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Quantifying risk in a changing world

By Katharine de Baun

Landscapes at danger due to climate change

Note: this article is part of a series on how Oregon State scientists are working to mitigate climate change. Read more: Warm Oceans need Cool Science (introduction), Informing Policy and Sustaining Resources.

In 2016, our planet reached the highest temperature on record for the third year in a row according to independent analyses by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Analyzing big data to model our evolving future is mission critical in an era of potentially catastrophic global warming.

“Statistical analysis and data science are key to discoveries and innovation,” says Sastry G. Pantula, dean of the College of Science. New fields involved in big data like bioinformatics are often interdisciplinary and collaborative.

“Solving major complex issues …requires teams with a diversity of expertise across science, mathematics and statistics. An interdisciplinary cohort enhances depth in core areas, breadth of communication across various fields, and strength in statistical and computational skills,” adds Pantula. Scientists at Oregon State work with big data to tackle climate change on many fronts.

Big data for the next generation

Mathematician Juan M. Restrepo is Chair of the Focus Group on Climate in the American Physical Society. He works on improving weather and climate forecasts by combining data and weather models, and is presently focused on finding ways to compute statistics of rare and extreme weather events. Some of the methods developed in this line of research lead to adaptive ways to respond to disasters, such as flooding and hurricanes.

Juan Restrepo in front of brick wall

Juan M. Restrepo, mathematician

Restrepo and statistician Alix Gitelman are co-principal investigators in a $3 million NSF Research Traineeship to prepare a new generation of scientists capable of assessing and communicating risk and uncertainty in the development of marine resource management strategies and policies. The student teams comprise future scientists, engineers and social scientists, who are trained to work with big data, engineered and natural systems, and stake-holders. Restrepo, together with students, statistician Claudio Fuentes and engineer Harry Yeh, is developing improved methods for forecasting and responding to tsunami disasters.

Models for real-world problems and solutions

Mathematician Malgo Peszynska and her students collaborate with geophysicists, engineers, microbiologists and others to create mathematical models that are accurate, fast and relevant to better understand a warming climate. The models predict how warming temperatures can trigger the release of huge pockets of methane gas trapped in ocean sediments, and how leakage could occur if carbon dioxide emissions are pumped into the ground.

Malgo Peszynska in front of shrubbery

Malgo Peszynska, mathematician

Mathematician and biologist Patrick De Leenheer is at the leading edge of mathematical biology, a new branch of study that has evolved in recent decades as research in biology and medicine becomes increasingly dependent on mathematics and computation.

De Leenheer uses dynamical mathematical models to describe and illuminate biological processes ranging from the cellular to the ecological scale. He has helped develop new modeling approaches for the analysis and design of Marine Protected Areas to enhance fisheries as part of an NSF-funded project. He has also published studies on critical thresholds for extinction in population growth models and has been modeling the effects of climate change on disease severity.

Huge impacts, tiny creatures

The smallest known free-living cells, plankton SAR11, discovered by microbiologist Stephen Giovannoni, are so dominant that their combined weight exceeds that of all the fish in the world’s oceans. En masse, the tiny creatures produce enough sulfur gasses to play an important role in cloud formation and the stabilization of Earth’s atmosphere.

Stephen Giovannoni in from of wooden wall

Stephen Giovannoni, microbiologist

Collaborating with scientists around the world, Giovannoni is now building a database of plankton genomes collected from faraway places, from Massachusetts to Bermuda and the Sargasso Sea, against which future changes in the oceans can be assessed. Understanding the role of plankton is critical to accurately model climate change and its effects.

Read the rest of this series on how scientists at OSU are tackling global warming: