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A system and method for simulating atmospheric turbulence for testing optical components. A time varying phase screen representing atmospheric turbulence is generated using Karhunen-Loeve polynomials and a splining technique for generating temporal functions of the noise factor for each Zernike mode. The phase screen is input to a liquid crystal spatial light modulator. A computer display allows the user to set geometric characteristics, the severity of the turbulence to be simulated, and to select between methods for generating atmospheric turbulence including Karhunen-Loeve polynomials, Zernike polynomials, and Frozen Seeing.