Global warming is one of our most urgent challenges – and finding a solution in time will require an understanding of the complex processes behind climate and weather, as well as oceans and climate change. With the clock ticking for our rapidly changing climate, the countdown is on – and it’s the ocean keeping time.
Professor Matthew England, a physical oceanographer from the University of NSW, says understanding the link between oceans and climate change is a highly mathematical problem.
“The flow of the oceans is governed by mathematical equations that are underpinned by the physical laws of nature,” he says. “You have to be able to work with these equations to understand the climate.”
In maths speak, these Navier-Stokes equations describe the movement of a fluid. Scientists use them to model ocean currents and weather, including El Niño events (swings in ocean temperature in the Pacific that bring drought to Australia) as well as the global climate, so they can describe both oceans and climate change.
Ocean of potential
Matthew was studying mathematics at university when he came across oceanography almost by accident. “I loved maths, but I wanted to apply it to a real-word problem,” he says. “I didn’t know about the field of oceanography but I was thrilled to discover it really needed maths.”
With the fundamentals covered, scientists can wind back the clock to find out how past climates compare to today’s rate of change. Ailie Gallant from Monash University uses statistics to compare modern and historical climate data. “I’m trying to understand why we get droughts,” she says. “Using rainfall records and mathematical climate models, I can work out whether droughts today are unusual or not.”
After finding maths challenging at school, Ailie realised she couldn’t learn about weather and climate at uni without it. “Applying maths to something I enjoyed made it easier,” she says. “There’s a way for everyone to understand maths, you just have to find something that makes sense – for me it was weather.”
Ailie also studies ancient climates, records of which are stored in tree rings, coral skeletons and ice cores. “I have to use statistical methods to put all that data together and make ice comparable with trees and coral,” Ailie says. “Maths is the language we use to understand those different things.”
– Jo Khan
Maths & Environment Jobs
Climate scientist (environmental scientist): $51K–$94K
Oceanographer: $39K– $108K*
*Source: Salaries according to payscale.com
Author: STEM Contributor
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