For his pioneering research on complex networks in our climate system a young scientist of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) received a prestigious prize. He was awarded by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) at a meeting in San Francisco attended by more than 22,000 earth and space scientists this week. By applying mathematical analysis to, for instance, data from drills in the deep-sea, he detected how shifts in African climate some million years ago influenced the fate of modern man’s ancestors.
“The Donald L. Turcotte Award is presented to Jonathan Donges for his original contributions to ‘recurrence network theory’ and its application to climate evolution,' says Shaun Lovejoy, president of the AGU’s Nonlinear Focus Group and a professor at McGill University in Canada. The prize was established to recognize an outstanding dissertation by a recent graduate. ‘Recurrence theory’ is the study of recurring states of a complex system such as repetitive weather patterns in the Earth's atmosphere. By investigating the network structure of these recurrences, it is possible to detect abrupt shifts in climate variability.
'It is rare that one can say a PhD-thesis laid the foundations for a truly novel and most important scientific approach, but this is the case with Jonathan Donges' work,' says Jürgen Kurths, co-chair of PIK's research domain Transdisciplinary Concepts and Methods. He is a professor at Humboldt University Berlin and was the supervisor of the awarded thesis. 'This is an amazing piece of research, pioneering in the field of interacting network analysis in the climate system and beyond. It emerges from the work within our team that focuses on complex systems, and I feel grateful that we succeeded to provide an environment that fosters such outstanding scientific creativity and innovative thinking.'
Donges himself says that he feels deeply honoured by the award. “It is a recognition for applying high-end statistical methods to tackle real-world problems,” he says. “We try to identify the mechanisms behind so-called tipping points in the climate system and unravel their complex interactions – not just in the past, but also in our present and future.” Under unabated climate change, this might be of critical relevance. Relatively abrupt and potentially irreversible changes in the world’s major ocean currents or monsoon patterns, for instance, could have devastating impacts on humanity.