Seeding Research for Climate Science and Earth Systems

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Projects involving Andrew Babbin and Paul O'Gorman are among six selected to receive MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative seed funding.

Established in 2014 with the goal of focusing MIT's talents on today's pressing environmental challenges, the Environmental Systems Initiative announced the recipients of its 2017 Seed Grants:


Improved Climate Modeling through Machine-learning and Data-driven Approaches
PIs: Paul O’Gorman, Associate Professor of Earth, Atmospheric & Planetary Sciences & Elfatih Eltahir, Breene M. Kerr Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Proposed Work
Climate models are a key tool for future projections of climate change and the associated impacts on society and ecosystems. However, climate models exhibit regional biases and uncertain feedback processes that limit the accuracy of climate projections. An important contributor to these biases and uncertainties is the representation of unresolved processes in the atmosphere, ocean and land surface through semi-empirical subgrid models known as parameterizations. New high-resolution modeling and observational datasets provide an unprecedented opportunity to greatly improve the parameterizations used in climate models. Here we propose to develop a new class of parameterizations for the atmosphere and ocean by combining machine learning algorithms with high-resolution simulations, and we propose to better constrain climate models over land using observational data. The overall goal of the proposed research is to investigate whether machine-learning and data-driven approaches may be used to improve climate models so that they are more useful for projections of climate change and for scientific investigations of the climate system.

Genetically Engineered Solutions to Environmental Nitrogen Paradoxes
PI: Andrew Babbin, Assistant Professor of Earth, Atmospheric & Planetary Sciences

Proposed Work
Bioavailable inorganic nitrogen limits the fertility of many environmental systems, from local lakes and rivers to coastal bays to much of the global ocean. Denitrification is a multi-step microbial pathway by which environmental bacteria naturally consume inorganic nitrogen. Denitrification has generally been considered an anaerobic process, requiring the complete absence of molecular oxygen to commence, but mounting evidence has shown that denitrifying bacteria are tolerant of low oxygen concentrations. The exact tolerances of these organisms to denitrify in the presence of oxygen are as yet unknown. Moreover, as denitrification can generate a variable amount of nitrous oxide byproduct under different oxygen conditions, the implications for the production of this greenhouse and ozone-depleting gas remain unexplored. The proposed work aims to resolve how oxygen concentrations shape the activity, community development, and efficiency of denitrifying bacteria. By investigating the response of a laboratory model organism, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, to finely controlled concentrations in  oxygen, broad inferences can be made about the tolerance of these facultative anaerobes to aerobic conditions. Furthermore, by using modern genetic engineering techniques, the community responses can be generalized for many systems in terms of how denitrification steps are divided among individual bacteria and the net effect on biogeochemistry.

Other projects awarded include:


Achieving Water Affordability in America’s Shrinking Cities: Solutions for Financial Sustainability and Social Equity
PIs: Lawrence Susskind and Gabriella Carolini (Urban Studies and Planning)
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Decarbonized Energy Systems for the New Volpe Center
PIs: Leslie Norford and Christoph Reinhart (Architecture), David Hsu (Urban Studies and Planning)
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Sustainability of Autonomy-enabled Transportation Systems
PIs: Steven Barrett and Sertac Karaman (Aeronautics and Astronautics)
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Beneficial Use of Industrial Wastes in the Built Environment
PIs: Elsa Olivetti (Materials Science and Engineering), John Ochsendorf (Civil and Environmental Engineering)
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The Environmental Solutions Initiative mobilizes the substantial scientific, engineering, policy, and design capacity of MIT to create solutions to today’s environmental challenges through diverse activities in education, research, and convening.


Environmental Solutions Initiative awards seed grants to advance collaborative progress on environmental challenges

MIT Announces New Initiative on Environment