Read two examples about how investments from our friends into bold, new ideas from our faculty can catalyze major government funding and research innovation.
Story Image: In the lab, Dan Cziczo shows Fujiko Nakaya and Bill Martin the SPIDER cloud separation device deployed on Mt. Washington, NH (pictured top). Photos courtesy the Cziczo Lab
A curiosity about climate change led Bill Martin, president of Boston-based CME Energy—a global company that prides itself on its environmental responsibility—to seed some innovative research in the clouds at the summit of Mount Washington. Now, his initial investment in fundamental science has grown into
a federally-funded collaborative project, with implications for building more accurate models to better understand our changing climate.
After meeting Dan Cziczo, associate professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), at a School of Science event, Martin visited Cziczo’s lab to hear about his atmospheric research and the need to track aerosols in the atmosphere to advance our understanding of clouds and their role in climate models. The pilot project Martin chose to fund after his visit laid the groundwork for a major study at MIT, in collaboration with scientists in the Rocky Mountains, along with a three-year $600K grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
“I decided to fund Dan’s climate research as I wanted to help fill in some of the gaps in knowledge about aerosols,” said Martin. “I’m thrilled that this early study on Mount Washington has paved the way for a larger NSF-sponsored study with another mountaintop site in Colorado.”
Aerosols, formed by the suspension of particles in the atmosphere, can originate from myriad human and natural sources. Natural origins can range from salt from the oceans or dust blown in from the Sahara Desert, to particles spewed from an erupting volcano. Human sources can include emissions from airplanes and power plants, or even forests being burned to clear land for grazing cattle.
These particles can cool the climate directly by scattering some radiation back to space that would otherwise warm the planet, and by seeding clouds that have an even greater scattering effect. Monitoring aerosol particles, their origins, their cloud-forming properties, and their movement across the U.S. is a high priority for climate scientists who are working to understand the source and impact of aerosols, and to devise accurate climate models to help us predict and plan for the future.
Martin’s gift enabled Cziczo and his team (former graduate student Libby Koolik and postdoc Michael Roesch) to create and deploy state-of-the-art instrumentation at the summit of Mount Washington to monitor atmospheric particles in an environment that is relatively free of pollution and anthropogenic influences. Based on this pilot study, the NSF then agreed to fund further research in collaboration with Storm Peak Laboratory (SPL) of the Desert Research Institute in Colorado.
SPL is among a handful of sites worldwide that offers scientific laboratories that sit high up within mixed-phase clouds for long time periods. Mixed-phase clouds (MPCs) can consist of both “warm” clouds of water droplets and also “cold” clouds of ice crystals, and these clouds are not only critical players in the Earth’s water cycle, but are also the least predictable when it comes to climate models. Using “SPIDER” (phaSe seParation Inlet for Droplets icE crystals, and aeRosols)—the new technology developed by Cziczo’s group to separate water droplets, ice, and aerosol particles—the team will undertake a season-long study of droplet and ice concentrations within these clouds for comparison to existing measurements of cloud properties. This innovative technique will lead to a new method of characterizing MPCs that can be used to hone current climate models.
Bill Martin is excited: “My hope is that this investment will help lead climate scientists to greater accuracy in their models and their predictions for the future of our planet.”
Read more about Cziczo's research:
Story image: Cave stalagmites offer records of atmospheric circulation and precipitation which the McGee Lab uses to develop more precise chronologies of past climates—valuable data for understanding and predicting future warming. Photo credit: Jeremy Shakun
Thanks to the mTerra Catalyst Fund, a new seed fund established by EAPS Visiting Committee member Michael J. Mars, faculty in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) are receiving a financial boost for original earth and climate science research in the Appalachian Mountains and the Northwest Territories.
How do scientists get that first grant to kick off a totally new project or explore an “out of the box” idea? As the competition for federal funding becomes more intense, federal agencies require “proof of concept” before making research grants. This can be frustrating for scientists wanting to forge new paths of research—and seed funding for “high risk” research (where results are somewhat unpredictable) is in short supply. Aware of this challenge, EAPS faculty were excited to hear that the mTerra Catalyst Fund is available to nurture innovative research in the earth and climate sciences.
The first two projects selected to receive mTerra Catalyst funding are Taylor Perron’s “Rewiring of River Networks and the Biodiversity of Freshwater Species” and David McGee’s “Novel Records of High-Latitude Continental Temperatures During Past Warm Climates.”
“Freshwater environments are exceptionally biologically diverse. Although rivers and lakes cover only 1 percent of the Earth’s surface, they host roughly one-third of all described vertebrates,” says Perron. “But river networks are constantly being reorganized by geological processes—growing or shrinking, forging or breaking connections—especially in tectonically active regions that often happen to also be biodiversity hotspots.” Perron’s group has developed new techniques for measuring river network reorganization, and the development of low-cost DNA sequencing now allows for efficient genetic analyses that can be compared with geological studies. Computational models of evolving landscapes and biological communities will be coupled in a new way in this pilot study. Perron and graduate student Maya Stokes will undertake fieldwork in the southern Appalachians to document the history of changing river networks, and they will build simulations of biological speciation and dispersal that will be coupled with models of river networks. The ultimate goal is to uncover the mechanisms by which dynamic river networks influence biodiversity, thereby helping to guide future efforts to manage and preserve some of the world’s most valuable ecosystems.
McGee’s paleoclimate research project will adopt a novel approach to reconstructing past temperatures using cave deposits from the Northwest Territories in Canada that are up to 7.7 million years old. According to McGee, “These cave deposits are from one of the few regions of Canada that were not glaciated during the last 3 million years, and they contain fluid inclusions that may help us estimate the mean annual temperature at the time of their formation.”
This work has the potential to unlock an important new archive of past climates spanning large portions of the Quaternary, Pliocene, and possibly beyond. This data is currently lacking and will be particularly valuable for input into climate models which can help predict future warming. “The northern hemisphere’s high-latitude continental areas are warming faster than any other land areas on the planet,” McGee said, “and climate models have historically underestimated the extent of this warming.”
Improving the accuracy of climate models in order to improve our understanding of the magnitude of future warming in these regions is critical given the potential for melting of permafrost containing large stocks of carbon, and the dependence of ice sheet stability on high-latitude temperatures.
“I have always been interested in the earth sciences, and I am concerned about humanity’s impact on global earth systems,” noted Mars.
“I am delighted to support novel areas of research in EAPS that can advance human understanding of the dynamics of these complex systems and potentially help to advance future policy efforts towards sustainable living. We have an extraordinary history of the Earth yet to discover to understand past climate change and its impact on life. And, it is as important to study the geologic record as it is to study the current changes taking place to form an understanding of how the climate, oceans, and land will react to human inputs and use.”
Read more about McGee's research:
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