Teaching Weather and Climate Using Laboratory Experiments
Laboratory experiments have made a central contribution to our understanding of the fluid mechanics of 'natural fluids,' the field of Geophysical Fluid Dynamics (GFD). For example, laboratory experiments were the first to demonstrate that in many ways rotating fluids do not behave like fluids at all--they become rigid parallel to the axis of rotation. This property has wide implications to phenomena ranging from Jupiter's Great Red Spot, to the circulation of the atmospheres and oceans. Furthermore, regime transitions in rotating annulus experiments led Lorenz to ask questions that set the stage for his discovery of chaos and a new branch of science.
Rotating fluid experiments could be and should be, but rarely are, at the center of teaching GFD at undergraduate and graduate levels in our schools and universities. Typically, students coming to the field have no background in fluid mechanics and no exposure to the non-intuitive nature of rotating fluid dynamics. Yet our experience is that simple, but artfully chosen laboratory experiments are the most effective way of educating all students--irrespective of their sophistication and intuition in math and physics--in basic fluid principles and teaching them how to move between phenomena in the real world, laboratory abstractions, theory and models.