Finding the known unknowns: A connection between algebra and greenhouse gas research

Progress is a good thing and it has increased the knowledge to be consumed.  However, with the increase in knowledge it becomes more important to make this knowledge more hands on and practical.  It saves time and induces more productivity when students do not have to sift through a ton of information to connect to their interests.  The result of not making it hands on is students memorizing information as opposed to true learning that lasts for years and decades.


Atmospheric science is all about finding the unknown variable or quantity just as we have the unknown, “x” in algebra. For example, I have participated in ozonesonde launches in Cape Verde and in Senegal.  The ozonesonde is an instrument that records a vertical profile of ozone in the troposphere.  Oftentimes we see a spike of high ozone in the atmosphere.  What natural or man-made source causes this increase in ozone? One of the ozone sources in the middle and upper troposphere is nitrogen oxide from lightning flashes.


Finding this source and quantity is like solving for “x”.  When factoring a polynomial in algebra such as “x2” perhaps one of your two solutions may not make sense.  To find this out, you must find your solutions and then check them to see if they make real sense (i.e.  an algebra word problem where you find the unknown length of a triangle).  For the increased ozone in the upper troposphere, yes nitrogen oxides from lightning contribute to ozone, but we have to check other ozone contributions such as stratospheric-tropospheric intrusions or high ozone that might be lifted from the lower troposphere in an updraft of a thunderstorm.

This is how I have tied algebra to a career in meteorology.


Written by Jonathan Smith, Ph.D., Novastar Prep Math Tutor


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