This article discusses the role of geophysical fluid dynamics (GFD) in understanding the natural environment, and in particular the dynamics of atmospheres and oceans on Earth and elsewhere. GFD, as usually understood, is a branch of the geosciences that deals with fluid dynamics and that, by tradition, seeks to extract the bare essence of a phenomenon, omitting detail where possible. The geosciences in general deal with complex interacting systems and in some ways resemble condensed matter physics or aspects of biology, where we seek explanations of phenomena at a higher level than simply directly calculating the interactions of all the constituent parts. That is, we try to develop theories or make simple models of the behaviour of the system as a whole. However, these days in many geophysical systems of interest, we can also obtain information for how the system behaves by almost direct numerical simulation from the governing equations. The numerical model itself then explicitly predicts the emergent phenomena—the Gulf Stream, for example—something that is still usually impossible in biology or condensed matter physics. Such simulations, as manifested, for example, in complicated general circulation models, have in some ways been extremely successful and one may reasonably now ask whether understanding a complex geophysical system is necessary for predicting it. In what follows we discuss such issues and the roles that GFD has played in the past and will play in the future.
A contribution to the special feature ‘Perspectives in astrophysical and geophysical fluids’.
- Received February 24, 2016.
- Accepted July 22, 2016.
- © 2016 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.