EAPS scientists are working to advance our understanding of climates and their evolution—from pre-historic to present day to predicting the future, even on distant planets—providing important data for industry and policymakers.
With the effects of climate change crowding global headlines with reports of drought, wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and melting icecaps and devastating impacts upon human lives, nature and the economy—the vibrant and diverse climate research enterprise within MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences has never been more important. At EAPS we are driven to pursue hard quantitative science, seeking new discoveries about and deep understanding of earth and planetary systems.
EAPS has long been at the forefront of climate science research, education, and public engagement, and a leader on research into climate change. The Department is unique in integrating all aspects of climate science, from past climate and its co-evolution with life on our planet, to present day physics and dynamics on global and regional scales, to possible future climate trajectories on Earth, and even to the study of planetary climates in our solar system and beyond.
EAPS is home to a thriving community of climate researchers, faculty, staff, and students who nimbly cross traditional disciplines to advance our understanding of climate. The diversity and comprehensive reach of our Department is reflected in a host of activities that are closely connected but have distinct missions. The Program in Atmospheres, Oceans and Climate aims to understand the physical, chemical, and biological drivers of climate; the Center for Global Change Science (CGCS) bridges the Schools of Science and Engineering to focus on reducing the uncertainties inherent to predicting environmental change; the Climate Modeling Initiative is developing ever more realistic simulation tools with which to test our understanding of the climate system; the Lorenz Center focuses on building our fundamental understanding of how climate works; the Earth Resources Laboratory (ERL) is tackling the challenges of geological carbon sequestration and exploring low-carbon resources such as geothermal energy; the MIT-WHOI Joint Program focuses on the role of oceans in climate change; and the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change integrates the natural and social science aspects of climate change into actionable policies. This research spans a broad spectrum from basic, curiosity-driven inquiry to sponsored studies in collaboration with partners from academia, foundations, government, and industry.
Indeed, for decades EAPS has provided fertile ground for climate pioneers like meteorologist Jule Charney (the ‘father‘ of numerical weather prediction and author of the first National Academy report on climate) and Edward Lorenz (known for conceiving chaos theory), atmospheric chemist Mario Molina (1995 Nobel Prize) who discovered the Antarctic hole in the ozone layer, plus leaders of several Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports (2007 Nobel Peace Prize). And, thought-leader and former EAPS faculty member (1982-1997) Marcia McNutt, now the incoming president of the National Academy of Sciences, has pledged that addressing climate change will be a top priority of the Academy.
Climate change is now on MIT’s institutional agenda as well, with recent campuswide activities resulting in a report of the Climate Change Conversation Committee that recommends that the Institute should take bold action to confront the climate challenge at the highest levels, and as part of a strong climate action plan. [More: http://bit.ly/mit-cccc]
While it is a top priority to remain at the cutting edge of fundamental climate research, EAPS faculty also have a critical role to play in raising awareness and ensuring that decisionmakers responsible for the development of environmental policy and solutions have access to solid climate science. EAPS faculty members such as Kerry Emanuel (Lorenz Center Co-Director), Bradford Hager (ERL Director), Ronald Prinn (CGCS Director and Science and Policy of Global Change Joint Program Co-Director), Susan Solomon (MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative Founding Director), and Maria Zuber (MIT’s Vice President of Research) are already well known for their ability to translate the complexities of climate science and its nexus with energy, food, and water for different audiences. Climate-related research at EAPS that is attracting broad public attention incudes studies of the economic impact of cyclones and storm surges, the prediction of rainfall and effects on agricultural production, the relationship between carbon emissions, climate, and air quality, the impact of aerosols on cloudformation and the Earth’s radiation budget, and the contribution of climate change to past episodes of extinction of species.
EAPS is strongly committed to improving the quality and impact of education when it comes to climate. Numerous Course XII offerings available in both fundamental and applied climate science provide exposure to climate change science, implications, policy, and solutions in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum. Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) opportunities in climate science are available to students from across campus, and Terrascope, a learning community for incoming freshmen, exposes undergraduates to the earth sciences, increasingly with a focus on climate science. Co-led by EAPS faculty members, Terrascope uses the Earth system to provide the context for a systems-oriented approach to learning—this fall its students will be tasked with providing solutions for Mission 2019: “Food Security in the face of a Changing Climate”. The potential to complement classroom education with online courses in climate science is also clear: the first online MITx course taught by EAPS professors on climate science attracted 12,000 students around the world in its first airing.
But more can and should be done. “If we truly believe that responding to climate change is one of the critical challenges of our time, then every MIT student should graduate with an understanding of the basics of climate science”, said Robert Van der Hilst, EAPS Department Head and Schlumberger Professor of Earth Sciences.
Indeed, how can we confront the climate problem unless we educate a new generation of students to understand its complexity and to tackle the challenge as future leaders in academia, industry, and government? To realize this vision, EAPS strongly supports cross-Institute programs such as the prospective Minor in Environment and Sustainability and would welcome the opportunity to include the basics of climate science in the general Institute requirements. Such efforts require close coordination with our partners across campus, such as the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and the Sloan School of Management.
With EAPS, MIT has a world-class program in climate science, where knowledge about the processes, mechanisms, and stabilities and instabilities of global climate is generated. With so much at stake, “we would be more than delighted if confronting climate change becomes a top priority for the Institute”, van der Hilst said, adding that “EAPS stands ready to pitch in and continue to lead by example.”
EAPS faculty agree that there is no time to lose: now is the right time to enhance the pace, scope, and impact of climate research at MIT and to integrate the tremendous range of climate-related programs already underway across campus in order to raise the climate literacy of MIT students and the public. EAPS stands ready to help MIT take its place as a global leader in meeting the climate challenge.
OCEANS AND CLIMATE... Earth's thermostate, and more.
Anyone who lives on the coast—and most people on Earth do—knows that proximity to the ocean plays a big role in local weather and climate. Winter nor’easters and summer hurricanes aside, Boston would tend to be a whole lot colder in January and hotter in August were it not for the Atlantic Ocean lapping at—and sometimes punishing—our shores. And this buffering action helps regulate the global to local effects of climate change just as strongly. “The oceans not only record and react to climate change, they help drive and control its impacts,” said John Marshall, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “Regional patterns and rates of surface warming are largely determined by the oceans because they set the effective heat capacity of the climate system and strongly influence circulation patterns.”
THE CLIMATE-OCEAN RELATIONSHIP...
• Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions drive global warming but much of the heat has actually been absorbed by the oceans, thus far limiting the actual near-surface atmospheric warming that has occurred.
• The oceans have also absorbed much of the anthropogenic CO2—a primary GHG—further moderating the potential surface temperature impacts.
• Absorbing all this heat and CO2 is making the oceans warmer and more acidic, with profound implications for ocean currents and marine life up and down the food chain.
• Warming ocean waters provide more heat to fuel bigger and more frequent hurricanes and other extreme, marine-based weather events.
• Warming water also expands, guaranteeing tens of centimeters of overall sea level rise per century based on current rates. Sudden melting of glaciers and ice—principally on Greenland and Antarctica—could quickly lead to meters of sea level rise.
• The relatively high ratio of land to ocean in the northern hemisphere, coupled with deep ocean currents that carry cold water toward Antarctica, means that the Arctic stands to experience far more impact from climate change over the coming decades, with profound geopolitical implications. “What we really have is a strongly coupled, highly dynamic and highly heterogeneous global climate-ocean system,” Marshall said. “We simply cannot understand one without understanding the other.”
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