LMS Popular Lecture 2022

Lakes, rivers. . . and waterfalls? The surprising things maths can help us to understand about Antarctica

This article was published as part of the January 2023 LMS Newsletter, which you can read here. You can also download the full newsletter at the link below.

Dr Sammie Buzzard might be based in the Geography Department at Cardiff University, but after her talk in Birmingham for the 2022 LMS Popular Lecture, it’s clear she’s a mathematician at heart.

The talk began with Sammie’s backstory — from not knowing what to do at university, to accidentally ending up studying meteorology — with great emphasis on taking opportunities as they come. This sense of adventure continued throughout the talk, with the story of how she learned to shoot a rifle in Svalbard to protect the group from polar bears a particular highlight.

The maths itself was also very interesting, presented in the engaging and entertaining manner for which Sammie is known. We heard about recent developments in ice sheet modelling at both the North and South poles, including Dr Buzzard’s own model for melt lake development on an ice shelf. Seeing fieldwork images of the predicted features really helped to bring the model to life.

As indicated by the title of the talk, waterfalls made a surprise appearance with some incredible footage of a 130 metre wide cascade atop the Nansen ice shelf in Antarctica. The images led to an interesting discussion during the Q&A about whether such features are good or bad in terms of their impact on the climate. However, as with most newly-discovered phenomena, the jury remains out on their precise impact.

To conclude the talk, Dr Buzzard presented a short summary of ice sheet data which led to the indisputable conclusion that we are in trouble (despite the disagreement of some audience members). It was very refreshing to see the clarity with which she spoke when discussing climate related issues, by simply presenting the data and allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions.

Fortunately, there was still time to enjoy a laugh at the expense of the scientists, with Sammie explaining how a group of Japanese high school students were able to make a more accurate prediction than several large-scale operations (including NASA) about the extent of Arctic Sea Ice. This was of course presented in jest, but it did emphasise just how difficult a task climate scientists face.

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