Over Earth’s 4.6 billion-year existence, change is the one constant. EAPS investigators are leveraging the latest technologies to conduct novel, discovery-driven research in order to understand the processes shaping our planet—including how we affect it.
Since the beginning of humankind, we’ve marveled at the planet we call home. A combination of innate curiosity and the practical need to understand how the natural world works has ensured our species’ survival. Now we find ourselves at a crossroads: trying to understand not only the delicate interplay of Earth’s systems but also the effects human activity has on that fine balance.
In MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), that same fundamental curiosity drives our research. How do rivers form and evolve? What role do marine microbes play in the carbon cycle? What can ancient sediments and stalagmites tell us about past and future climates and the influence on life? Our research into the origin, evolution, and future of our planet can also help to address practical needs to sustain life on Earth—like exploring for natural resources and safely extracting them from the ground, and expanding our ability to forecast, mitigate, and adapt to natural hazards.
EAPS traces its roots back to 1861 with William Barton Rogers, a geologist and MIT’s founder and first president. Geology and Mining Engineering (Course IV) was one of the original six courses taught at MIT. As our understanding of the Earth’s systems has grown, the curricula and research foci have evolved into the department today (Course XII)—a multidisciplinary hub, where students and faculty are able to pursue innovative research collaborations to investigate the forces which shape the natural world.
Catalyzing our novel approach are the four complementary and intersecting themes studied in EAPS—Earth. Planets. Climate. Life. Among the department’s many examples, Associate Professor Taylor Perron’s research is just one. Perron and his group examine how landscapes form and evolve on Earth and other planets, and in the process often join forces with colleagues to probe deeper into their investigations. In the past, Perron and postdoctoral fellow Dino Bellugi teamed with Paul O’Gorman, associate professor of atmospheric science, to develop new landslide prediction models, which consider regional geology and local climates, with the potential to help communities prepare for disaster in the face of climate change. At present, the Perron Group is charting new paths in river research: working with researchers in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering to explore on the microscale how turbulent flows move sand and gravel; dipping into the field of evolutionary biology by revealing how changes in river paths over millions of years might be responsible for the exceptional diversity of fish in regions like the southeastern U.S.; delving into archaeology with colleagues in MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering to learn how rivers and plate tectonics shaped prehistoric human agriculture; and even studying how rivers of methane sculpted the icy surface of Saturn’s moon Titan.
Image credits: McGee Lab
EAPS scientists are armed with sophisticated tools, in the field and in the lab, to image, map, measure, and track changes in the Earth, its biosphere, and its climate systems through deep-time to the Anthropocene like never before.
Pushing the envelope of remote sensing technology and geodetic instrumentation, Assistant Professor Brent Minchew and his group of geophysicists, glaciologists, mechanicians, and geodesists seek to understand how glaciers evolve in response to climatic changes and how they, in turn, impact landform evolution and the global carbon cycle. Using interferometric synthetic aperture radar (IfSAR/InSAR) data and optical imagery, Minchew and his team innovate techniques and software to measure and create detailed maps of ice flow and mechanics, and develop dynamical models. One application for this work is to improve future sea level projections. The group has also employed their methods in some surprising ways: the same types of radar instrumentation that map the movement of glaciers and their beds can also be adapted to help mitigate environmental hazards, like pinpointing marine oil spills and tracking wildfire perimeters.
Kristin Bergmann, the Victor P. Starr Career Development Assistant Professor, also makes plenty of instrument observations in environments shaped by glaciation, but what she’s looking for is much different: rocks that capture the early history of complex life and the environmental conditions that supported it. Her work has taken her to fossil-rich places like Norway, Newfoundland, Oman, and California’s Death Valley, where she and her group map spatial variations and make 3D reconstructions of the stratigraphy using geographic information system technology (GIS) and drone-mounted cameras. Back in the lab, they apply clumped isotope thermometry, petrography, and microanalytical techniques to their carbonate sedimentary rock samples. Together, these methods help to place and characterize events of climate change, evolution, and extinction on Earth’s timeline.
Image credits: Bosak Lab
Not all of our research relies on tough fieldwork; sometimes, computers do the heavy lifting. Data processing, analysis, and computational modeling are important tools for every research group in EAPS. And some faculty, like Professors Glenn Flierl and Dan Rothman, are applying these methods to an ever-widening range of questions.
As an oceanographer, Glenn Flierl is a master modeler of fluid dynamics. Beyond studying the mechanics of eddies, jets, and nonlinear flows in the ocean depths, his dynamical models also seek to understand how these phenomena affect marine ecosystems—from their roles in nutrient cycling and the co-evolution of oceanic predators and prey, to gauging the environmental impacts of seafloor mining. Expanding his scope, Flierl applies these complex computations to the turbulent heights of our atmosphere and even vortices in outer space, like Saturn’s polar cyclones and the protoplanetary solar nebula. His iGlobe/MIT and EsGlobe (Environmental Science Globe) projects pull a lot of these pictures together, literally. Along with collaborators, he developed software which can display animated models of ocean, weather, and climate systems, and can depict how aerosols, pollutants, and biota are transported around the Earth in a three-dimensional format on a large, spherical, digital video screen.
For geophysicist Dan Rothman, numerical and analytical models are a lens to view the organization of the natural world from many angles—from topics in seismology and fluid flow to biogeochemistry and geobiology. Rothman and his group work to reconcile mathematical and physical theory with observations, in order to reveal the fundamental mechanisms of Earth’s dynamic systems, like the interplay of the carbon cycle and climate, the relationship between environmental change and the evolution (and extinctions) of multicellular life, and the physical foundation and mathematical expression of natural geometric forms.
Image credits: EAPS Communications
BENEATH OUR FEET
Of course, our questions probe far deeper than what we can observe here on the surface of our vast planet. Geologists and geophysicists in EAPS work on problems spanning great scales of space and time—from microscale structures of minerals to the composition of the Earth’s core over 6,000 km below us, and earthquakes, which strike in a split second, to the formation of our planet 4.6 billion years ago.
EAPS researchers sweat the small things—appreciating that interactions and behaviors at the material level have the ability to amplify responses, causing large downstream effects. Matěj Peč, assistant professor of geophysics, investigates both the fine details and large forces at play in rock deformation. His group studies the mechanisms that drive and resist plate tectonics over long timescales, as well as the microstructural response of rocks as they are loaded under a broad range of pressures and temperatures. Measuring the grain size of rocks and strain localization in the context of faults allows them to understand how rapid strain transients can cause earthquakes.
Our fundamental inquiries into the construction of the solid Earth also have implications for practical applications, allowing us to both benefit from and protect our planet. EAPS is home to MIT’s Earth Resources Laboratory (ERL) where geophysical research is driven by technological questions in the areas of energy and the environment. In addition to working on natural resource extraction, researchers in ERL are pushing advances in geothermal engineering and carbon sequestration, as well as one of society’s biggest challenges: finding and managing clean drinking water supplies in the face of climate change. Professor of Geophysics and Associate Director of ERL Dale Morgan’s work in St. Lucia is just one example of geophysical research making a direct impact on communities. In the 1980s, he began working with the local government to evaluate sources of geothermal energy, and over the years turned his subsurface exploration to help the drought-prone island find new sources of fresh water. The sources identified by Morgan’s research are currently responsible for supplying over 35,000 homes—and will meet almost 60% of the country’s water needs in the next five years.
Story Image: Professor Roger Summons and colleagues spent the 2018 Antarctic field season examining primitive organisms which thrive in extreme environments, hoping to shed light on how life might evolve on planets beyond our own. Shown above, this delicate invertebrate from the bottom of the Ross Sea had been frozen in the mud; as ice ablated from the surface, it was carried up until exposed—unscathed—on the top of the Ross Ice Shelf. Image credit: Roger Summons
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