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Math in the Midst of the Storm

Friday, May 13, 2016


Written by Meleah Lewis '16; Photo by Jennifer Chin

It is mid-September. The sky is dark, rain pours down, wind speeds steadily increase and an urgent weather alert airs on TV seconds before the power goes out. Once again, it is hurricane season in Wilmington, NC and thousands of locals have refused to evacuate. Why would locals choose to stick around to endure the hurricanes’ wrath, knowing they could be fatal? Evacuating can be a true hassle and with current models used to predict hurricanes, one cannot be sure if evacuation is necessary or simply a waste of time.

Nikolai Lipscomb is a graduate student in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at UNCW. He and senior physics student, Jacob Koile, have partnered to study partial differential equations to derive and test a new mathematical model to predict paths of hurricanes. The idea for this research originated from UNCW associate professor Dr. Daniel Guo, who has a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics and has previously applied differential equations in his own research. Since Guo and Lipscomb began this research in Fall 2015, they have studied existing hurricane prediction models and have realized each model has a relatively high accuracy for short-term predictions. However, the farther out in time hurricanes are predicted, the less reliability the model supports. According to Guo, “The goal of this project is to stimulate climate change in the long time run,” said Guo. He and Lipscomb hope to create a model, backed by time dependent partial differential equations, which will allow for more accurate hurricane predictions that will extend farther in time and help accurately project the trajectory of hurricanes.

Although Lipscomb is the lead researcher for this project, he was wise enough to know he needed an expert in physics in order to make this work. After speaking with Guo, Lipscomb asked Koile to join him to further his research. “Being a physics student, I am able to help Nikolai with his research because I understand why his models work in a certain way,” said Koile. Given Koile’s background in physics, he is able to provide valuable insight to atmospheric conditions surrounding a hurricane’s development, which helps Lipscomb support and enhance his mathematical models.

During the summer of 2016, Lipscomb hopes to work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) to put his prediction model to the ultimate test. NOAA archives data from previous hurricanes, which includes their starting points, initial conditions, predicted models, and actual paths of destruction. In order to test how accurately Lipscomb’s models are able to predict hurricanes, his model will be applied to NOAA’s archived data from previous storm progressions. Lipscomb’s predictions will be compared to documented courses of previous hurricanes and then analyzed for accuracy. If Lipscomb’s model is consistently accurate when compared to previous hurricanes’ paths, there is a possibility his model could be used by the National Weather Service (NWS) to better predict the trajectory of future hurricanes.

Lipscomb’s short-term goal is to get his current research published. In the long term, Lipscomb’s model has the potential to revolutionize weather forecasting as a whole. Coastal residents could be warned earlier about a hurricane’s path, which could help with coastal evacuations. Residents may be more willing to evacuate if the NWS uses a hurricane prediction model that has undergone rigorous testing and has a solid reliability. If residents readily evacuate, there will likely be less hurricane-related injuries and fatalities.

Lipscomb’s model may eventually be used in general weather forecasting as well. Future implications could go as far as creating a reliable forecasting system that could accurately predict weather more than a week in advance, unlike the popular, yet often unreliable weather forecasting apps that are currently available. 

Students who believe math is irrelevant should listen closely to Lipscomb’s advice, “Students believe they rarely have a chance to practice math outside class… But we can take mathematical approaches to all sorts of questions,” said Lipscomb. “Math is a language we can use to explain the world.” Students need to understand those mile-long math equations, filled with both letters and numbers, have the potential to revolutionize current hurricane prediction models. Lipscomb’s time-dependent differential equations could have a profound impact on the lives and safety of Wilmington residents and others along the east coast when hurricane season is at its peak.