News Archive 2009-2018

Emma Cutler ’13 Helps Answer Climate Change Questions with Math Archives


Emma Cutler ’13

Since her sophomore year, senior Emma Cutler has been working closely with Mary Lou Zeeman, Bowdoin’s R. Wells Johnson Professor of Mathematics, on an intensive math project. Together, they’re developing climate models that could deepen our understanding of historical climatic events.

Specifically, Cutler is using an energy-balance model to look at past glacial cycles and ice ages. This type of model calculates changes in Earth’s temperature by comparing the amount of solar energy reaching the surface of our planet to the amount of energy the Earth re-radiates back to space.

“Basically, we look at energy-in minus energy-out, and if these two terms are not equal, we assume that the Earth will either warm or cool in response to this energy imbalance,” Cutler explained.

The model Cutler is using was first developed by Mikhail Budyko in 1969. One advantage of his model, and other simpler climate models, is that they allow scientists to explore and better understand the interactions and relationships between variables.

“For example, I have been looking a lot at temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide,” Cutler said. “Changes in the Earth’s orbit trigger the onset of glaciations, but by themselves these changes are not enough to cause the magnitude of oscillations in temperature and ice volume that we see in the paleoclimate record. We think that there could be a feedback between changes in solar radiation and the carbon cycle, so that when the Earth warms a little bit due to the orbital variations, there is a release of carbon dioxide either from the ocean or the land, causing the Earth to heat up even more. Right now, we’re working on incorporating the carbon cycle into the model so that we can test this hypothesis.”

While much of Cutler’s focus is on the Paleolithic past, she says her research could be applicable to the climate change underway today. “It could have some relevance as the earth warms up from anthropogenic emissions,” she said. “What will be the feedback of that on the natural carbon cycle and then what will be the effect of that?”

Cutler has an undergraduate scholarship from the Clare Boothe Luce program, which supports women in science, math and engineering. As a math and environmental studies major at Bowdoim, Cutler says the climate modeling touches on both her academic interests. “I’ve learned a lot about the climate, and how math can be applied to real world problems,” she said. “I really enjoy learning how math can be used in this practical way.”

And the Clare Boothe Luce fellowship has allowed Cutler to focus on one research project for much of her time at Bowdoin. “It’s a multi-year fellowship, so I can do a lot with this project, and make a lot of progress,” she said.