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Physicists find formula to uncover planet’s past

05/29/2009 12:16:02

Studies of climate evolution and the ecology of past-times are often hampered by lost information thought to be untraceable. Lancaster physicists have now created a formula which will fill in the gaps of our knowledge and will help predict the future.

The researchers Professor Peter McClintock and Dr Dmitri Luchinsky with colleagues from the NASA Ames Research Center, California, have developed a new formula, using a mathematical algorithm which assumes the dynamics of each system has unknown parameters and that the data are distorted by random fluctuations, and used it to successfully recreate measurements in a study on a vole-mustelid community.

Their paper has been chosen by the Institute of Physics for inclusion in the IoP Select which selects research on criteria including substantial advances/ significant breakthroughs and high degree of novelty.

This novel method of reconstructing missing data will shed new light on how and why our climate moved us on from ice ages to warmer periods as researchers will be able to calculate lost information and put together a more complete picture. It could potentially uncover new findings on topical scientific issues such as climate change and the extreme population fluctuations in some animal species.

They will also be able to tackle ecological studies that are currently incomplete or distorted which could answer questions such as why do populations of animals like rabbits and foxes fluctuate so dramatically? And which factors most heavily influence population decline and, eventually, lead to extinction?

Many small mammalian species have cyclic population dynamics, periodically oscillating between large and small communities, a behavioral phenomenon which has puzzled ecologists for decades. Reconstructed data on such predator-prey dynamics could now give new insight into why some species suddenly decline.

Climate evolution is subject to similar cyclical variations, which could be uncovered by applying the method to measuring the distribution of isotopes in sediments taken from the ocean floor, potentially giving further insight into the reasons behind climate change.

Dr Luchinsky explained : “The method could apply to cases where some variables could not be recorded such as in climate change and ecology, but also contexts such as populations at risk from epidemics and rocket motors for new space crew exploration vehicles.”

Published in the June issue of New Journal of Physics , the paper ‘Recovering “lost” information in the presence of noise: Application to rodent-predator dynamics’ offers a solution to the problem of reconstructing missing or lost information in studies of dynamical systems such as the Earth’s climate or animal populations.