Two polar bears touch noses on the tundra.

10/30/2014 2:39:31 PM

Understanding Polar Bears with Math

By Jody Reimer

When people ask me what I do, I like to answer that I study the "mathematics of polar bears." I am lucky enough to have a career that combines two of my passions, math and biology.

The easiest way to describe this is by referring to sentences we've all heard, such as: "Scientists estimate a 5% decline in adult male bears if the summer ice-free period were extended to 120 days."

Behind sentences like these are mathematical models. These can take a variety of forms, but at the heart of them is an effort to understand important questions about the world around us by using math.

Field biologists collect amazing data on everything from polar bear movement, to diet, to growth, and even to how environmental conditions cause stress on bears. All of this data is useless, however, if we don't know what to do with it. Data give us just a small glimpse into the world. Trying to use this data to tease out what is happening in reality is where I get excited.

This discussion between biologists and mathematicians is beneficial on both sides. For mathematicians, biology inspires new questions and even requires us to develop new types of math! Mathematicians can help biologists achieve the biggest "bang for their buck" on the expensive data they collect, helping them to come up with insightful ways to put the numbers together.

With climate change heavy on all Arctic researchers' minds, mathematical modelling provides an incredibly powerful tool for looking at things that are either too expensive, or too difficult to test. Through models, we can also explore a huge range of scenarios (for example, years of different ice conditions), quickly, cheaply, and from the comfort of a warm office. Mathematical models also help us look ahead to the future, even if we have no data from similar conditions in the past.

Being up here with Polar Bears International, seeing these beautiful bears in the wild, and talking to other scientists about their exciting work, I am so inspired to keep working towards a better understanding of these amazing animals, using my passion for both the natural world and the beauty of mathematics. 

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