SIAM News Blog

Math of Planet Earth Takes Up Challenges Set by Successful Predecessor

By Fred S. Roberts

With the human population recently having surpassed 7 billion, protecting the earth and its resources is a shared challenge facing all of humanity. People need food, housing, clean water, and energy; yet the earth’s systems and dynamics are unpredictable, and its resources are limited. We need to understand the impact of our actions on the environment, and we need to learn how to adapt those actions to lessen our impact, how to predict and respond to catastrophic events, and how to plan for changes to come. The most pressing problems are inherently multidisciplinary, and the mathematical sciences have an important role to play.

A large community of mathematical scientists from around the world, often joined by scientists from other disciplines, stepped forward to embrace this role through participation in Mathematics of Planet Earth 2013. With scientific activities directed both to the mathematical sciences community and to their potential collaborators in other disciplines, MPE2013 proved that many issues related to weather, climate, ecology, sustainability, public health, natural hazards, and financial and social systems lead to interesting mathematical problems. MPE2013 came to a highly successful close on December 31, 2013.* Planning is now under way for a variety of continuing activities in the extended project known as Mathematics of Planet Earth.

Moving Forward: MPE2013+ in the United States

In the U.S., with support from the National Science Foundation, we have initiated Mathematics of Planet Earth 2013+, which aims to involve mathematical scientists in sustained long-term MPE activities. MPE2013+ will operate under the auspices of the DIMACS Center, based at Rutgers University, under the leadership of Fred Roberts, a professor of mathematics and director emeritus of DIMACS. Activities will be organized around six clusters of topics: Management of Natural Resources, Sustainable Human Environments, Natural Disasters, Data-aware Energy Use, Global Change, and Education for the Planet Earth of Tomorrow.

A kickoff workshop will be held for each cluster, in 2014 or 2015 at a location somewhere in the U.S. Follow-up activities extending into 2016 and beyond will include focused research workshops, small group meetings, collaborative programs, and educational efforts, each organized by one of the six cluster organizing committees. Funds are available for participation in both the workshops and the follow-up activities of the clusters, with an emphasis on involvement of graduate students, post- docs, and junior faculty. Information about the workshops and other cluster activities can be found here.

Arizona State University hosted the launch of MPE2013+ in January with a workshop titled Mathematics of Planet Earth: Challenges and Opportunities. Speakers, including Carlos Castillo-Chavez, introduced the six major themes of MPE2013+, discussing the mathematical challenges and emphasizing ways in which students and early-career researchers can get involved.
Although MPE2013+ is planned primarily as a U.S. activity, discussions are under way with organizers of MPE activities in other countries. The cluster activities will be open (on a space-available basis) to participants around the world; organizers and speakers of some scheduled activities are from France, Australia, and other countries.

MPE2013+ was inaugurated in January 2014 at Arizona State University at a workshop titled Mathematics of Planet Earth: Challenges and Opportunities. The workshop exposed students and junior researchers to challenges facing our planet, the role of the mathematical sciences in addressing those challenges, and opportunities to get involved in the effort. The workshop introduced the six major themes of MPE 2013+, and participants engaged in lively dialogues as to suggested areas of emphasis for the different clusters.

The Six Main MPE2013+ Clusters

The Sustainable Human Environments cluster will have its kickoff workshop at DIMACS, April 23–25. The key themes will be data in “smart cities,” the role of anthropogenic biomes (or urban ecosystems), security, and urban planning for environmental change. The cluster actually got an early start with the workshop Urban Planning for Climate Events, held at DIMACS in September 2013. A follow-up activity for the cluster is planned for the University of Paris–Dauphine (dates to be determined).

The second kickoff workshop, for the Global Change cluster, will be held at UC Berkeley, May 19–21. Overview talks will cover mathematics and global process modeling, massive data set management and analysis, methods for modeling and analyzing trophic food webs, and methods for analyzing and managing epidemic outbreaks. Each kickoff workshop will have a session on challenges in education, and the one scheduled for this workshop promises to be particularly interesting: How are the challenges of rapid global change to be communicated to the public?

The cluster on Data-aware Energy Use will begin with a kickoff workshop in September 2014 (dates to be announced) at UC San Diego. Themes will include alternative energy investment portfolios, smart grids, smart buildings, and electric vehicles.

The kickoffs for the remaining three clusters will be held in 2015, beginning with Natural Disasters at Georgia Tech, May 13–15, 2015. Specific themes are under discussion, but possible topics include quarantine and behavior change; hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes; oil spills; health emergencies; stockpiling; evacuation modeling; and prediction of rare events.

Howard University will be the site of the Management of Natural Resources cluster kickoff, June 4–6, 2015, with discussion topics to include water, forests, fisheries, and food. The organizers plan to emphasize topics that cut across the different application areas, such as game theory or stochastic dynamic programming for management of uncertain resources. Other topics include sustainability and complex systems, rapid evolution and sustainability, and sustainable management of living natural resources. Cluster activities in collaboration with groups in Latin and Central America are under consideration.

NIMBioS (the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis) at the University of Tennessee will host the kickoff for the cluster on Education of the Planet Earth of Tomorrow, in the fall of 2015. This cluster will build on the educational successes of MPE2013. As MPE education coordinator Mary Lou Zeeman of Bowdoin College points out, the curriculum material developed for MPE2013 has provided schools and educators with a wealth of free-of-charge material and will be used for many years to come. The initiative has already acquainted the public, schools, and media with challenging applications of mathematics, with significant answers to such questions as: What is mathematics useful for? Each of the other cluster workshops will include a session on education challenges relevant to its field, under the direction of the cluster’s education chair; the chairs will bring ideas from the other clusters to the program for the education cluster.

Additional information about MPE2013+ can be found here and can also be obtained from DIMACS at

Moving Forward: Worldwide MPE Activities

Plans to continue MPE are under discussion in a variety of countries outside the US, including Canada, the UK, Portugal, France, Australia, and Tanzania. Through MPE, there will be efforts to coordinate these worldwide activities. 

MPE Blog

The mission of MPE2013 was reflected in the Daily Blogs (one in English, the other in French), each of which has featured close to 300 posts. The blogs, under the dedicated leadership and editorship of Hans Kaper of Georgetown University (and SIAM News), have been receiving several hundred hits a day. They can be read here.

The blog continues (though not necessarily on a daily basis). We are especially interested in blog posts by students. SIAM will award a prize for the best student blog submitted between now and the end of May, with the winner to receive a Student Travel Award to a SIAM meeting. New posts can be sent to

*A survey of MPE2013 activities by Hans Kaper, which appeared in the October 2013 issue of SIAM News, can be found here. Detailed information about MPE2013 is available here.

Fred Roberts is an American mathematician, a professor of mathematics at Rutgers University, and a former director of the Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science at Rutgers.

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