In this review, we highlight the complementary relationship between simple and comprehensive models in addressing key scientific questions to describe Earth’s atmospheric circulation. The systematic representation of models in steps, or hierarchies, connects our understanding from idealized systems to comprehensive models, and ultimately the observed atmosphere. We define three interconnected principles that can be used to characterize the model hierarchies of the atmosphere. We explore the rich diversity within the governing equations in the dynamical hierarchy, the ability to isolate and understand atmospheric processes in the process hierarchy, and the importance of the physical domain and resolution in the hierarchy of scale.
We center our discussion on the large scale circulation of the atmosphere and its interaction with clouds and convection, focusing on areas where simple models have had a significant impact. Our confidence in climate model projections of the future is based on our efforts to ground the climate predictions in fundamental physical understanding. This understanding is, in part, possible due to the hierarchies of idealized models that afford the simplicity required for understanding complex systems.