Can numbers, algebra and trigonometry save the planet? This was the question put to experts during a panel discussion at Imperial hosted by the Grantham Institute and the Mathematics of Planet Earth CDT. CDT students Paula Rowińska and Tom Bendall report back on seven ways that mathematicians are already working towards securing our planet’s future.
From meteorology to economics, a wealth of scientific research will be necessary to improve our understanding of climate change, its impacts and what we can do to prepare for them. Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find mathematicians doing their bit to save the planet in a multitude of ways:
1. Designing better weather forecasts and climate models
Accurate weather forecasts predict when and where extreme weather may strike, whilst climate projections are key to identifying weather patterns changing on a longer time scale. Our ability to predict weather and climate has advanced in leaps and bounds in the last few decades, thanks to maths. Modern weather forecasts rely on computers to solve the complex equations that simulate the atmosphere’s behaviour – from global processes that influence the flow of the jet stream down to local rain clouds.
Mathematicians play an important role in this process, working with a set of equations that describe the atmosphere, taking into account temperature, pressure and humidity. Global Circulation Models (GCMs) describe the interactions between oceans and atmosphere to look at what the average conditions could be in decades to come.
2. Getting ‘bang for buck’ out of supercomputers
The computers used to model weather and climate get more powerful every year – but sheer processing power isn’t everything. Maths makes these computers far more effective both through contributing to technological improvements in areas like quantum computing, and by rethinking the algorithms used in computer programs. For instance, new research allows the computer to automatically zoom its attention in on areas where the weather is particularly interesting, such as around storms.
Optimising computers’ performance can also reduce their energy demand. For example, the Met Office’s Cray supercomputer runs on 2.7 MW of electricity, so even modest efficiency gains could have a massive impact on its overall energy consumption.
3. Making the most of renewable energy sources
Renewable energy sources lie at the heart of a low-carbon world. By choosing optimal locations for wind or solar farms and designing the most effective layouts for tidal and wind turbine arrays, mathematicians ensure that these technologies harvest the maximum energy as efficiently as possible.
Mathematicians contribute to research into energy supply and demand that ensures networks incorporate higher proportions of weather-dependent energy sources such as wind or solar power, making sure that the lights stay on in years to come.
4. Preparing for change
The effects of climate change will be felt on many levels, and knowledge is key to safeguarding human health and livelihoods as we adapt to changing circumstances. Mathematicians use their understanding of probability and uncertainty to advise policymakers on the likelihood of heatwaves, floods or other changes in weather patterns, and help them to plan accordingly.
Businesses also need detailed information on how climate change might affect them. The food industry for example is highly dependent on agriculture, and could use advance warning of an upcoming drought for instance to prepare themselves for smaller yields. Mathematicians try to predict who might be at risk so they can prepare for the future.
Moreover, mathematical simulations are a valuable tool for estimating the possible consequences of specific actions, by playing out different scenarios. This too can help policymakers choose one course of action over others. By presenting the hard numbers, mathematicians with an environmental conscience can seek to influence the ways businesses operate.
5. Making sense of ‘big data’
Collecting billions of pieces of data in environments, from ice sheets to cities, can deliver precious insights into our planet’s physical processes, human behaviour and everything in between. Climate scientists rebuild the history of our planet’s atmospheric composition by analysing the tiny bubbles trapped in ice records, in order to anticipate the scope of future changes. But without the statistical methods that mathematicians bring to analyse this data and assess its reliability, the information has less value.
6. Developing new technologies
New technologies are key to a low carbon future. carbon capture and storage (CCS), for instance, could safely lock away greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuel-fired power stations, and is likely to play a key role in averting dangerous levels of global warming. Detailed mathematical models make this research possible by using sophisticated logistics methods, network analysis, statistical modelling and many other mathematical tools.
7. Making maths accessible to everyone
Crucially, maths can’t save the planet on its own. Many of the global challenges we face are multi-disciplinary: overcoming them requires mathematicians to collaborate with scientists and engineers in different fields. And although the basic science behind climate change is well understood, convincing the general public and decision makers to take action to reduce carbon emissions is very much a work in progress. With their firm grasp of concepts such uncertainty and probability, Mathematicians are uniquely placed to communicate the science, data and forecasts, and ensure that this information is meaningful to the people who need it.
For maths to have a real impact on our planet’s fate, mathematicians therefore need to communicate the importance of their work clearly and effectively, knowing when to swap complicated equations for persuasive story-telling, pictures, games or genuine interaction. Opening up maths up for the world to understand might just be the best way that we can come to our planet’s rescue.
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Tom and Paula are PhD students at the Mathematics of Planet Earth Centre for Doctoral Training, jointly run by the University of Reading and Imperial College London. The Centre is training a new generation of mathematicians from varied backgrounds to tackle problems in the area of weather, climate and oceans. Tom’s current research focuses on describing the effects in fluids of processes smaller than the resolution of the model, whilst Paula works on improving the methods of simulating from complicated multidimensional functions.