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LSU Coast & Environment Class Modelling a 'Frozen' Ice Age

Posted at 9:36 AM, Nov 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-22 10:36:45-05


BATON ROUGE - Paul Miller, assistant professor and coastal meteorologist in the Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences, is using popular culture as an entry point by which his students can understand complex environmental interactions in a fun and meaningful way. In this fall's "Modelling the Marine Atmosphere" course, he taught students how to run a meteorological modelling experiment based on the movie, "Frozen."

"It makes the homework and assignments more engaging. It's something they can relate to that's fun to tell their friends and parents about so they retain the information better," Miller said.

In the movie, Princess Elsa accidentally starts turning everything to ice at her coronation. When Elsa realizes she can walk across the ocean, turning the seawater to ice beneath her feet, the movie illustrates a clear transition from spring-like to winter-like conditions. It appeared to Miller that Princess Elsa prompted an "ice age" by converting the open seawater to total sea ice. Miller decided to test the meteorological authenticity of this scene with his students by using atmospheric modelling.

"The idea was to investigate whether a change in the ocean surface from water to ice could actually cause the dramatic cooling that occurred in the movie," Miller said.

Miller approximated Elsa's coastal geographic location based on comments the directors of "Frozen" previously made to the press that one of the greatest inspirations for the film's setting was Norway. Based on the characters' clothing, he estimated the film is set in the 1840s. Other visuals, such as flowers in bloom and the presence of characters wearing short sleeves, indicated to him that the story takes place in spring, around May. In the spirit of utmost accuracy, Miller used a historical meteorological data set that stretched back to 1851, as far back as the data was available, to inform his model.

Using this referential information, Miller and his students ran two weather simulations over a section of the Norwegian coast: one with open ocean water, reflecting the conditions prior to Elsa's coronation, and one with total sea ice, reflecting the conditions afterward. Miller and his class found that the environmental changes shown in the film were plausible based on their simulations.

"Norway is far enough poleward that without the nearby relatively warm ocean temperatures the climate would be much cooler even during late spring. I was kind of surprised that the change was that dramatic in the simulation that I ran. After the change to complete sea ice, the average temperature dropped from 41°F to 32°F; however, in the simulations it took a little bit longer-about 24 hours, to really achieve that level of cooling," Miller said.

The students seemed to enjoy the whimsy of the assignment as well as the opportunity to show off their modeling skills.

According to Lexi Nelson, a student in the class, "Completing this assignment enabled me to use my modeling skills I have learned throughout the semester and apply them to a fun, well-thought-out experiment. I gained insight into unique and creative ways to develop and employ weather model simulations, which I plan to use in my research."