Mathematician Adrian Constantin is investigating the “underwater engine” of the El Niño climate phenomenon, which triggers devastating droughts in some regions, and heavy rains and floods in others. Constantin’s complex models facilitate better predic-tions of natural disasters.

On 28 November 1520, after navigating through heavy storms, Ferdinand Magellan reached the open sea. His fleet had shrunk, the crew was starved, but the weather was magnificent.
Magellan had just passed the Strait of Magellan, as it is now named, at the southern tip of South America. Thankful for the calm seas awaiting him there, he named this ocean “Mare Pacifico”, or Pacific Ocean. Magellan had intended to find a western route to the Moluccas to obtain precious spices for the Spanish crown. Instead of sailing directly to the Spice Islands, however, he surprisingly ended up almost 2500 kilometers further north on the Island of Guam.

This raises some questions: why was the weather so mild when Magellan reached the Pacific, a region known for its legendary weather extremes? Why did an experienced captain risk a longer route, although the crew was seriously ill? And why did he miss the thousands of islands in the Pacific where he would have found provisions?

Researchers have recently concluded that the answers to these questions have a common denominator: “El Niño” might have been responsible for all of it. Magellan’s voyage is probably the first historical evidence of this weather pattern (El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO), which is named after the Spanish Christ Child since it often occurs around Christmas off the South American Pacific coast.

In a nutshell

Numerous large-scale movements occur in the atmosphere and oceans that can be described as currents or waves. Previous modeling is greatly simplified and fails to take account of many aspects of geophysical relevance. Adrian Constantin wants to bridge these gaps and present detailed mathematical descriptions of the physical processes.


Mathematician Adrian Constantin at the University of Vienna.
Mathematician Adrian Constantin is the winner of the 2020 FWF Wittgenstein Award, Austria’s most generously endowed science prize, in recognition of his trailblazing contributions to the mathematics of wave propagation. © FWF/Daniel Novotny
[Translate to English:] Welle bricht
Adrian Constantin’s research demonstrates the importance of basic research: in order to respond to El Niño, we need precise theoretical models. © Unsplash/TimMarshall

El Niño is a climate anomaly. Occurring at irregular intervals of two to seven years, mainly in the Pacific Ocean between South America and Indonesia, it causes far-reaching changes in ocean currents and the atmospheric circulation system. In some regions, El Niño produces devastating droughts, in others it causes heavy rainfall and flooding. The phenomenon is assumed to be triggered by a rise in the sea-surface temperature in the southern Pacific.

Mathematician Adrian Constantin is conducting research on El Niño – using pure mathematics and complex modeling methods. Constantin enthusiastically extols the “elegance” of a mathematical proof, which he perceives in the way in which seemingly unconnected facts, such as Magellan’s detours, suddenly fall into place when applying one single overarching concept.

One of Constantin’s areas of expertise is the deep currents in the equatorial region of the Pacific, which he thinks may constitute the “underwater engine” of El Niño. Because of temperatures there, warmer layers of water are lying on top of colder layers. Gigantic waves develop at the interface of these layers: they are up to 40 meters high, more than 100 kilometers long and have a range of thousands of kilometers. These deep currents interact with the atmosphere. While they will not allow predicting when El Niño occurs, they do allow predictions about its strength.

A “monster” is how meteorologists qualified the El Niño that arose in the Pacific in 1997/1998 and caused an upheaval in global weather patterns. It claimed the lives of around 23,000 people, and the physical damage amounted to more than 30 billion dollars. The El Niño of 2015/2016 was even stronger, and the consequences were again global and devastating: droughts in Central America, in the north east and south of Africa and in Southeast Asia. Forest fires ravaged Indonesia, while there was too much precipitation in the southern USA and in southern South America, resulting in partly severe flooding.

Adrian Constantin’s research demonstrates the importance of basic research: in order to respond to El Niño, we need precise theoretical models. Constantin applies mathematical logic also to other wave phenomena: the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the polar frontal jet stream, or the phenomenon of Morning Glory clouds in Australia. For his research, Constantin works in partnership with geophysicists and oceanographers.

Short bio

Adrian Constantin is a Professor at the Department of Mathematics, University of Vienna. The fields of research of the Romanian-born scientist include non-linear, partial differential equations in the field of fluid motions and subsequent mathematical descriptions of natural phenomena.  Noted for the particularly high number of citations his work in the field of mathematics has obtained, Constantin has received numerous awards and honors, including, besides the FWF Wittgenstein Award, an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) in 2010.


Wittgenstein Award winner Adrian Constantin is fascinated by the multifarious patterns of movement in the atmosphere and oceans of the Earth. Using the tools of his field of expertise, mathematician Constantin, who conducts research and teaches at the University of Vienna, wants to get to the bottom of these phenomena, which depend on innumerable factors.

He attaches particular importance to conveying the beauty of mathematics to children, young people and students. Mathematics is incredible versatile. It may be hard to comprehend, but there is no one single thread running through the history of mathematics. It is more like a network of connections of which we know neither all the nodes nor all the connecting lines. But new connections appear time and again when numbers connect to angles, angles to patterns, and patterns relate back to numbers.

What would Ferdinand Magellan and Adrian Constantin talk about in a conversation across 500 years? Presumably about Magellan’s voyage and mathematical proof: did El Niño take him off course, or did the famous explorer know how to harness it for his objectives? Sailors have a saying: you can’t control the wind, but you can adjust the sails.

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