‘Our climate is changing, and Ireland could be affected from all sides’

17 Feb 2021

Prof Andrew Parnell. Image: Maynooth University

Prof Andrew Parnell explains how he is applying mathematics to the climate crisis and why Ireland needs joined-up thinking on this issue.

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At the Hamilton Institute in Maynooth University, maths is used to solve real-world problems. It bears the name of renowned Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, who famously inscribed his greatest mathematical discovery into the side of Broom Bridge in Dublin.

Prof Andrew Parnell is a Hamilton professor at the institute, where he works at the interface of machine learning and statistical modelling, applying these techniques to research in areas such as manufacturing, infectious diseases, archaeology, genetics and climate change.

Climate research, in particular, has long been part of Parnell’s academic career. He continued his early studies in mathematics and statistics with a PhD on the statistical modelling of sea level rise at the University of Sheffield. He then moved to Dublin and worked in the area of climate at the Trinity College Dublin School of Computer Science and Statistics, before being appointed lecturer at the University College Dublin School of Mathematics and Statistics. He was 10 years in this role before his move to the Hamilton Institute.

Parnell is also a principal investigator at the I-Form research centre for advanced manufacturing and a funded researcher at the Insight data analytics research centre.

He spoke to Siliconrepublic.com about his journey into climate research from a background steeped in mathematics.

‘I’d love to see a greater, joined-up focus on climate research in Ireland’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

It was around 2002 and I was working in marketing in London. At the time I was working on a project for a major credit card company where I had access to the size of people’s credit card bills, with the goal of making them larger! I realised that this was not something I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing.

I wanted to do something in climate change but didn’t have any background in geography or geology. I managed to find a PhD in Sheffield where I could apply all my maths skills, learn something new, and then apply it all to something actually useful. I’ve never looked back.

What research are you currently working on?

There are three different areas of climate change my team are currently working on. The first is sea level rise around Ireland.

Unfortunately, Ireland does not have a strong tide gauge network to enable to us to properly estimate changes in sea level, but through a project funded by the Marine Institute and led by my colleague Dr Gerard McCarthy, we are starting to be able to put together better data sets so we can work out what might happen in the future. Internationally, we think there might be a 70cm to 1m rise in sea level globally by 2100, but this will vary across countries. This would be disastrous for Ireland, and we need to get accurate forecasts of where the most damage might happen.

The second area is that of water quality in Dublin Bay, funded by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). Whilst this is a hugely important shipping channel, it is also part of our natural environment and we need to make sure it stays healthy. We’re trying to build up a picture of the natural state of the bay so that we can make sure it is not disturbed.

The third and final area is on climate extremes. Often we focus on what seem like small changes in temperature averages (for example, the two degrees of the Paris Agreement), but what really affects us are the changes at the edge: the extremely hot days, the droughts, the storms. Analysing these extreme events is much harder because there are far fewer of them, but a whole scientific discipline has grown up around this topic. Thanks to the SFI Centre for Research Training in Foundations of Data Science, I’ve been able to work with some collaborators in the UK to develop models for these types of events in Ireland for the first time.

Why is your research important?

Our climate is changing, and that change seems to be speeding up. Ireland could be affected from all sides: from increased storm surges, increased migration, supply disruption and so on.

Statistics and machine learning are the tools that enable to us to predict the future, scientifically, from data. Ireland has a real international strength in these topics, but we don’t leverage it in terms of response to climate change. It’s a huge opportunity, and one we must grab in the next few years.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

A number of my research areas have commercial applications, but it’s certainly harder in climatology. The problem with climate change research in Ireland is that it has always seemed beyond the next election or funding cycle, or the changes are too long-term to be commercially relevant. I’d like to think that Ireland is in a position to fund research in something that is societally important for the next generation.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a climate researcher?

The models we use to predict what might happen in the future depend on having good data. We see this in every area, from Covid to climate change. With poor data we cannot track what is going to happen in the future.

For some aspects of climate such as temperature and wind, we’ve been very good at measuring things for many years and can make accurate predictions. With other areas such as sea level rise it’s much harder.

Are there any common misconceptions about climate research?

I suppose the most common misconception is that this is a long-term problem and Ireland is not likely to be affected so badly. The more we keep up with that kind of opinion, the sooner and harder it will hit us. We are still amongst the worst in Europe for climate action and we really should be pulling our weight. We have a number of groups that put out highly misleading statistics about their contribution to emissions, and I believe a greater degree of fact-checking should take place when these claims are made.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I’d love to see a greater, joined-up focus on climate research in Ireland. We have too many centres of separate excellence. This is an all-Ireland problem, and one that is going to be a greater challenge in the near future.

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