SIAM News Blog

Math, Sustainability, and Planet Earth

Math Awareness Month Poster 2013.
As this issue of SIAM News goes to press, preparations for the celebration of Mathematics Awareness Month in April have produced impressive results. So far, five essays on this year’s theme, Mathematics of Sustainability, have been posted at

The organizing committee members for Math Awareness Month 2013 are Victor Donnay of Bryn Mawr College (chair), Thomas Pfaff of Ithaca College, Catherine Roberts of Holy Cross College, and Mary Lou Zeeman of Bowdoin College. Each is the author or a co-author of one of the essays. 

Like all the activities, the essays are directed mainly to mathematically (and environmentally) inclined students at the high school and early university level. As Donnay, Pfaff, and Roberts point out in the opening essay on the role of math in addressing issues of sustainability in a complex changing world:

“At present, 50% of the world’s population live in cities. . . .  City planners are looking at the overall systems that support life in a city (transportation, water supplies, storm water management, trash) and considering the benefits of creative green approaches. To prevent future catastrophic flooding, such as occurred during Hurricane Sandy, should New York City build a huge sea wall for protection or revive its coastal wetlands which reduce storm surges naturally? . . . Planners and engineers have to do the math and determine how well the various approaches will work and how much they will cost."

In an essay on resource management, Colin Clark of the University of British Columbia asks: “How can we manage a given renewable resource, such as a marine fish population, or a forest, in a sustainable way? And what forces tend to prevent sustainable harvesting? Can we identify an ‘optimal’ harvest strategy, in some sense, and how could it be implemented? These questions have been, and probably must be addressed by using mathematical models.” Clark concludes by presenting a simple model.

Zeeman and co-authors Thomas Eisner, Lynn Fletcher, Jason Hamilton, and David McCobb contributed an essay titled “Empower Your Students: Bring a State of the Planet Course  to Your School.” In it, they briefly describe State of the Planet, a multidisciplinary course developed by graduate students and faculty at Cornell. The course, which “was an instant success among students,” is about “how we can address the global crises we collectively face.” The authors describe the original course vision and offer implementation tips, including: “Note that the vision is extremely robust, and can be given whatever slant works for you at your school, from mathematical analysis of climate data to inspiring behavior change through the arts.”

Also at SIAM News press time, the U.S. launch of the international Mathematics of Planet Earth 2013 was under way in San Diego, at the Joint Mathematics Meetings. Reports on MPE13-related sessions at JMM, along with articles on activities of the mathematical institutes in Canada and the U.S. that support MPE13, will appear in forthcoming issues of SIAM News.

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