If a dark wizard chops down a forest -- technically a renewable biofuel -- to feed the machine of industry, is his carbon footprint still zero? What are the fugitive methane levels of dwarfish gem mines? How much carbon is sequestered by the average adult Ent?

If these are the questions that keep you awake at night, rest easy -- researchers at the University of Bristol in England are on the case.

Using techniques similar to those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the researchers recently produced a set of simulations depicting climate systems on Middle Earth, the fantastic world created by J.R.R. Tolkien that serves as stage for his "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings."

Their findings, published via the University of Bristol, explore the rain-shadow effects of the Misty Mountains, crop viability in the black lands of Mordor and the importance of Elvish High Councils in determining future climate sensitivity.

"Because climate models are based on fundamental scientific processes, they are able not only to simulate the climate of the modern Earth, but can also be easily adapted to simulate any planet, real or imagined, so long as the underlying continental positions and heights and ocean depths are known," said professor Richard Pancost, director of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol.

An author, poet, professor and linguist, Tolkien crafted his world in minute detail, creating a meticulous geography of coastlines, mountains, forests and oceans. Using these invented topographies as a spatial map, the Bristol researchers ran a U.K. Met Office climate model to simulate atmospheric, oceanic and land surface conditions -- much in the same way that paleoclimatologists reconstruct weather patterns for early and pre-human history.

Cloudy with a chance of brimstone
Residents of Middle Earth would have experienced a climate similar to that of Western Europe and North Africa, they found, with regional differences based on topography.

Northeasterly regions like the Shire and Rivendell would have seen cool weather and ample rain moving in from the western seas, giving them a climate similar to that of Belarus in Eastern Europe or Leicestershire in the United Kingdom.

Farther west, the craggy peaks of the Misty Mountains would block much of that precipitation, casting a rain shadow over much of the inland kingdom. Tolkien, appropriately, termed these areas the "Brown Lands."

To the south, the dark realm of Mordor -- described in the Tolkien books as "a barren wasteland, riddled with fire, ash, and dust," where "[t]he very air you breathe is a poisonous fume" -- would have had a climate comparable to West Texas, according to the report.

Forests would have lined much of the country's interior, the authors note, possibly extending in a continuous mass all the way from the Shire to Isengard. The confidence of this particular finding is relatively low, however, since Tolkien's trees tended to uproot themselves and wandered around in packs.

An alternative view of the past
According to his letters, Tolkien created his Middle Earth narratives, in part, as an origin mythology for his native England. While the country's neighbors all enjoyed some kind of epic explaining their place on Earth -- the ballad of Beowulf in Denmark, Scandinavia's Norse mythology or the Kalevala in Finland -- England's checkered past of conquest and conflict deprived it of a mythic origin of its own.

According to biographer Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien once said that "the theater of my tale is the Earth, the one on which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary." The author is said to have set the "Lord of the Rings" story line between 6,000 and 7,000 years ago.

In Earth history, that would have placed Gandalf, Frodo and Co. squarely in the mid-Holocene, a climatically mild period in the middle of the current interglacial. Scientists suspect climatic conditions during this time were relatively warm, particularly in northern latitudes, perhaps explaining why the hobbits in Tolkien's stories never had to wear shoes.

While the Bristol study was obviously meant to be tongue-in-cheek, the authors hope it will encourage the public to seek out more information on climate modeling and climate change.

"A core part of our work here in Bristol involves using state-of-the-art climate models to simulate and understand the past climate of our Earth," said Dan Lunt, a senior research fellow in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol.

"By comparing our results to evidence of past climate change, for example from tree rings, ice cores, and ancient fossils of plants and animals, we can validate the climate models and gain confidence in the accuracy of their predictions of future climate," he added.

The modeling project did not receive funding of any kind and was conducted during the authors' spare time.

Copies of the report are available online in English, Elvish and Dwarvish.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500