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Seminar | Environmental Science Division

Muddy Math: Imperfect (but useful) Descriptions of Soils

EVS/DSL Seminar

Abstract: Math and soils may seem worlds apart. However, mathematical models and computer simulations are a critical tool to help understand our changing world. Soil carbon dynamics are a significant source of natural carbon dioxide (a major driver of climate change) and are expected to increase as temperatures warm. By blending math with soil science, we try to peer into the future to anticipate how human-emitted carbon dioxide will affect our crops and cities.

These models are, of course, imperfect. Traditional soil carbon models are both too complex (it is difficult to determine underlying drivers for model behavior in large Earth system simulations) and not complex enough (not explicitly representing known processes driving soil carbon cycling). By using simplifying assumptions, we can link traditional simulations with reduced complexity models to isolate drivers of model differences and incorporate new data into simulation results post-hoc. New process rich models provide testable hypotheses, highlighting where traditional models fail and providing tantalizing opportunities for linkages with new genetic and analytical chemistry measurements.

Soils are a fascinating combination of complex chemical and biological interactions operating in a heterogeneous 3-D mineral matrix, providing a fantastic challenge for mathematical and computational models.

Bio: Kathe Todd-Brown is a computational biogeochemist who uses mathematics and computers to understand how soil breathes. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine.