Non-diffusive atmospheric flow #2: outline & plan

27 Aug 2014data-analysis

As I said in the last article, the next bit of this data analysis series is going to attempt to use Haskell to reproduce the analysis in the paper: D. T. Crommelin (2004). Observed nondiffusive dynamics in large-scale atmospheric flow. J. Atmos. Sci. 61(19), 2384–2396. Before we can do this, we need to cover some background, which I’m going to do in this and the next couple of articles. There won’t be any Haskell code in any of these three articles, so I’m not tagging them as “Haskell” so that they don’t end up on Planet Haskell, annoying category theorists who have no interest in atmospheric dynamics. I’ll refer to these background articles from the later “codey” articles as needed.

The problem

So what’s the problem that this paper considers?

We all live in the atmosphere, and we’re all intimately familiar with its different moods. The weather can change from day to day and from place to place, and superimposed on that short-term variability are larger scale patterns of climate variability, both temporal (the seasons, slower natural cycles like El Niño, responses to point events such as volcanic eruptions, as well as longer term trends due to human influence or other factors) and spatial (Manila is warmer than Vladivostok!).

Understanding all the factors involved in the variability of weather and climate is a big topic, but people who study the dynamics of the atmosphere have observed that short-term variations (day-to-day weather) tend to be more random and less predictable than some longer-term variations. One way of thinking about this is that there is some large-scale nonlinear dynamics that influences the slower variations, and shorter-term random variations are forced on top of that.

In some senses, everyone has experience of this: it’s quite common, even in the middle of winter in many places, to experience periods of a few days of fine weather in between periods of atrocious weather. On a weather map this might appear as a stable region of high pressure hanging around for a few days before being swept off to be replaced by storms and rain.

So, can we do some science to try to understand some aspects of what’s going on here? In this little study, we’re going to use a single atmospheric data set that’s reasonably easy to explain and the data analysis approach from Daan Crommelin’s paper to try to answer these questions:

We’re going to take a brutally instrumental approach to atmospheric physics, dynamical systems theory, and a dozen other fields. I am going to lie outrageously to steer us out of deep waters, I am going to skim fearlessly past technical details, “funnies” and many interesting topics on which an interested reader could base a whole PhD thesis. Instead, I’m going to focus on the data analysis tasks we need to do to follow the chain of reasoning in the paper. I will try to introduce just as much atmospheric physics and dynamical systems theory as is needed to understand what’s going on and to motivate the data analysis, but no more.

The plan

I think of scientific data analysis as involving four main steps: data intake, pre-processing, the main analyses and data visualisation. In a typical problem, you’ll iterate over some or all of these steps multiple times. As we work on our atmospheric data analysis problem, we’ll see aspects of each of these four steps:

Data intake

The data that we’re going to use is held in NetCDF files, and we’ll use some of the techniques from the last post to read and process these in Haskell.


The data we’re going to use is a very general “reanalysis” data set that contains lots of different atmospheric data at relatively high spatial resolution. We’re going to be interested in large-scale patterns in the Northern Hemisphere winter atmosphere, so we’re going to do some spatial and temporal subsetting, and we’re also going to remove the seasonal cycle from our data (I’ll explain why later). All of these tasks are common pre-processing steps when dealing with climate data. We’ll write our pre-processed data into a NetCDF file for further analysis.

Main analyses

In order to answer the questions we’re interested in, we need to do a number of different analyses. First, we need to look for spatial patterns in the atmosphere. For this, we’ll use a standard technique called principal components analysis (PCA). Once we have some patterns, we’ll use an interesting method to simplify the results to help with visualisation and to set things up so that we can do some significance testing to figure out whether these patterns are in some sense “real”. This step will involve kernel density estimation to build a kind of probability distribution function for our patterns.

Once we’ve identified these spatial patterns, we need to look at dynamics, i.e. transitions between different patterns. To do this, we’ll build a Markov chain representing probabilistic transitions between different patterns. We can then partition the transition matrix of this Markov chain into diffusive (“random”) and non-diffusive (not quite “deterministic”, but more predictable) parts and see what we can see. The final step will be to try to determine whether the transitions that we find (which will be stated probabilistically) are statistically significant. As well as the method used to do this in the paper, I might have a play with another approach that I’ve been thinking about.


Data visualisation is important during all of the preceding steps. When you first get a data set, you usually want to do some sort of “quick look” or exploratory visualisation to get some idea of what you have, what pre-processing you might want to do and what main analyses might make sense.

During and after pre-processing, data visualisation is used to check on results as you go and to look at your final pre-processed data to ensure that it has the properties that you expect.

Once you move on to the main analyses, you obviously need to visualise your results one way or another, both as you go along, to make sure that things are working and to help come up with ideas of what to do next, and then, once you’re done, to prepare high-quality visualisations for publication.

There are at least four different kinds of data visualisation that are needed in many projects (the last two aren’t always needed):

  1. a highly interactive exploratory environment for exploratory data analysis and the kind of “quick and dirty” visualisation you need to do when first looking at a data set;

  2. a scriptable tool for producing visualisations of low-to-intermediate “working” quality to use as you work on the data analysis–it’s often the case that you’ll want to do multiple analyses of the same type and view the results together, or that you’ll get some details of an analysis wrong first time and need to rerun it and reproduce all your plots;

  3. a tool for producing high-quality visualisations for final publication;

  4. a tool for producing interactive web-based visualisations.

(I won’t talk about the fourth item on this list too much, although for simple data, I tend to use the Radian HTML plotting library that I wrote, which is based on the much more flexible D3.js library.)

If the data that you’re dealing with is simple enough, you can often use the same tool for all of the first three items on this list. If you just need some scatter and line plots, more or less any tool will do the job. When things are more complicated, you have a combination of different kinds of data and you need a wide range of different kinds of visualisation, you may end up using three or four different tools. In our atmospheric data example, we’re going to need to produce the following types of plot: Northern Hemisphere polar projection map plots of atmospheric patterns, some scatter and line plots, and projections of probability distribution functions on a sphere (in various different ways with various different kinds of annotations).

I tend not to be very dogmatic about data visualisation tools, primarily because I have experience of trying to use inappropriate tools (“because they’re the tools I use!”) and struggling, then switching over to a more appropriate tool and producing the results I wanted very quickly and easily. In this series of articles, I’m not going to try to do all the data visualisation in Haskell, since it’s kind of a waste of time, both because there aren’t any good existing data visualisation tools in Haskell yet, and because I want to concentrate on the data analysis side of things. I’ll talk about the tools I use and how best to drive them from Haskell as we go along.