“Through Adversity to the Stars”

Basic research in math, science and engineering is the lifeblood of major technological advances and innovations that can accelerate climate solutions and propel society toward a more sustainable future.

Ken Golden measuring the fluid permeability of sea ice off the coast of East Antarctica. Photo by Jan Lieser.

Distinguished Professor of Mathematics Ken Golden, dubbed the “Indiana Jones of mathematics,” delivered the opening remarks of the second day of the Wilkes Climate Science & Policy Summit, May 16-17 at the Alumni House, University of Utah.

Below is a transcript.

Alta Ski Resort, which is just 26 miles from here, had a whopping 903 inches of snow this season, delighting skiers with tons of fresh powder all year up until a few weeks ago, and Solitude Resort is still open! But what about 10, 20, 50 years down the road? Suppose you’re in the ski industry, or an investor? Was this the start of a period of great abundance for our ski resorts? Or was it an aberration, a last gasp before the climate system settles into a drier equilibrium that may not be so favorable to skiers? And what about our neighbors in Colorado or in the Sierra Nevada?

With such questions in mind, I’m delighted to welcome you all to day two of our Wilkes Climate Summit which will provide deeper dives into the science behind these and other questions, as well as plenary and keynote addresses on issues that affect all of us. You’ll be able to hear a broad range of viewpoints, see cutting-edge scientific advances and innovations, and experience an enlightening exchange of ideas at what we believe will be a seminal event for climate science and solutions in Utah.

Now, our snowpack and precipitation patterns are not just of interest to skiers; they are of critical importance to our water supply, to agriculture and industry, to creating the conditions for drought and wildfires, and also to the health of our Great Salt Lake, as we’ll hear from Speaker of the Utah House, Brad Wilson. We’re so honored and delighted to have you here to give the keynote address this morning. Just like the snowfields of the Rockies, one can ask about the future of the corn fields of Iowa or the wheat fields of Kansas. City planners in Miami, Boston or other coastal cities are certainly interested in long-range predictions for how rapidly sea levels will rise.

Providing policy makers, business and industry leaders, state and federal agencies, other stakeholders and the public with data-driven, science-based assessments of our current situation—how we got here, and projections of what we may face down the road—is one of our most important jobs we have as scientists and academics. Moreover, basic research in math, science and engineering is the lifeblood of major technological advances and innovations that can accelerate climate solutions and propel society toward a more sustainable future.

A broad palette

The main challenges in developing a broad palette of potential climate solutions all pretty much boil down to science, engineering, and math problems. Examples include how to optimally design advanced materials to better convert sunlight to electricity, how to efficiently store and transport energy, how to best extract energy from winds, tides, and waves (as we heard about yesterday in one of the prize lectures), how to design and build clean technology products that the public embraces, how to optimally tune the microstructure of thermally smart nano-composite coatings for windows (as we heard about yesterday in another prize lecture), how to capture or sequester greenhouse gases before they enter the atmosphere, how to engineer algae and other microbes to make better biofuels, what to do with the waste from nuclear fission and how to harness the power of the stars from nuclear fusion.

Moreover, most of these big issues, like Utah’s snowpack, water, and wildfires, or developing next generation batteries for storage applications, are complex and highly cross-disciplinary, typically requiring expertise from several scientific, engineering, and mathematical disciplines, interaction with local, state, and federal governments, involvement with business and industrial partners, and funding from federal agencies or private foundations. Indeed, our final keynote today will be given by David Manderscheid, Division Director of Mathematical Sciences at the National Science Foundation. Thanks so much, David, for giving us NSF’s perspective on these issues. We’re really looking forward to your remarks this afternoon.

Before we go further, I think it might be useful to mention the 800-pound gorilla that can overshadow and make climate projections that much more difficult, or should I say the 800-pound polar bear just to our north? When people hear that the average global temperature has risen by about one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the mid-20th century, it might be easy to dismiss the significance or magnitude of this warming. But if we look to the north, we see the frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean—Earth’s refrigerator—that reflects sunlight during the polar summer when the sun can shine 24/7 and protects the ocean from too much solar heating. But we’ve lost about half of this summer sea ice cover! Not 5%, but 50%. Not over the past million years, or thousand years, but over the past 30 or 40 years! On February 13, 2023, Antarctic sea ice extent reached a record low.

Ripple effects

But just like throwing a rock into a pond, there are ripple effects. And the bigger the rock, the bigger the ripples, and the further they go. The extent of the sea ice we’ve lost in the Arctic is about two-thirds the area of the contiguous United States and is probably the largest change on the Earth’s surface due to planetary warming. That’s a big rock. Having been to the Arctic 11 times over the past 22 years and to the Antarctic seven times since 1980, I’ve seen tremendous changes in the polar marine environment over this period. From a human perspective, I’ve seen significant impacts on native communities along the northern coast of Alaska.

How the ripples affect the global climate system, weather and precipitation patterns in North America, our ski industry, the Great Salt Lake, and our drought and wildfire conditions, are particularly difficult, yet fascinating problems. The speed of the changes and the lack of equilibrium, as well as feedback effects further challenge modeling and prediction efforts.

But what I hope we all can take away from these observations is that we’re all in the same boat—Planet Earth!—and that the sheer complexity, scope, and highly interdisciplinary nature of the issues necessitates that if we’re ever really going to get anywhere, we must work together!—across ideological, academic, intellectual, as well as party lines to achieve big goals that will benefit all of us. A principal, long-term goal is that we be responsible, knowledge-based, data-driven stewards of our “boat” and of our resources as we set sail to the future, particularly as we turn the helm over to our younger citizens.

Finally, a few hopeful, optimistic remarks that I’ll make as somewhat of an outsider to climate science—that is, I’m a math teacher whose only formal training and early career research is in mathematics and theoretical physics. I did start working on sea ice in high school and college, but I only became involved in the larger questions about our climate system much later in my career.

  1. Momentum. Climate science is attracting far more interest, talent, funding and resources now than in the recent past. The 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for climate modeling and prediction. The climate system is now a vibrant, active area of study in applied math and physics, as well as in the geosciences, and sustainable energy is an increasingly large component of engineering curricula. Significant increases in federal and private funding for climate research have brought us to a new level of activity and excellence where the most advanced ideas and methods of math, physics, computing and data science—such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, topological data analysis and uncertainty quantification—are brought to bear on these most challenging of problems.
  2. “The Utah Way.” Having lived in Utah for over 30 years, it seems to me that we have an unusual capacity and desire here to come together to solve problems. Here our leaders often work across party and ideological lines to get big things done, even on controversial or divisive issues. As evidenced by this climate summit, and other developments in our state, I hope the time is now right for us to see the emerging, leading role that Utah can play in advancing the science and in developing innovative policy and practical, market-driven solutions to our climate challenges. We would like to particularly thank the Wilkes family and President Randall for helping us get started with the visionary Wilkes Center.
  3. Our young people. I get to work with some of the most brilliant and creative young mathematicians, from 10th and 11th graders to undergraduates, Ph.D. students, and postdocs, and so many are drawn to use their mathematical talents to solve climate problems. An 11th grader working with us now had already published a paper in probability theory before he started working with us on problems at the interface of mathematics and climate science. I developed an upper-level math course on climate modeling and watched enrollment grow from 4 to 25 after teaching it a few times over the past decade, and with students from many different majors. I regularly teach large introductory calculus classes and interact with hundreds of undergraduates each year. I have certainly noted that our younger citizens are increasingly aware, interested and engaged in issues affecting Earth’s climate as the decisions we make now have the potential to significantly impact the world they inherit.

Finally, my belief is that addressing and overcoming the challenges presented by our rapidly changing environment provides us with some of the greatest opportunities we have ever seen for innovation and problem-solving, investment, spawning new markets and industries, job creation, and not to mention—revolutionary advances in math, science, and engineering. Kind of like the amazing scientific and technological advances ignited by overcoming the seemingly insurmountable challenges that humans faced when we first went to the moon and beyond.

Thus, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Latin phrases that sets the compass toward our highest aspirations: per aruda ad astra—“through adversity to the stars!”

By Kenneth Golden
Distinguished Professor of Mathematics

Winner of this year’s Calvin S. and JeNeal N. Hatch Prize in Teaching Dr. Golden
moderated the Polar Climate and Ecosystems Panel at the proceedings. Watch a video of the Summit here and read an overview of the Summit in @TheU