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Cal Poly faculty and staff in the College of Math and Science are analyzing data from 40 to 60 million-year-old ice cores to study how the climate has behaved in the past in an effort to better understand how it is changing now.

Cal Poly joined the Mathematic and Climate Change Research Network on Oct. 1. The analysis of ice core data is Cal Poly’s contribution to the network.

The network is made up of 13 universities across the nation. Its primary goal is to introduce mathematical problem solving techniques, such as data analysis and computer models, to the study of climate change.

“We can’t go to a lab and run the Earth through tests,” said Charles D. Camp, assistant professor of mathematics. “Our only choices are to look at the historical records or use computer models.”

Cal Poly’s work will reveal information about how the climate has evolved in the past. This knowledge will help climatologists better understand how the climate is changing now, Camp said.

Ice cores are records of the climate that give researchers a photograph of the climate in the past. Air bubbles trapped within the ice allow scientists to measure levels of various gasses, including carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases from the time the ice was formed, Camp said.

Computer models are another tool the network wants to use to study climate. The network plans to create a range of models that will help climatologists run better tests and simulations in order to understand how the climate is changing.

“We want to create a deeper hierarchy of models that use equations to look at how energy moves between different systems,” Camp said. “This helps us to understand how the climate shifts between different states.”

The underlying objective of the network, which is to create a link between the participating institutions, creates more research opportunities for Cal Poly math and science students. Most of the universities involved have a research component, which is an element that Cal Poly lacks, Camp said.

“That is particularly useful here because we don’t have a wealth of undergraduate students and postdoctorals,” Camp said. “It effectively is providing a deeper research structure that people here can connect with.”

All the schools involved will be connected virtually, with logistical support provided by Renaissance Computing Institute. Karen Green, director of communications for the institute, said the universities will meet weekly on the Internet to discuss their findings with each other.

Other institutions in the network include the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Arizona State University, University of California, Berkeley and the University of Chicago.

Christopher Jones, distinguished professor of mathematics at UNC Chapel Hill and the lead investigator for the project, said Cal Poly was chosen as a member of the network primarily because of Camp’s expertise in the area of data analysis.

The results of the project will be published in peer-reviewed journals in addition to other media outlets, including campus media at the universities involved, Jones said. The network wants to reach out to young math students and broadcast the importance of integrating mathematics into the study of climate change.

“We want a young generation of mathematicians to know that math has an important role in the study of climate,” Jones said.

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