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COMPLEXITY Research Programme

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The Natural Complexity research programme, part of the British Antarctic Survey research strategy Global Science in an Antarctic Context (GSAC) 2005–2009

Natural Complexity

Principal Investigator: Dr Mervyn Freeman

The Challenge

COMPLEXITY will apply new mathematical methods to data sets drawn from across the GSAC programme to reveal previously hidden underlying patterns and laws, and to develop new mathematical models to explain them. This is known as the field of complexity science. Combined with results from other BAS scientific programmes this work will help assess the likelihood of extreme environmental changes.

Icebergs about to calve from ice shelf.  Viewed from the air.


  • Identify, measure and explain aspects of complexity in four main components of the Earth system – the atmosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, and magnetosphere
  • Use ideas and methods from complexity science to offer new insights into environmental problems under investigation in selected BAS science programmes

Relevance to Global Science

As far as we are aware, the Earth is the most complex object in the Universe. It is not sufficient to investigate aspects of its nature and functioning separately, since features of its overall behaviour are difficult to predict from a detailed study of its components. However, new theoretical concepts and advanced mathematical tools, together with ever-increasing computer power, offer the potential to identify related patterns of behaviour in apparently dissimilar natural systems. For example, it is now possible to predict the odds of an avalanche of a given size in a sand pile without having to know the movement of every grain, using an approach which can also be applied to the study of stock-market fluctuations. Such mathematical modelling and analysis tools can be applied to the behaviour of previously ill-understood natural phenomena ranging from earthquakes to magnetic substorms.

Delivering the Results

COMPLEXITY will apply new mathematical techniques to focused goals in each of the four main spheres of BAS science. It will analyse data sets already held at BAS, and new data acquired under GSAC. COMPLEXITY has links with GEACEP, GRADES, CACHE, DISCOVERY 2010 and SEC.

Component Project

  • NC-NCP: Natural Complexity Project