Stirring up some climate science

Everything is connected. At least, that is part of the premise of Bean Thinking, where the physics of a coffee cup is used to explore the physics of the wider world. So it was great to stumble upon a new connection that I had not previously appreciated¹.

vortices in coffee

Like the vortices behind a spoon dragged through coffee….

The connection is between climate science and that wonderful pastime of pulling a spoon through coffee and watching the vortices form behind it. Yet the research that revealed this connection was not looking for links between coffee and the atmosphere. Instead the researchers were interested in something seemingly (and hopefully) very far from a coffee cup: rogue waves.

Rogue waves are rare and extremely large waves that have been the subject of mariners tales for many years. Nonetheless, it is only relatively recently that they have become the subject of scientific research, partly because they are so rare and so outside our usual experience that they were thought to be the stuff of myth rather than of science. So it is only now that we are developing an understanding of how it can be that, in amongst a number of smaller waves, a massive wave of 20m height can suddenly appear, apparently out of nowhere. One of the groups looking at this problem investigated the effect of a particular sort of (known) instability on a series of waves in water. However, unlike other research groups, this particular study included the effect of the air above the water as well as the waves themselves.

Small waves seen from Lindisfarne

Rogue waves seem to come out of nowhere. A rogue wave can be 2 or 3 times the height of the other waves in the water at the time. How and why do they form?

Although this sounds a simple idea, modelling water waves in air is actually extremely complex. To do so, the authors of the study had to use a computer simulation of the air-water interface. It is not the sort of problem that can be solved analytically, instead the computer has to crunch through the numerical solutions. In order to start to see what was going on with the rogue waves, the authors had to simulate multiple waves of different amplitudes. Each simulation took weeks to perform. Given that this was only a few years ago (the study was published in 2013), you can start to see why people had previously been approximating water waves as waves in water (without worrying too much about the air interface).

Now here is where the link with coffee comes in. The group modelled waves as a function of steepness and found that, above a critical steepness, the wave breaking caused significant interaction between the air and the water layers. In addition to the bubbles that form when waves break, the movement of the air over the breaking wave formed into a vortex which, when it interacted with the back of the wave created an opposite vortex: a vortex dipole “much like the vortices that form behind a spoon dragged through a cup of coffee“.

Rayleigh Benard cells in clouds

The water droplets that form clouds are often ‘seeded’ by particles of salt or dust, such as the aerosols distributed by the vortices in this wave study. Image shows clouds above the Pacific. Image NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

Just as with the vortices in the coffee cup, vortices were forming in the air behind the wave crest (which acted as the spoon) and travelled upwards through the atmosphere and away from the waves. As each wave broke, a train of vortex dipoles were produced that twirled off into the sky. Imagine a coffee bath and multiple spoons rather than a coffee cup. The authors suggested that these vortices could carry aerosols from the sea (salt, water droplets etc) into the atmosphere. Travelling within the vortices, these tiny particles could travel far further and far higher than we may have expected otherwise. Such aerosols can be critical for cloud formation and so the effect of these breaking waves could be important for climate modelling.

While an undergraduate, I had an opportunity to study a course in atmospheric physics. I remember the lecturer lamenting that while we (as a community, but not really as the students sitting in the lecture theatre at that time) understood atmospheric modelling quite well and that we understood how to model the oceans fairly well, we got problems when we tried to put the two sets of models together. It was clear that something wasn’t quite right. Years later, it seems that at least past of the reason for that is linked to those vortices that you see as you pull your spoon through your coffee cup.

Everything is connected indeed.

A summary of the study can be found here. The abstract (and link to the pdf) of the published paper can be found here. If you do not have access to the journal through a library, an early, but free, version of the paper is here – note though that this version may not include the amendments included after peer review.


¹A quote attributed to Jean-Baptiste Biot (1774-1862), is perhaps relevant here “Nothing is so easy to see than what has been found yesterday, and nothing more difficult than what will be found tomorrow.”

An opportunity to become a cafe-scientist

coffee, Timberyard, wooden tray

A great place to sit and do some citizen science: Timberyard, Seven Dials has plenty of seats outside.

There are many things to be gained from putting down your smart phone when you enter a café. Firstly, there is the opportunity to fully experience the coffee. The sounds as it is made, the smell, the taste, even the feel of the coffee. Then there is the opportunity for people watching; their behaviour as they order their coffees or have their meetings or try to alleviate boredom while playing with their smartphones. Of course, there is also the opportunity to look at the history of the café and its surroundings, to think about a café-physics review or just slow down and notice things. There’s always something interesting going on.

If you are lucky enough though to be in Athens, Barcelona, Belgrade, Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Manchester, Milan or Rome there is now even more reason to put down that phone while you savour your coffee. By doing so, you could be helping scientists with a few questions that they have about atmospheric pollutants. If you are not in one of those cities, you miss out this time, but you may want to keep reading because if enough people get involved now, perhaps next time the iSPEX-EU project may come near you.

contrail, sunset

What sort of aerosols and pollutants are floating in the atmosphere above your head at this moment?

The question is, what are the atmospheric pollutants that are in the air near where you are now? Perhaps you are in a café on a main road and the answer seems obvious, it is those cars and buses that keep passing by. But there are in fact many forms of atmospheric aerosols or particles and they range in size from a few nanometers to tens of microns (which, in terms of coffee grind is from much smaller than the smallest Turkish coffee to approximately the size of a small particle in an espresso grind). Is it really so clear that where you are, in the centre of that big city, is that polluted? If on the other hand you are on the coast in Barcelona, just how salty is that salty sea air? The iSPEX-EU project allows you to measure it and find out.

These particles of dust, salt and soot etc. can have  an effect on human and animal health, so clearly we want to know more about their distribution and their prevalence. But there are also, more subtle reasons why we may want to know about them. They may have an effect on global warming and they are certainly needed in order for clouds to form, (though as yet we still do not fully understand this process). We need more data about what aerosols are around and where they are to start to know what questions to ask (let alone answer) about health, the climate and cloud formation. Yes, we have satellite measurements and pollution data at specific locations, but what people are missing is that local information. What are you actually breathing? When you look up at the blue sky, what pollutants (or other type of aerosol) are you looking through? Can we get enough data to know how the air quality varies between the cafés of Hackney and those of Hammersmith?

Skylark Wandsworth

Another ideal cafe for iSPEX-EU measurements, great coffee and a lovely outdoor seating area at Skylark cafe, Wandsworth Common

To get this data the scientists involved in iSPEX-EU need people, many people. People who are willing to spend 5 minutes turning their iPhone (sadly it is an iPhone-only project) into a pollution detector. The more people that they can get measuring, the more data that they will be able to obtain. All you need is an app from the App-store and a (free) device that fits over your iPhone camera which you can pick up from somewhere local to you. Then, you just take a seat outside the café on a lovely blue sky day between now and the 15th October, aim your phone at the sky and take a series of photographs which are shared back with the scientists coordinating the project. If you are curious to know how your air quality compares with that in another participating city, you can check the live map to see how the measurements are going across Europe.

The device works by looking at the colour spectrum as well as the polarisation of the light reaching the camera as a function of angle. This information gives tell-tale clues as to the size of the aerosols as well as their prevalence. There is a lot more information on the website of the iSPEX-EU project and so I would recommend that if you do want to know more, you click their link here. In the meantime, why not sign up with iSPEX-EU, take a seat outside in that café and enjoy a great coffee knowing that, as you do so, you are contributing to our understanding of atmospheric science.

If you do decide to participate, please let me know of any great locations that you find, both for the coffee and the measurements, or share your pollution measurements with me in the comments section. I look forward to seeing some great data on the live map.

To get involved with the iSPEX project, you can follow the link here.