EAPS scientists engage in out-of-the-box thinking to tackle some of the most pressing questions surrounding global change and long-term sustainability.
BY KATE S. PETERSEN I EAPS NEWS
Climate change is no ordinary problem. As global temperatures soar, harm to societies and natural systems increases with the potential for irreversible damage, so addressing it will require multi-pronged approaches, anchored by the work of climate and geoscience experts. MIT Vice President for Research and E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics Maria Zuber, who helped to launch MIT's Climate Action Plan, realizes the need for an aggressive but pragmatic transition to a zero-carbon society with input from an engaged cohort of industry, government, academia, foundations, philanthropists, and the public.
"Climate change represents a global problem, and the only way that we can really address it is to partner with as many organizations and people as we can," said Zuber at MIT's inaugural Climate Night event in April.
HACKATHONS: INCUBATORS OF IDEAS
One way to help break researchers out of silos and provide novel solutions to problems is through ad hoc interdisciplinary collaborations and competitions. MIT's EarthHack 2019 is just one example, where roughly 30 innovators from multiple academic institutions grouped into impromptu teams and spent a 12-hour period brainstorming global climate change solutions—with EAPS and other MIT students taking top places. The idea that snatched gold, which came from EAPS' Joleen Heiderich,JuIie Jakobski, Sam Levang, Sebastian Essink, and others, was an app that would use machine learning to generate climate change-related mortality risk-assessments for different areas of the world and at different times, based on available climate data.
From the same hackathon, the proposal "One Small Step" by EAPS students Deepa Rao and Craig McLean with others, took bronze. They developed a survey to help make individuals aware of their carbon footprint, contextualize their lifestyle choices to available options, and provide actionable information to encourage more sustainable living. By synthesizing available data on state-level economic sectors with the corresponding carbon footprint, people could calculate their footprint and see other locally available, lower carbon options. The goal was to make data more personally meaningful and bring awareness of state and national policies impacting choices.
Last year, MIT also hosted Climate Changed, an event co-sponsored by the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) and the MIT School of Architecture and Planning—with award funding from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation—which explored the agency of models in the future for the built environment. The symposium and exhibition included the Ideas competition, challenging participants to consider how environmental models could be translated into climate-responsive design interventions at the urban scale.
Several interdisciplinary teams vied for first place; many included EAPS members. In the end, the "Emerald Tutu" design team, with EAPS postdoc Nick Lutsko, won—with two other EAPS project teams "Higher Grounds" and "WAVE of Change" as finalists.
The Emerald Tutu (named for the frilly, floating green border it would create around East Boston), would be a constructed saltwater marsh intended to replace the original natural ecosystems that were destroyed by infill years ago. The proposed structure is series of floating saucers tethered together and attached to the bottom of the bay. Native marsh grasses grow on top, while long native seaweeds trail below. Pedestrian walkways over the water through the new "marsh" would supplement the city's recreational options. Like natural systems, it would buffer the shoreline from wave action and storm surge—growing threats to Boston with rising sea levels—and filter bay water. The team's plan also won the American Society of Civil Engineers Innovation contest in sustainable engineering.
Higher Grounds proposed a less resource-intensive solution to mitigate projected effects of coastal storm surge and sea level rise. EAPS students Tom Beucler PhD '18, Jonathan Lin, and Syndey Sroka linked the economics of protection with predicted flooding risks. WAVE of Change, with Gualtiero Spiro Jaeger PhD '19 of EAPS, focused on making visible the intangible effects of global climate change on local urban environments to engage citizens in climate change planning, using an interactive, community-centered, mobile application.
NECESSITY: THE SOUL OF INVENTION
Beyond hackathons and blue sky ideas, when it comes to generating climate models that will influence action, EAPS researchers are also teaming up with academic and industry partners to build new tools from the ground up.
The Climate Modeling Alliance (CliMA), a collaboration between the Caltech, MIT, the Naval Postgraduate School, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is revolutionizing the development of climate projections for greater precision and accuracy. Current models aren't flexible enough to incorporate dramatically new information. Some are limited to a relatively coarse resolution, calculating Earth's vast and dynamic climate system on a 100-square-kilometer grid, which leaves a lot of room for uncertainty—which is why the researchers are starting from scratch. Leveraging machine learning, new software tools like the MIT-developed Julia language, and next-generation graphics processing units (GPUs) with cloud-computing networks, CliMA scientists will be able to better account for small-scale environmental features like cloud cover, rainfall, sea ice, and ocean turbulence down to one-kilometer-square detail. Combined with real-world measurements, these higher-resolution simulations can help resolve the small-scale physics not captured by current models, reducing uncertainties in long-range predictions by half.
"Anything to reduce that margin [of uncertainty] can provide a societal benefit estimated in trillions of dollars," said Raffaele Ferrari, EAPS Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography and co-investigator on the project. "If one knows better the likelihood of changes in rainfall patterns, for example, then everyone from civil engineers to farmers can decide what infrastructure and practices they may need to plan for."
Image credit: CLiMA/Tapio Schneider/Kyle PresseVMomme HelVCaltech
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