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Desert Diary


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Computer modeling is widely used in science. The trick is to include what's important and exclude the unimportant, thus simplifying the process that is being modeled to its significant features. Luckily, a feedback mechanism tends to correct models that don't reflect reality. Defective models simply refuse to reflect reality.

Climatic models, though useful, notoriously drift away from real world conditions—a clear message that we don't have everything right. Recently, one source of error has become apparent. Those clouds we see on occasion in our Chihuahuan Desert skies—and clouds elsewhere—are a lot darker than we thought. And darker clouds means more solar incoming energy absorbed in the clouds and less getting through to the ground. Since most weather is strongly affected by the distribution of heat, the old computer adage of "garbage in, garbage out" inevitably perturbs climatic models, all of which necessarily include such data. Thus that overwhelmingly important aspect of science—ts self-correcting nature—has come into play, giving us hope that climatic models and reality soon will more greatly resemble one another.

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Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.