Research

CLIMATE

In 1928, MIT became the first institution in the nation to establish a meteorology curriculum, and has been a leader in climate science ever since. Continuing to advance our understanding of climate systems is one of the great intellectual challenges—and responsibilities—of our time. With cyclones growing in frequency and ferocity, communities increasingly being threatened by landslides and extreme flood events, and melting permafrost endangering habitats and belching large amounts of trapped carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, the need for fundamental research is becoming more and more critical. Collaborating with researchers across multiple disciplines, we are determined to understand how climate works and how our scientific knowledge can guide us toward long-term sustainability.

To help plan for the future, we seek to answer profound questions. What caused Earth’s past climate shifts, and what is our climate’s natural variability? How do climates evolve on other planets? What role do the oceans play in regulating Earth’s temperature? What about their role in the carbon cycle? Can microbes influence the atmosphere? How does ocean acidification affect the biosphere? Does airborne particulate matter affect cloud formation? What are the links between anthropogenic activities, air and ocean pollution, and climate change? Does rapid climate change contribute to mass extinctions?



How do EAPS scientists conduct their research?

In EAPS, atmospheric scientists, oceanographers, geologists, and planetary scientists work together to understand the elaborate, interconnected natural systems which combine to produce and influence our climate. Precise uranium dating of stalagmites found in a Nevada desert cave provides a timeline for a once much wetter American West.

In the mountains of Rwanda, the first long-term atmospheric observing station on the African continent will fill in vital missing data about global greenhouse gas emissions. The MIT Global Circulation Model—a sophisticated virtual tool now used by hundreds of researchers around the world—simulates the interplay between the oceans, atmosphere, and climate in 3-D, with the capacity to examine ocean dynamics at the planetary scale, all the way down to fine resolutions of just one square kilometer.

Seismic sensor networks allow us to continuously monitor seasonal fluctuations in the Greenland ice sheet. And by making a few adjustments to a cloud chamber designed to study atmospheric conditions on Earth, we are able to create a Martian analog which allows us to study how clouds may form on the red planet, giving us insight into the mechanics of our own climate.


CLIMATE IN THE NEWS

Old Rain, New Data: Past Climate Change in the Southeastern US
Gabi Serrato Marks | envirobites

What is so important about 6,000-year-old rain?

If you want to know how much it will rain today, tomorrow, or next week, you can open a weather app, watch the news, or even check Twitter. Finding out how much it was raining in the past is a lot harder, though. You may be asking yourself why anyone cares about old rain and climate. Although ancient droughts, storms, and rain might seem irrelevant to our daily lives, modern extreme weather and climate can certainly make an impact.  Just last week (first landfall on August 25th), Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Texas Gulf Coast as a Category 4 storm, meaning that the storm showed maximum sustained wind speeds of 130-156 mph (209-251 km/h). Category 4 hurricanes are classified as major hurricanes, with potential for “catastrophic damage,” by the National Hurricane Center. This devastation can include structural damage to buildings and total (or near-total) power loss in the impacted region. You can read more about the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale, the storm categorization system used in the United States, here and here.

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The Air Up There
Jennifer Chu | MIT News

When commercial airplanes break through the clouds to reach cruising altitude, they have typically arrived in the stratosphere, the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere. The air up there is dry and clear, and much calmer than the turbulent atmosphere we experience on the ground.

And yet, for all its seeming tranquility, the stratosphere can be a powerful conveyor belt, pulling air up from the Earth’s equatorial region and pushing it back down toward the poles in a continuously circulating pattern. The strength of this circulation can significantly impact the amount of water vapor, chemicals, and ozone transported around the planet.

Now scientists in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) have for the first time determined the strength of the stratosphere’s circulation, based on observations of key chemicals traveling within this atmospheric layer.

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For the Love of Ice: Journeys to the Remote and Inhospitable
Kate Repantis | MIT Alumni Association

When commercial airplanes break through the clouds to reach cruising altitude, they have typically arrived in the stratosphere, the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere. The air up there is dry and clear, and much calmer than the turbulent atmosphere we experience on the ground.

And yet, for all its seeming tranquility, the stratosphere can be a powerful conveyor belt, pulling air up from the Earth’s equatorial region and pushing it back down toward the poles in a continuously circulating pattern. The strength of this circulation can significantly impact the amount of water vapor, chemicals, and ozone transported around the planet.

Now scientists in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) have for the first time determined the strength of the stratosphere’s circulation, based on observations of key chemicals traveling within this atmospheric layer.

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Rising Temperatures are Curbing Ocean’s Capacity to Store Carbon
Jennifer Chu | MIT News

If there is anywhere for carbon dioxide to disappear in large quantities from the atmosphere, it is into the Earth’s oceans. There, huge populations of plankton can soak up carbon dioxide from surface waters and gobble it up as a part of photosynthesis, generating energy for their livelihood. When plankton die, they sink thousands of feet, taking with them the carbon that was once in the atmosphere, and stashing it in the deep ocean.

The oceans, therefore, have served as a natural sponge in removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, helping to offset the effects of climate change.

But now MIT climate scientists have found that the ocean’s export efficiency, or the fraction of total plankton growth that is sinking to its depths, is decreasing, due mainly to rising global temperatures.

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