By Laura Schmidt, Sustainability Resource Center
Tipping elements. Tipping points. Mathematics. Chaos theory. Green visionary. These are words that I now associate with Dr. Ivan Sudakov, research assistant professor of Mathematics at the University of Utah.
Last fall, Sudakov was awarded a Green Talents-International Forum for High Potentials in Sustainable Development award from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. He was one of 25 “green” visionaries recognized out of more than 400 applicants from 80 countries.
At this point, you might be wondering what Sudakov’s “green talents” are. Sudakov combines his knowledge of mathematics, physics, and climate to create models of the tipping point of a single tipping element, Arctic sea ice. As a post-doctoral research professor in Dr. Ken Golden’s research group, Sudakov uses mathematical equations to predict the tipping point of sea-ice loss.
Earth has several large-scale components called tipping elements and each has a different and unique tipping point. Sudakov says that a tipping point is the critical point between stable state changes. According to an article Sudakov showed me, examples of tipping elements are melting of the Greenland ice sheet, Arctic sea-ice loss, boreal forest dieback, and West African monsoon shift, among others. The article concludes that the Arctic sea-ice is one element that has a greatest threat to tipping. Once sea-ice melts, it is not coming back and the lack of sea-ice has detrimental effects for global climate change as it will surely set off a cascade of feedback loops (i.e. raising sea level, releasing methane into the atmosphere, increased absorption of the sun’s rays).
The research Sudakov is doing is incredibly important. Sudakov suggests that “simple” mathematical equations used to model a single tipping element are more accurate than climate models that factor in several tipping elements. Sudakov says that complex climate models require super-computers and contain so many components that they can’t adequately predict tipping points. As previously mentioned, each tipping point for a given tipping element is different. Attempting to predict multiple tipping points for various tipping elements in one model can create too much noise leading to less accurate results. In this case, simple is better. Sudakov focuses on one tipping element’s tipping point and the results are more accurate.
Sudakov also applies the chaos theory to understanding climate and Arctic sea-ice loss. Chaos theory asserts that small changes can have large impacts on a system. Sudakov says that scientists can use the idea of chaos theory in context of climate change. Understanding dynamic systems and how slight changes in those systems effect outcomes are important when considering the different tipping elements in the world, he says.
As a recipient of the prestigious 2013 Green Talents Competition Award, Sudakov traveled to Germany at the end of October and through the beginning of November to tour several of the country’s top sustainability research facilities. Among the locations included was Institute for Ecological Economy Research in Berlin and the AIRBUS operations in Hamburg. To see the full list of where Ivan and the other 24 Green Visionary award recipients visited, see the Green Talents Competition Award website.
Another perk of the Green Talents Competition Award is the offer to conduct research on sustainability-related issues in Germany for three months. Sudakov hopes to utilize this opportunity next fall.
Laura Schmidt is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities. She is a graduate assistant in the Sustainability Resource Center.