In recognition of hurricane season, the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) invited 2017 Festival presenter Dr. Talea L. Mayo to answer some of our questions about the math behind hurricanes. Mayo is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Construction Engineering at the University of Central Florida. She specializes in coastal ocean modeling, with special interests in hurricane storm surge modeling, flood risk assessment, and the development of mathematical methods of improving models using data.
Hurricane Math Q&A with Dr. Talea L. Mayo
What is mathematical modeling? How do you use math to predict hurricane storm surges?
Mathematical modeling is the process of describing physical phenomena in terms of equations. Scientists often assess what causes changes in physical systems and then use differential equations to describe these changes and processes.
Special differential equations describe changes in the water height and currents of the coastal ocean. These are called the shallow water equations. If a hurricane is approaching, this is included as one of the factors that causes change.
What other factors affect the amount of damage from hurricanes?
Many things can affect the amount of damage from hurricanes. Heavy rainfall and the wind speed, or severity of the storm, can be very damaging. The translational speed (how fast the storm moves) and the size of the hurricane are factors that can play large roles in these.
What is one surprising fact about hurricanes, from a math viewpoint?
One surprising fact about hurricanes is that a stronger storm (e.g. a category 5) does not necessarily cause the most damage/deaths. Many additional factors are at play in the equations/physics behind surge.
Do you prepare for hurricanes differently yourself, now that you know the math behind them?
I definitely do not know all of the math behind hurricanes. On the contrary, studying storm surges has allowed me to develop a much better understanding of just how much I don’t know. This understanding makes me more readily trust the experts, and so I look to the National Hurricane Center for guidance much more than I used to. I also have a better understanding of the inherent uncertainties in science.
What function do hurricanes serve in nature?
One purpose hurricanes serve in nature is restoring natural equilibrium. They sometimes bring heavy rainfall to regions in drought and restore barrier islands through sediment transport.
How do you personally feel about hurricanes? Does your professional work as a mathematician change your attitude about them at all?
Hurricanes are very scary phenomena. My work allows me to keep my fear at bay because I can base my decisions on science/facts instead of emotions alone.
How did you decide to devote your career to hurricane math?
I decided to devote my career to hurricane math after watching people from my racial group be disproportionately affected by Hurricane Katrina. I saw math as a valuable tool to improve the models and forecasts that could be used to save lives.
Where could a young person go to learn more about math and weather?
A great resource to learn about math and weather is the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center. Both have great websites with educational tabs just for students. You can explore their educational resources here and here.
What kind of math is this? What kind of career paths use this kind of math?
Storm surge modeling is applied math. Lots of other careers use math too, including cryptography (cracking codes), engineering, biostatistics, and operations research (decision making) to name a few.
The image below shows how maximum storm surge heights were simulated for Hurricane Irene in 2011. I generated this figure using the National Weather Service’s Sea Lake and Overland Surge from Hurricanes (SLOSH) display program.