2018 SIAM Conference on Mathematics of Planet Earth


The second SIAM Conference on the Mathematics of Planet Earth (MPE) was held this September 12-15, in Philadelphia, PA. SIAM MPE is held every two years and this year it drew a lively group of researchers from several different countries and research areas. The overarching theme of the conference was mathematics as it relates to Earth as a physical, biological, or social system, or in general as a system at risk.

The plenaries of the conference highlighted the major themes. The first plenary, by Clint Dawson (University of Texas at Austin), discussed his work in modeling hurricane storm surges. This talk, in particular, was timely, as hurricane Florence, one of the major hurricanes of 2018, was heading toward landfall the next day. In his talk, Dawson discussed the mechanics of the storm surge model he works with, which uses the shallow water equations for modeling long waves and a water action balance equation to model short waves. When coupled with existing flood plain maps, this model gives a window into where flooding may be most extreme and suggests where interventions may mitigate flooding. This talk was an energizing one to start the conference with, as it emphasized how modeling is currently being used to help us understand the physics and risks of hurricanes.

The second plenary, by Suzanne Lenhart (University of Tennessee at Knoxville and NIMBioS), focused on optimal control of PDE models for fish habitats and controlled forest fires. Each modeling study was conducted with the perspective to inform economic decision-makers, either with fish harvesting strategies, or suggestions for suppression vs. prevention budgeting for forest fires. This talk highlighted the interface of biological and economic modeling and provided excellent examples of actionable ways in which each area can benefit from the other.

The third plenary, by Bertrand Lemasson (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), detailed his work interpreting navigational motion in animals as indicators of social behavior. This work involved an experimental assessment of collective dynamics in zebrafish with a goal of determining the manner or extent to which fish will change their decisions based on influences by other fish simulated as shadows projected from above. The fourth and final plenary, by Claudia Sagastizábal (UNICAMP, Brazil), discussed modeling power grids, using optimization and control techniques to address challenges like pricing energy access.

The minisymposia and contributed sessions, as expected for a conference gathered around an area of application, were organized around either a particular type of application or a type of modeling technique. A particularly interesting minisymposium I went to was Linking Scales in Earth’s Sea Ice System, organized by Noa Kraitzman, Elena Cherkaev, and Ken Golden (all University of Utah). This session contained some great talks on current work in modeling either Arctic or Antarctic sea ice. I, along with Yuxin Chen (Northwestern University), organized a minisymposium on mathematical methods for conceptual climate models, and we had some great discussions during the session. Out of the other talks I attended, one that stood out to me was a presentation by Gerard Olivar Tost (Universidad Nacional de Colombia) on a socio-ecological network model for sustainable development.

In addition to research talks, there were several talks and a minitutorial about incorporating Math of Planet Earth topics into the classroom. The minitutorial, led by Kathleen Kavanagh and Joseph Stufca (both Clarkson University), gave concrete examples of modeling projects they used in their calculus courses, such as a cane toad modeling problem, or modeling efficient energy usage in a campus greenhouse. The presenters provided excellent detail in terms of how they generated, structured, and assessed the projects. The concrete information they provided was great for people who would like to implement such projects in their courses.

There were a few posters at the conference, and the presentation of the posters was very well-organized. The posters were put up on the first day of the conference in the main coffee area and remained up throughout the conference. They provided an excellent focal point around which to hold conversations during coffee breaks.

At the business meeting we discussed the timing of the conference, whether to hold it jointly with another SIAM conference, and ways to keep attracting and retaining more members to the conference. For many, the conference was held either just after or just before classes began, which some reported as a hindrance to attendance. We discussed moving the conference to sometime in the spring, perhaps to be held jointly with another activity group’s conference. The final point of discussion at the business meeting was to ask the junior SIAG members what could be done to improve the conference for them. There are more junior members in MPE than in many other activity groups, and a few junior members expressed a desire for some networking space (e.g., a table or two in a common area for people to gather and collaborate at), or dedicated time for collaboration during or after the program. A few junior researchers had made plans to dedicate some time for collaboration after the conference ended, and they expressed the idea that future conferences may benefit from including such time, even informally, in the program to help engender conversations.

In all, I really enjoyed this conference. The conference was lively and had a friendly and collaborative atmosphere. It was my first time attending, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about applications and techniques that I am less familiar with in the realm of Math of Planet Earth, in addition to some talks in my area of expertise. I will make plans to return for the 2020 conference, and I would encourage anyone interested in Math of Planet Earth to attend.

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