Forum: Can maths save the planet?

Mathematician, Associate Professor David Warton, has worked on animals, plants, dinosaurs, criminals and casino games
Tuesday, 9 July, 2013

The number of questions maths and statistics can help answer about our planet - from dinosaurs and climate change to casino games - is increasing, writes Associate Professor David Warton.

As a school student I was always concerned about environmental issues - I kind of wanted to "save the world". I was also interested in maths, and it took a while to fully appreciate how well these two interests go together.

These days, I research ways to use data to answer important ecological questions which not long ago were very difficult to get a handle on. Some examples include the risks of climate change to biodiversity, learning about new and rarely-seen species when we have hardly any data on them, and inferring how extinct species lived from just the fossils of bones in their hands.

I've worked on plants, animals, dinosaurs, penguins, criminals and casino games, which shows that mathematical skills can help you get a foot in the door to all sorts of interesting problems.

Maths is highly valued, not just in environmental research, but also when it comes to decision-making on environmental issues.

Consider the widely discussed target of limiting carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to 450ppm. This is informed by mathematical modelling, which predicts an increase in the average temperature rise of about 2 degrees Celsius under the scenario.

Or consider how a species is assigned Critically Endangered status. One criterion is a 50 per cent chance of extinction over the coming 10 years, which, again, warrants some data and a whole lot of modelling.

Design of wildlife reserves is a Eureka award-winning example of how mathematics can cut through to decision-making. The Marxan software developed by Professor Hugh Possingham's team at the University of Queensland is used by governments designing wildlife reserves world-wide.

"Our software has even got Britain and France working together," says a tongue-in-cheek Professor Possingham.

Professor Richard Kingsford, Director of the Australian Wetlands, Rivers and Landscapes Centre at UNSW, also won a Eureka Prize for his contributions to the debate on Murray-Darling water use.

He employed a biostatistician to help understand the consequences of different decisions on Murray-Darling water usage.

"Statistics models were critical to the debate with many different lines of evidence essential to providing sufficient information to steel governments to make the right decision," Professor Kingsford says.

Another recent example of maths in action is the biosecurity work of Dr Andrew Robinson at the University of Melbourne, to improve how government allocates its resources to quarantine efforts.

And it looks like there are plenty more examples to come.  There has been something of a revolution going on in mathematics and statistics over the last couple of decades, driven by advances in computing and the new technologies this enables.

So, as the capacities of our number crunchers improve with time, will the range of questions maths can answer improve too?  "Yes" says Dr Robinson.

Something tells me he would be more than happy to elaborate...

Professor Kingsford and Dr Robinson will appear on a panel discussion and Q&A "Can Maths Save the Planet?", hosted by Mark Horstman from ABC's Catalyst program, Thursday July 11th at 5pm, Leighton Hall, The University of New South Wales.

Associate Professor David Warton is an ARC Future Fellow in the School of Mathematics and Statistics and the Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.