Boulder professor's writing examines 'weatherquakes'

By Staff

Math may not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering the environment, but it plays an important role. It was a mathematician, Joseph Fourier (1768-1830), who coined the term "greenhouse effect."

Three articles – including one by University of Colorado at Boulder professor Martin E. Walter – in the November issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society examine ways in which mathematics can contribute to understanding environmental and ecological issues.

In the article, "Earthquakes and Weatherquakes: Mathematics and Climate Change," Walter uses math to show that global warming could lead to more "intense" weather events.

Earthquake data shows that over time, the sum of the "intensity" of all earthquakes of a given Richter scale magnitude is the same for any point on the scale.

For example the total intensity of the 100,000 magnitude-3 quakes that occur over the course of a year is the same as the intensity of a single magnitude-8 trembler. Walter uses the example of earthquakes to formulate a hypothesis about "weatherquakes" – extreme weather events such as hurricanes and tornadoes. As in the case of earthquakes, he suggests, there is no preferred size or scale for the intensity of weatherquakes. That is, weatherquake phenomena also follow a power law.

Taking the mathematics a few steps further, Walter examines what would happen to the distribution of extreme weather events if the global climate heated up. The finding is worrisome: As temperatures rise, the most intense weatherquakes would increase in number.