Mathematics and Climate, PUP Celebrates Math Awareness Month – April 2009

April 2009 is Mathematics Awareness Month, and this year’s theme focuses on the importance of mathematics in climate science.  Here, acquiring editors Ingrid Gnerlich (Physical Sciences) and Vickie Kearn (Mathematics) discuss why the theme of climate is so important this April. We plan to post a series of interviews with our authors that specialize in this area of research and hope you’ll return periodically to read those. All of our Math Awareness material will be gathered here, so please feel free to link through from your blog! So without further delay — on to Ingrid and Vickie’s post!

Why climate? Why now?

Math Awareness Month celebrates the many ways math is used by  scientists to study the climate and Ingrid Gnerlich and Vickie Kearn of PUP say that’s a good thing.

One of the biggest challenges of our time is to fully understand the complexity of the global climate system.  Climate science is an interdisciplinary field of research that encompasses atmospheric science, oceanography, geology, biology/ecology, and even space and planetary science.  Climate scientists conduct in-depth research on key components of the climate system— such as the carbon cycle, ocean and atmosphere circulation, the biosphere, and the cryosphere — with the ultimate goal of understanding how each facet works and exactly how every component influences the system as a whole.  By understanding the fundamental physics behind the essential parts of the climate system and how these parts interact, climate scientists can answer exciting questions, like how the ocean circulates heat around the planet and varies weather patterns, how the composition of the atmosphere affects global temperature, how the melting of polar ice caps can lead to feedback effects, and how the climate of our planet thousands of years ago compares to today’s – and they can make predictions about how the Earth’s climate can change if different aspects of the system are perturbed.

As anyone might guess, making predictions about anything is only possible if you start with deep understanding.  Long ago, people were unsure of whether spring would return each year after the cold, barren winter months; they didn’t understand what caused the phenomenon of spring, and so couldn’t make predictions with confidence.  Nowadays, we understand that the warm, long days of spring and summer come about when the hemisphere on which we live is tilted towards the Sun.  Our understanding gives us the freedom to make reliable predictions, and allows us to plan ahead, improve our quality of life, even live longer.  We take this knowledge for granted nowadays, but a predictive understanding of the phenomenon of spring only came as a result of the patient observation and the detailed calculations of dedicated, curious people many centuries ago.  Modern day climate scientists follow in the footsteps of those early scientists by seeking a predictive understanding of the global climate system, in hopes of benefitting humankind and all forms of life on Earth.  And, for their modern day tools, they use mathematics (calculus, differential equations, probability, statistics, and numerical analysis), physics, and computers.

How the Earth’s climate works, how it will change in the future, and how we can best plan for change on a global scale, are questions of enormous importance such as our species has rarely encountered – and math, physics, and computational science are essential to solving these fundamental problems.  This area of research draws upon many of our best minds, yet the field is filled with opportunities for new and important research and discovery, and it is wide open to innovation, as we look for new energy sources and to form new and better approaches to mitigating the potential effects of climate change.

At Princeton University Press, we aim to disseminate the highest quality information on climate science to students, researchers, and an engaged public.  Our authors and their books are meant to encourage intellectually curious readers, especially those who are talented in mathematics, to explore climate science as a remarkably stimulating, diverse, and impactful area of research.  In celebration of Mathematics Awareness Month, we hope that you will enjoy hearing from a few of our authors directly, regarding the fundamental importance of mathematics in their ongoing research on climate.