosphere, then do this on a big projection like the Equirectangular one!
Sea surface temperaturesMode – Ocean
Overlay – SST
Sea surface temperature changes (for example, to model El Nino Southern Oscillation) or unusual conditions (e.g. tropical storms)Mode – Ocean
Overlay – SSTA
Influence of different continents and temperaturesMode – Ocean
Animate – Currents
Carbon emissions/sulphur emissionsTurn the mode to “Chem”
Look at CO2SC for Carbon surface concentrations or SO2 SM for sulphur particles
Particle pollution Aeolian transport of dust particles/loessMode – Particulates
Try “DUex” for dust – great to see the desert kicking off the Sahara out to the Amazon! PM1-10 shows particle matter of different pollution sizes – easy to see the lower quality areas!
Forecast of the aurora borealisMode – Space
Wonderful!

Example: How I teach … the jet stream

In the atmosphere, the option of atmospheric pressure layers enables you to fly through the troposphere and stratosphere, and explore the interaction of vorticity in the mid-planetary boundary layers (700hPa and 500hPa), while the higher altitudes (250hPa) correspond to the jetstream and stratospheric winds respectively. For students – particularly at the higher levels – the chance to identify how the different cells, air masses and winds interact with each other is unparalleled.

The application of knowledge enables simple diagnostics to be carried out within lessons on any given day and climatic features. Starting with a simple wind pattern for a location, students can be prompted to work backwards and identify the key climate features. What is the wind direction? What air masses would you expect to see? What conditions would you expect? What jet stream position would you anticipate this bringing? Each of these queries and student predictions can be tested by altering the variable – were they right? What was their reasoning?

More advanced students may be challenged by a forecast scenario. For a given pattern of the jet stream – either live, or archived – what weather would you want to see? Students are then expected to think through the conditions – working out how they would arrange the fronts, the wind patterns and what air masses would be involved. If you are ambitious enough, you could ask your students to create a hand drawn synoptic chart for the area!

Development: Integrating Live Data Sources

Increasingly, big data providers are making semi-live feeds of their data and analysis available online for free-to-access public consumption. The challenge for teachers was to know how and where to access these fantastic – but quite niche – resources. A solution to this challenge has been provided by Met Check (http://www.metcheck.com/UK/) – an evolution of a UK-based website that originally started in 1998 as a provider of 30-day forecasts for hobby groups. Now expanded, the website provides a single site gateway to access many of the highest quality data sources that show current weather for the UK.

Accessed via drop down menus, the site enables users to display animated images of a large range of weather options – from the standard Met Office synoptic chart and temperature distribution, through to satellite imagery and three-dimensional visualisation of rainfall patterns. There are still options aimed at specific hobbies – you may want to use these to theme your lesson, or link it to e.g. numeracy targets and wider cross-curricular projects and aims. Often, embedding weather components in to other lessons is a practical way to familiarise students with the idea of weather information as a source. Rather than learning from a textbook diagram, students can instead analyse and interpret live weather conditions – identifying the odd one out from a sequence of images of a similar feature, or producing a synoptic chart from the satellite imagery and conditions shown.

Example: How I teach … air masses

Perhaps more interesting is the extent to which we can start to utilise these sources as diagnostic tools. Take the classic lesson on the ‘air masses of the UK’ as an example. Ordinarily, we might draw a diagram showing the different air masses, and explain the expected weather conditions for each. However, using the Air Mass Satellite images (http://www.metcheck.com/UK/airmass.asp), we can see live images which have had an artificial colour applied to show what air mass they are. This RGB composite image can be paused, advanced and rewound – showing the development of conditions and the interaction at.

Taking this further, the map of the jet stream and forecast can be used to explain how this boundary exists – and what it might look like in the future. Students can now be actively involved in analysing, interpreting and predicting the systems – using higher order thinking to take apart and apply what they know to make competent predictions. Using the data, rather than simply observing it, is the first stage to a more engaging pedagogy of weather and climate processes.

Now we can connect this up to causes – switching to the jet stream from Earth Simulator, and looking to explain it. Again – what is the jet stream, and how does that drag air around? What does that mean? What can we learn from it? Roll it forward – what is the forecast for the jet stream, and how does that generate the potential for a weather forecast? Predict the weather based on the air masses – can you compare it to e.g. BBC Weather – and get it right?

Clearly, this kind of resource can be combined with the resources described previously: being able to visualise the wind patterns of a synoptic chart, or get a sense of how the atmospheric patterns and air masses of the satellite feed can generate a wind pattern. Students are able to see how the synoptic chart generates a frontal system, visible on satellite, and with RGB composite airmasses to explain how the depression is created. The Earth simulator shows how this wind appears at surface level, and higher in the atmosphere, demonstrating the role of the vorticity and jet stream in creating and exacerbating this particular event.

Implications:

The weather is a wonderfully dynamic and unpredictable system. Although the fundamentals of atmospheric physics are well understood, and we can effectively teach, represent and model them, there is no reason to limit our teaching to this approach alone. To really engage our students in higher order thinking about the weather, we need to be showing them how it really works – and utilising as many data sets and representations as possible. Use lots of websites, and keep challenging your students to look to the skies and explain what they see!

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