Maths vs Climate Change

Fans of Dr. Tom Crawford (maths professor at the University of Oxford) and his mathematics-dedicated YouTube channel Tom Rocks Maths will have noticed his latest video has quite a different theme to the usual playful and quirky (and occasionally nude...) lectures. In the episode ‘Mathematically calculating your carbon footprint’, Tom uses an online tool (and then the old fashioned chalkboard and arithmetic method) to calculate his carbon footprint. Thanks to calculus, it’s possible for Tom, and all of us who take the test, to understand our personal impact on climate change - and to process the scale of the problem when this is multiplied by 7 billion…

However, it’s reassuring to know that maths can also play a big part in the solution. Here are four ways in which maths can have a positive impact on our climate!

1. Optimising renewable energy

At the heart of our low-carbon future are renewable energy sources. Optimising the position of renewable energy sources such as solar panels, wind farms, and tidal to produce maximal energy can be modelled with maths, and so can also be solved (thanks calculus). Mathematicians are part of the key research teams that study supply and demand of energy networks and thanks to their differential equations, the lights stay on on days without wind!

1. Supercomputing

Computing the solutions to equations requires computers, the more powerful the better. While the year on year improvements to processing power of our current computers is important and impressive, fundamental technological improvements such as redesigning the algorithms of a program or a breakthrough in an area like quantum computing will allow much more data to be processed much faster. The reduction in energy demand in mass production of such technologies would also have a significant impact.

1. Preparation

The effects of climate change will be felt (and are already being felt) across all aspects of life. Knowledge will be key to protecting society and adapting, and, while we can never be certain, probability is still an extremely useful tool to at least help us be prepared. From governments making decisions on which infrastructure will be most cost effective and long lasting with changing weather patterns, to businesses in the agriculture industry planning for supply chain issues due to drought, the tools of probability and the statisticians who know how to use them will prove vital to being ready.

1. Improving weather forecasting

Extreme weather will become more frequent with a warming planet and so the more accurately the timing of these events can be predicted, the greater chance of minimising the impact. Computer programs written by mathematicians solve complex equations that model the earth’s atmosphere and how it behaves, from jet streams across the Atlantic to local rain clouds.