Wheel of Time is set thousands of years from now, yet it’s still burdened with today’s climate change

The epic fantasy series has been turned into a tv show on Amazon.

Wheel of Time, the 14-book epic fantasy now turned into an Amazon Prime TV series, is a medieval-style adventure set in the Third Age of the World of the Wheel. While not explicit in the storyline, notes from the late author suggest that the First Age was actually modern-day Earth, which ended with a dramatic event (perhaps even climate change). From these notes, we estimate the show takes place around 18,000 years from today.

For climate scientists like us, this poses an interesting question: would today’s climate change still be experienced in the World of the Wheel, even after all those centuries?

About a quarter of carbon dioxide emitted today will remain in the atmosphere even 18,000 years from now. According to biogeochemistry models, carbon dioxide levels could be as high as 1,100 parts per million (ppm) at that point. That’s compared with a present-day value of 415ppm. This very high value assumes that the Paris climate goals will be exceeded and that many natural stores of carbon will also be released into the atmosphere (melting permafrost, for instance).

But the high carbon dioxide concentrations do not necessarily mean a warmer climate. That’s because, over such a long period, slow changes in the orbit and tilt of the planet become more important. This is known as the Milankovitch Cycle and each cycle lasts for around 100,000 years. Given that we are currently at the peak of such a cycle, the planet will naturally cool over the next 50,000 years and this is why scientists were once worried about a new ice age.

But will this be enough to offset the warming from the remaining carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? The image below shows a version of the classic warming stripes, a ubiquitous symbol of the past 150 years of climate change, but instead applied over 1 million years:

Annotated stripes
Warming stripes of Earth (and the World of the Wheel) for a million years. Today’s climate crisis will disrupt the Milankovitch cycle and its effects will last for many thousands of years.
Authors modified from Dan Lunt et al, Author provided

You can clearly see the 100,000 year Milankovitch cycles. Anything red can be considered anthropogenic climate change, and the events of the Wheel of Time are well within this period. Even the descending Milankovitch cycle won’t be enough to counteract the increased warming from carbon dioxide, and so the inhabitants of the World of the Wheel would still experience elevated temperatures from a climate crisis that occurred 18,000 years ago.

Simulating the weather of the World

However, some of the weather changes from the still-elevated temperatures could be offset by other factors. Those 18,000 years aren’t very long from a geological perspective, so in normal circumstances the landmasses would not change significantly. However, in this fantasy future magical channelers “broke” the world at the end of the Second Age, creating several new supercontinents.

To find out how the climate would work in the World of the Wheel, we used an exoplanet model. This complex computer program uses fundamental principles of physics to simulate the weather patterns on the hypothetical future planet, once we had fed in its topography based on hand-drawn maps of the world, and carbon dioxide levels of 830ppm based on one of the high potential future carbon pathways.

According to our model, the World of the Wheel would be warm all over the surface, with temperatures over land never being cold enough for snow apart from on the mountains. No chance of a white Christmas in this future. Here the story and the science diverge, as at times snow is mentioned in the Wheel of Time. The long-term effects of climate change may have surpassed the imagination of its author, the late great Robert Jordan.

An animated map with arrows
A simulation focused on where The Wheel of Time events take place, showing surface winds (white arrows).
climatearchive.org, Author provided

The World of the Wheel would have stronger and wavier high-altitude jet streams than modern-day Earth. This is likely because there are more mountain ranges in the World of the Wheel, which generate atmospheric waves called Rossby waves, causing oscillations in the jet. There is some limited evidence that the jet stream gets wavier with climate change as well, although this is likely to be less important than the mountain ranges. The jet would bring moisture from the western ocean on to land, and deposit it north of the Mountains of Dhoom. Surprising then, that this region (The Great Blight) is so desert-like in the books – perhaps there is some magic at play to explain this.

Our simulation of the World of the Wheel, showing the jet stream (red and yellow arrows), surface winds (white arrows) and cloud cover (white mist). Source: https://climatearchive.org/wot.

Winds would often revolve around two particularly enormous mountains, Dragonmount and Shayol Ghul, before blowing downslope and reaching far across the land masses. The peak of Dragonmount itself is nearly always surrounded by clouds, and this is because the mountain is so large the winds travelling up it force surface moisture to higher altitudes, thus cooling it, and forming clouds.

The fact winds would be so different from modern-day Earth is predominantly caused by topography, not the underlying increased temperatures from climate change. Nevertheless, in the World of the Wheel, it is clear that despite the extremely long time since carbon polluted the atmosphere, the inhabitants are still exposed to warmer than usual temperatures.

Acknowledging just how long the effects of climate change will persist for should be a catalyst for change. Yet, even after accepting the facts, we face psychological barriers to subsequent personal action, not least because comprehending the timescales of climate change requires a considerable degree of abstraction. But, given the known changes in extreme weather from climate change, and given how long these changes will remain, we must ask ourselves: how would the mysterious and powerful Aes Sedai stop the climate crisis?The Conversation


This blog is by Caboteers Professor Dann Mitchell, Professor of Climate Science, University of Bristol; Emily Ball, PhD Candidate, Climate Science, University of Bristol; Sebastian Steinig, Research Associate in Paleoclimate Modelling, University of Bristol; and Rebecca Áilish Atkinson, Research Fellow, Cognitive Psychology, University of Sussex.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dune: how high could giant sand dunes actually grow on Arrakis?

Frank Herbert first published his science-fiction epic Dune back in 1965, though its origins lay in a chance encounter eight years previously when as a journalist he was tasked to report on a dune stabilisation programme in the US state of Oregon. Ultimately, this set the wheels in motion for the recent film adaptation.

The large and inhospitable sand dunes of the desert planet Arrakis are, of course, very prominent in both the books and film, not least because of the terrifying gigantic sandworms that hunt any movement on the surface. But just how high would sand dunes be on a realistic version of this world?

Before the movie was released, we took a scientific climate model and used it to simulate the climate of Arrakis. We now want to use insights from this same model to focus on the dunes themselves.

Sand dunes are the product of thousands or even tens of thousands of years of erosion of the underlying or surrounding geology. On a simple level, they are formed by sand being blown along the path of the prevailing wind until it meets an obstruction, at which point the sand will settle in front of it.

There is certainly no shortage of wind on Arrakis. Our simulation showed that wind would routinely exceed the minimum speed required to blow sand grains into the air, and there are even some regions where speeds regularly reach 162 km/h during the year. That’s well over hurricane force.

Diagram of sand dune formation
How sand dunes are formed. David Tarailo / US National Park Service / Geological Society of America

Sand dunes in the book are said to be on average around 100 metres high. However, this isn’t based on actual science, more likely it’s what Herbert knew from his time in Oregon as well as the world we live in. But we can use our climate model to predict what the general (and maximum) attainable height might suggest.

Where the wind blows

The size and distance between giant dunes are determined not simply by the type of sand or underlying rock, but by the lowest 2km or so of the atmosphere that interacts with the land surface. This level, also known as the planetary boundary layer, is where most of the weather we can see occurs. Above this, a thin “inversion layer” separates the weather below from the more stable higher-altitude part of the atmosphere.

The growth of sand dunes and theoretical height is determined by the depth of this boundary layer where the wind blows. Sand dunes stabilise above the wind at the altitude of the inversion layer. The height of the boundary layer – usually somewhere between 100 metres to 2,000 metres – can vary through the night as well as the year. When it is cooler, it is shallower. When there is a strong wind or lots of rising warm air, it is deeper.

Arrakis would be much hotter than Earth, which means more rising air and a boundary layer two to three times as high over land compared with ours. Our climate model simulation, therefore, predicts dunes on Arrakis would be as high as 250m, particularly in the tropics and mid-latitudes. That’s about three times the height of the Big Ben clock tower in London. Most regions would have a more modest average height of between 25m and 75m. As the boundary layer is generally higher everywhere on Arrakis the average dune height is in general twice that of Earths.

map with shaded areas
Predicted sand dune height (in metres) on Arrakis. Farnsworth et alAuthor provided

We were also able to simulate the space between dunes, which can also be determined by the height of the boundary layer. Spacing is highest in the tropics, a little over 2km between the crest of one giant sand dune to the next. However, in general, sand dunes have a spacing of around 0.5 to 1km crest to crest. Still plenty of room for a sandworm to wiggle through. Scientists looking at Saturn’s moon Titan have run this same process in reverse, using the space between dunes – easy to measure with satellite images – to estimate a boundary layer of up to 3km.

As nothing can grow on Arrakis to stabilise these sand dunes they will always be in a state of constant drift across the planet. Some large dunes on Earth can move about 5m a year. Smaller dunes can move even faster – about 20m a year.

A visualisation of the authors’ climate model of Arrakis. Source: climatearchive.org/dune.

Mountain-sized dunes?

Our simulation can only give the general height that most sand dunes would reach, and there would be exceptions to the rule. For instance, the largest known sand dune on Earth today is the Duna Federico Kirbus in Argentina, a staggering 1,234m in height. Its size shows that local factors, such as vegetation, surrounding hills or the type of local sand, can play an important role.

Given Arrakis is hotter than Earth, has a higher boundary layer and has more sand and stronger winds, it’s possible a truly mammoth dune the size of a small mountain may form somewhere – it’s just impossible for a climate model to say exactly where.

Scientists have recently revealed that as the world warms the planetary boundary layer is increasing by around 53 metres a decade. So we may well see even bigger record-breaking sand dunes as the lower atmosphere continues to warm – even if Earth will not end up like Arrakis.The Conversation


This blog is written by Caboteers Dr Alex Farnsworth, Senior Research Associate in Meteorology, University of Bristol and Dr Sebastian Steinig, Research Associate in Paleoclimate Modelling, University of Bristol and Dr Michael Farnsworth, Research Lead Future Electrical Machines Manufacturing Hub, University of Sheffield,

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dune: we simulated the desert planet of Arrakis to see if humans could survive there

Dune, the epic series of sci-fi books by Frank Herbert, now turned into a movie of the same name, is set in the far future on the desert planet of Arrakis. Herbert outlined a richly-detailed world that, at first glance, seems so real we could imagine ourselves within it.

However, if such a world did exist, what would it actually be like?

We are scientists with specific expertise in climate modelling, so we simulated the climate of Arrakis to find out. We wanted to know if the physics and environment of such a world would stack up against a real climate model.

Here’s a visualisation of our climate model of Arrakis:

You can zoom in on particular features and highlight things like temperature or wind speed at our website Climate Archive.

When we were done, we were very pleased to discover that Herbert had envisioned an environment that for the most part meets expectations. We might need to occasionally suspend disbelief, but much of Arrakis itself would indeed be habitable, albeit inhospitable.

How do you build a fantasy world like Arrakis?

We started with a climate model commonly used to predict weather and climate here on Earth. To use these sorts of models you have to decide on the physical laws (well-known in the case of planet Earth) and then input data on everything from the shape of mountains to the strength of the sun or the makeup of the atmosphere. The model can then simulate the climate and tell you roughly what the weather might be like.

We decided to keep the same fundamental physical laws that govern weather and climate here on Earth. If our model presented something completely strange and exotic, this could suggest those laws were different on Arrakis, or Frank Herbert’s fantastical vision of Arrakis was just that, fantasy.

Height map (in metres) of Arrakis.
Farnsworth et al, Author provided

We then needed to tell the climate model certain things about Arrakis, based on the detailed information found in the main novels and the accompanying Dune Encyclopedia. These included the planet’s topography and its orbit, which was was essentially circular, akin to the Earth today. The shape of an orbit can really impact the climate: see the long and irregular winters in Game of Thrones.

Finally, we told the model what the atmosphere was made of. For the most part it is quite similar to that of the Earth today, although with less carbon dioxide (350 parts per million as opposed to our 417 ppm). The biggest difference is the ozone concentration. On Earth, there is very little ozone in the lower atmosphere, only around 0.000001%. On Arrakis it is 0.5%. Ozone is important as it is around 65 times more effective at warming the atmosphere than CO₂ over a 20-year period.

Having fed in all the necessary data, we then sat back and waited. Complex models like this take time to run, in this case more than three weeks. We needed a huge supercomputer to be able to crunch the hundreds of thousands of calculations required to simulate Arrakis. However, what we found was worth the wait.

Arrakis’s climate is basically plausible

The books and film describe a planet with unforgiving sun and desolate wastelands of sand and rock. However, as you move closer to the polar regions towards the cities of Arrakeen and Carthag, the climate in the book begins to change into something that might be inferred as more hospitable.

Yet our model tells a different story. In our model of Arrakis, the warmest months in the tropics hit around 45°C, whereas in the coldest months they do not drop below 15°C. Similar to that of Earth. The most extreme temperatures would actually occur in the mid-latitudes and polar regions. Here summer can be as hot as 70°C on the sand (also suggested in the book). Winters are just as extreme, as low as -40°C in the mid-latitudes and down to -75°C in the poles.

This is counter intuitive as the equatorial region receives more energy from the sun. However, in the model the polar regions of Arrakis have significantly more atmospheric moisture and high cloud cover which acts to warm the climate since water vapour is a greenhouse gas.

gif of temperatures
Monthly temperatures on Arrakis, according to the model. Both poles have very cold winters and very hot summers.
Author provided

The book says that there is no rain on Arrakis. However, our model does suggest that very small amounts of rainfall would occur, confined to just the higher latitudes in the summer and autumn, and only on mountains and plateaus. There would be some clouds in the tropics as well as polar latitudes, varying from season to season.

The book also mentions that polar ice caps exist, at least in the northern hemisphere, and have for a long time. But this is where the books perhaps differ the most from our model, which suggests summer temperatures would melt any polar ice, and there would be no snowfall to replenish the ice caps in winter.

Hot but habitable

Could humans survive on such a desert planet? First, we must make an assumption that the human-like people in the book and film share similar thermal tolerances to humans today. If that’s the case then, contrary to the book and film, it seems the tropics would be the most habitable area. As there is so little humidity there, survivable wet-bulb temperatures – a measure of “habitability” that combines temperature and humidity – are never exceeded.

The mid-latitudes, where most people on Arrakis live, are actually the most dangerous in terms of heat. In the lowlands, monthly average temperatures are often above 50-60°C, with maximum daily temperatures even higher. Such temperatures are deadly for humans.

Four people in black rubbery suits in desert
Stillsuit models, autumn 10191 collection.
Chiabella James / Warner Bros

We do know that all humanoid life on Arrakis outside of habitable places must wear “stillsuits”, designed to keep the wearer cool and reclaim body moisture from sweating, urination and breathing to provide drinkable water. This is important as stated in the book that there is no rainfall on Arrakis, no standing bodies of open water and little atmospheric moisture that can be reclaimed.

The planet also gets very cold outside of the tropics, with winter temperatures that would also be uninhabitable without technology. Cities like Arrakeen and Carthag would suffer from both heat and cold stress, like a more extreme version of parts of Siberia on Earth which can have both uncomfortably hot summers and brutally cold winters.

It’s important to remember that Herbert wrote the first Dune novel way back in 1965. This was two years before recent Nobel-winner Syukuro Manabe published his seminal first climate model, and Herbert did not have the advantage of modern supercomputers, or indeed any computer. Given that, the world he created looks remarkably consistent six decades on.

The authors modified a well-used climate model for exoplanet research and applied it to the planet in Dune. The work was carried out in their spare time and is intended as an appropriate outreach piece to demonstrate how climate scientists use mathematical models to better understand our world and exoplanets. It will feed into future academic outputs on desert worlds and exoplanets.The Conversation

This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment members, Dr Alex Farnsworth, Senior Research Associate in Meteorology and Dr Sebastian Steinig, Research Associate in Paleoclimate Modelling, University of Bristol; and Michael Farnsworth, Research Lead Future Electrical Machines Manufacturing Hub, University of Sheffield.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.