Special Program: Mathematics of Planet Earth 2013+: Overview

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, 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 has stepped forward to embrace this role through participation in the Mathematics of Planet Earth (MPE) project (

In their introduction to a Special Feature in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on 'Sustainability Science', Clark and Dickson note, "In seeking to help meet this sustainability challenge, the multiple movements to harness science and technology for sustainability focus on the dynamic interactions between nature and Society." These interactions are complex and do not abide disciplinary boundaries. They require understanding of physical and biological processes that are overlaid by human political and economic processes. Mathematical models give us: insights about these complex interactions and how to monitor and measure the health of our planet; tools for analyzing and interpreting the massive amounts of data that are collected; and methods to mitigate and control human impact.

MPE was launched by a group of mathematical sciences research institutes to promote awareness of the ways in which the mathematical sciences are used in modeling the earth and its systems both natural and manmade. MPE aims to increase the contributions of the mathematical sciences community to protecting our planet by: strengthening connections with other disciplines; involving a broader community of mathematical scientists in related applications; and educating students and the general population about the relevance of the mathematical sciences. MPE's mission is to increase engagement of mathematical scientists researchers, teachers, and students in issues affecting the earth and its future.

MPE was conceived as a year-long project slated to begin in January 2013, involving mainly North American institutions. It has since evolved to become a truly worldwide initiative and now includes partners from all continents and endorsement by the International Mathematical Union, International Council of Applied and Industrial Mathematics, International Commission of Mathematical Instruction, and UNESCO, among others. As MPE has gained members, it has become clear that there is momentum to propel it beyond 2013. The problems facing our planet will persist, and this proposed project will involve mathematical scientists in laying the groundwork for a long-term effort to surmount them.

We plan to sustain MPE activities beyond 2013 by: 1) conducting five research workshops that will each define a set of future research challenges; 2) establishing a Research and Education Forum (REF) associated with each workshop that will involve follow-up smaller group meetings to flesh out the challenges, identify potential follow-up activities, and begin collaborations; 3) holding an education workshop that helps to identify how to integrate themes identified in the research workshops into undergraduate and graduate curricula; 4) finding ways to involve the next generation of mathematical scientists in the effort, with special emphasis on involving under-represented minorities in the MPE workforce of the future, especially through a conference directed specifically at preparing participants for involvement in the research workshops; and 5) disseminating information about the mathematics of planet earth by creating a website and other publicity materials for the project.

Background: Mathematics of Planet Earth in 2013 (MPE 2013)

The mission of MPE 2013 is to:

During 2013, scientific activities relating mathematical sciences to issues of import to the planet will be organized and held by research institutes and societies for the mathematical sciences around the globe. MPE 2013 plans roughly 10 long-term programs, 10 summer schools, 50 workshops, numerous special sessions at professional society meetings, and distinguished public lectures. These activities will be hosted at over 30 institutions worldwide. This is truly an ambitious activity with an international scope. Without claiming to be exhaustive, MPE organizers have identified four subthemes:

MPE is being organized by a variety of committees with world-wide membership, including an "Umbrella" Leadership Committee and committees focusing on workshops, public awareness, education, etc. These committees coordinate activities among the many participating institutes and societies.

Mathematics of Planet Earth beyond 2013 (MPE 2013+)

The challenges facing our planet will not go away after the year 2013. Thus, the MPE 2013+ program is designed to continue to engage the mathematical sciences community in addressing these challenges after MPE 2013 is concluded. MPE 2013+ will build on MPE 2013 activities, leverage the many partnerships that MPE 2013 helped to establish, broaden and deepen our understanding of earth¢s issues, strengthen multidisciplinary contacts, lay a course for future research, and propel MPE activities into the future.

We will organize the project around the following five research workshops deliberately given very broad themes that will become more and more focused as research and education forums get to work and meet to address smaller, more specific topics. The workshop themes are:

  1. Management of Natural Resources (including water, forests, and food supplies)
  2. Sustainable Human Environments (including smarter cities, "biomes", and security)
  3. Natural Disasters (monitoring, responding to, and mitigating their effects)
  4. Data-aware Energy Use (including alternative energy investment portfolios, smart grid, smart buildings, electric vehicles)
  5. Global Change (including observation, metrics, and mitigating and adapting to the effects of change)

Each workshop will form working groups that together seed an associated Research and Education Forum (REF). Each workshop will have a session on education that will identify topics for inclusion in a sixth education-oriented workshop.

The workshops are intended to review/outline mathematical sciences challenges. Since the workshop themes are deliberately broad, the participants will split into smaller groups, to continue the activity after the workshop. Just as we want MPE 2013 to be the start of an effort, we want each MPE 2013+ workshop to be the start of more focused activities to follow. Smaller groups identified during the workshop will continue to work together, to involve their students and postdocs, and add collaborators. Our project budget includes funds to allow these smaller groups to collaborate virtually and for some of them to meet physically. Together they will form a growing Research and Education Forum (REF). In many ways our REFs will be organized like the "SQuaREs" of the American Institute of Mathematics (AIM), which has been taking a major organizational lead in MPE. One difference is that many follow-up activities will be virtual. The organizers for each workshop will also form the REF organizing committee, and will assure that REF working groups are formed and remain active.

Each MPE 2013+ workshop will have a session on educational activities, with an Education Chair coordinating it. The education groups identified at the five research workshops will, with additional participants, become part of a sixth workshop and subsequent REF devoted to planning a roadmap for education, highlighting the role of the mathematical sciences in understanding and sustaining the planet.

We will introduce participants to the MPE2013+ activity by preparing them to participate in the workshops (research and education) that we will run through a "pre-workshop". The participants will be graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty, with an emphasis on those in the mathematical sciences and those not yet having prior exposure to topics represented in MPE and in particular in the workshops we plan. We will include an introduction to each of the five research workshop topics, providing needed background in both the mathematics and the subject matter such as natural disasters or global change.

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Document last modified on October 9, 2012.