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Kazakhstan: Scientists Discuss Using Mathematics To Tackle Environment, Development Issues

  • Antoine Blua

Scientists from all over the world today concluded a conference in Kazakhstan aimed at using mathematics to simulate economic development and its effects on the environment.

Prague, 12 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Computer technology and satellite data have seen major advances over the past two decades. This in turn has spurred great improvements in weather and environmental forecasting, including the tracking of air pollution.

Now researchers are exploring whether mathematics can be used to expand our understanding of environmental issues even further. Scientists from all over the world gathered in the former Kazakh capital Almaty this week discussed how to use math to measure the ecological impact of human activity on the ecology, and to improve sustainable economic development.

Some 500 delegates attended the four-day conference, which ended today. Omirzaq Sultangazin heads Kazakhstan's space research institute, which co-organized the meeting with the U.S.-based International Association for Mathematics and Computers in Simulation. "The protection of the environment is a very important issue for Kazakhstan," he told RFE/RL. "The country produces oil, gas, coal, and other mineral resources. And the side effects of these activities are being discussed at this conference, in the context of pure mathematical calculations."

One of the advantages of mathematics, researchers say, is that it can be used in tandem with complex environmental or economic models to determine whether certain situations can produce more than one possible outcome. "We are discussing the possible use of the latest technology -- such as computers and other sophisticated equipment -- to evaluate the side effects of industrial activities. By using a mathematical approach, we are trying to find ways to solve economic and ecological problems. This is critical for sustainable development," Sultangazin said.

Discussions included the effective use of land and water resources as well as demographic control. Participants also discussed the cooperative use of space data to forecast earthquakes.

The conference also tackled two of the gravest environmental threats to Kazakhstan. One is radiation in Semipalatinsk, where the Soviet Union tested almost 500 nuclear weapons. The radiation continues to adversely affect the health of the local population. According to the Semipalatinsk perinatal center, only 10 percent of pregnant women in some rural areas nearby are healthy due to weakened immunity systems.

The other threat is the gradual disappearance of the Aral Sea over the past 30 years, which has had a dramatic effect of human health, brought on by malnutrition and disease, partly caused by the spread of salts, pesticide, and the residues of chemical fertilizers on the growing amounts of exposed seabed.

Lord Julian Hunt is a professor of climate modeling at University College London. He explained to RFE/RL that computer technology and satellite data can be used to the benefit of both economic development and the environment. "In northeast Brazil is the best example, which is an area which has sometimes very high drought and sometimes a lot of rain. By using methods based upon looking at the sea temperatures of the ocean, and then looking at statistical methods and also using computing models, you can tell whether it will be a very dry year with drought conditions or not. And the people in that part of Brazil make use of this forecast every year," he said.

Hunt continued: "The spreading of GMO, genetic modified organisms -- how far do they spread? What is the probability of them spreading? All this is being done by mathematical modeling. And it's quite a complex business of the atmosphere and the plants and so on. This is another area where human impact has to be considered."

Sultangazin highlighted the important role that Kazakhstan's space-research institute has in modeling the effects of human activities on the environment. For instance, he said, the institute has been working on the direction and quantity of salt and sand spread by the wind from the former seabed of the Aral Sea.

Sultangazin also noted that his institute first reported about the seven-degree difference between the temperature of the soil in Semipalatinsk and in neighboring areas.

Grigorii Chernyaevskii, a researcher with the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that Kazakhstan's own Baikonur cosmodrome, which is used by the Kazakh space agency, is itself affecting the local environment. "It is known that the Baikonur space complex has a negative effect on the environment," he said. "But it is difficult to say to what extent -- I cannot say whether it is to a small or big extent. I am convinced that special calculation and research works are needed to clarify that."

(Merhat Sharipzhanov, director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, contributed to this report.)