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    What will happen to sediment plumes associated with deep-sea mining?

    In certain parts of the deep ocean, scattered across the seafloor, lie baseball-sized rocks layered with minerals accumulated over millions of years. A region of the central Pacific, called the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCFZ), is estimated to contain vast reserves of these rocks, known as “polymetallic nodules,” that are rich in nickel and cobalt  — minerals that are commonly mined on land for the production of lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles, laptops, and mobile phones.

    As demand for these batteries rises, efforts are moving forward to mine the ocean for these mineral-rich nodules. Such deep-sea-mining schemes propose sending down tractor-sized vehicles to vacuum up nodules and send them to the surface, where a ship would clean them and discharge any unwanted sediment back into the ocean. But the impacts of deep-sea mining — such as the effect of discharged sediment on marine ecosystems and how these impacts compare to traditional land-based mining — are currently unknown.

    Now oceanographers at MIT, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and elsewhere have carried out an experiment at sea for the first time to study the turbulent sediment plume that mining vessels would potentially release back into the ocean. Based on their observations, they developed a model that makes realistic predictions of how a sediment plume generated by mining operations would be transported through the ocean.

    The model predicts the size, concentration, and evolution of sediment plumes under various marine and mining conditions. These predictions, the researchers say, can now be used by biologists and environmental regulators to gauge whether and to what extent such plumes would impact surrounding sea life.

    “There is a lot of speculation about [deep-sea-mining’s] environmental impact,” says Thomas Peacock, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “Our study is the first of its kind on these midwater plumes, and can be a major contributor to international discussion and the development of regulations over the next two years.”

    The team’s study appears today in Nature Communications: Earth and Environment.

    Peacock’s co-authors at MIT include lead author Carlos Muñoz-Royo, Raphael Ouillon, Chinmay Kulkarni, Patrick Haley, Chris Mirabito, Rohit Supekar, Andrew Rzeznik, Eric Adams, Cindy Wang, and Pierre Lermusiaux, along with collaborators at Scripps, the U.S. Geological Survey, and researchers in Belgium and South Korea.

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    Out to sea

    Current deep-sea-mining proposals are expected to generate two types of sediment plumes in the ocean: “collector plumes” that vehicles generate on the seafloor as they drive around collecting nodules 4,500 meters below the surface; and possibly “midwater plumes” that are discharged through pipes that descend 1,000 meters or more into the ocean’s aphotic zone, where sunlight rarely penetrates.

    In their new study, Peacock and his colleagues focused on the midwater plume and how the sediment would disperse once discharged from a pipe.

    “The science of the plume dynamics for this scenario is well-founded, and our goal was to clearly establish the dynamic regime for such plumes to properly inform discussions,” says Peacock, who is the director of MIT’s Environmental Dynamics Laboratory.

    To pin down these dynamics, the team went out to sea. In 2018, the researchers boarded the research vessel Sally Ride and set sail 50 kilometers off the coast of Southern California. They brought with them equipment designed to discharge sediment 60 meters below the ocean’s surface.  

    “Using foundational scientific principles from fluid dynamics, we designed the system so that it fully reproduced a commercial-scale plume, without having to go down to 1,000 meters or sail out several days to the middle of the CCFZ,” Peacock says.

    Over one week the team ran a total of six plume experiments, using novel sensors systems such as a Phased Array Doppler Sonar (PADS) and epsilometer developed by Scripps scientists to monitor where the plumes traveled and how they evolved in shape and concentration. The collected data revealed that the sediment, when initially pumped out of a pipe, was a highly turbulent cloud of suspended particles that mixed rapidly with the surrounding ocean water.

    “There was speculation this sediment would form large aggregates in the plume that would settle relatively quickly to the deep ocean,” Peacock says. “But we found the discharge is so turbulent that it breaks the sediment up into its finest constituent pieces, and thereafter it becomes dilute so quickly that the sediment then doesn’t have a chance to stick together.”


    The team had previously developed a model to predict the dynamics of a plume that would be discharged into the ocean. When they fed the experiment’s initial conditions into the model, it produced the same behavior that the team observed at sea, proving the model could accurately predict plume dynamics within the vicinity of the discharge.

    The researchers used these results to provide the correct input for simulations of ocean dynamics to see how far currents would carry the initially released plume.

    “In a commercial operation, the ship is always discharging new sediment. But at the same time the background turbulence of the ocean is always mixing things. So you reach a balance. There’s a natural dilution process that occurs in the ocean that sets the scale of these plumes,” Peacock says. “What is key to determining the extent of the plumes is the strength of the ocean turbulence, the amount of sediment that gets discharged, and the environmental threshold level at which there is impact.”

    Based on their findings, the researchers have developed formulae to calculate the scale of a plume depending on a given environmental threshold. For instance, if regulators determine that a certain concentration of sediments could be detrimental to surrounding sea life, the formula can be used to calculate how far a plume above that concentration would extend, and what volume of ocean water would be impacted over the course of a 20-year nodule mining operation.

    “At the heart of the environmental question surrounding deep-sea mining is the extent of sediment plumes,” Peacock says. “It’s a multiscale problem, from micron-scale sediments, to turbulent flows, to ocean currents over thousands of kilometers. It’s a big jigsaw puzzle, and we are uniquely equipped to work on that problem and provide answers founded in science and data.”

    The team is now working on collector plumes, having recently returned from several weeks at sea to perform the first environmental monitoring of a nodule collector vehicle in the deep ocean in over 40 years.

    This research was supported in part by the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative, the UC Ship Time Program, the MIT Policy Lab, the 11th Hour Project of the Schmidt Family Foundation, the Benioff Ocean Initiative, and Fundación Bancaria “la Caixa.” More

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    New directions in real estate practice

    Among the courses taught by Siqi Zheng is one identifying how real estate companies can be profitable while building and operating sustainably. Her class, 11.S949 (Sustainable Real Estate), at the MIT Center for Real Estate (CRE) attracts students from throughout the MIT School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) and MIT Sloan School of Management. Harvard University students also cross-register to attend her course.

    For Zheng, the Samuel Tak Lee Champion Professor of Urban and Real Estate Sustainability, there is a sense of coming full circle.

    “Like these students, I migrated from Harvard to MIT,” Zheng says. “Fifteen years ago, I was one of them. Now I attract Harvard students to my classes.”

    Not only has Zheng progressed from taking courses at CRE while a postdoc at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design to joining the SA+P faculty in 2017, she assumed the role of CRE’s faculty director last summer. Among her goals in this new position is encouraging the center’s culture of sustainability and innovation — the very qualities that brought her to MIT as a student.

    While Zheng’s doctoral studies focused on housing and China’s transition from a centrally planned economy to a market-based system, it was MIT’s focus on urban economics and the “clean air and blue skies” of Cambridge, Massachusetts — in contrast to the polluted air in Beijing — that altered her focus to urban sustainability.

    “Back in 2006, I audited several very good courses at CRE in urban and real estate economics. It opened a window for me to say, ‘I need to study cities instead of just housing — and in a broader way — to understand urban dynamics.’ My research area became the intersection of urban economics and environmental sustainability.”

    Following her postdoc, Zheng returned to Beijing and joined Tsinghua University as an assistant professor and director of its Hang Lung Center for Real Estate.

    Creative urban studies research

    Shortly after arriving at MIT, Zheng founded the China Future City Lab, giving her the opportunity to focus on that country’s rapid economic growth alongside the tension of more sustainable urbanization. Her research shows that Chinese urban households are willing to pay higher real estate prices to live in cities and locations with better environmental quality, and this demand has increased over time. She has also identified a substantial price premium for green buildings, which gives real estate developers a monetary incentive to build energy-efficient structures. Gradually, she says, her research and team expanded along with her interest in other fast-urbanizing countries; she renamed her lab the Sustainable Urbanization Lab.

    Zheng’s research is remarkably varied and prolific, with many collaborators in the United States and overseas. Last year, Zheng was one of six MIT faculty awarded a grant from Harvard Medical School to address the effects of Covid-19. While the other researchers focused on clinical areas, such as vaccine development and diagnostic tools, Zheng’s research explored the role of social distancing in shaping Covid-19’s curve. Currently under review for publication, Zheng’s research compares how people’s sentiment in cities globally responded to the shock of the pandemic and the policies each government mandated to slow the spread of the virus.

    “My overarching goal as a scholar is to build our understanding of the behavioral foundations for urban real estate and environmental actions aimed at sustainable urbanization,” Zheng says. “I look at incentives and how an individual’s behavior gets aggregated into our society and its outcomes. Last year, without a vaccine, we needed to slow the spread of the virus. We had to rely on people in all countries to socially distance. We wanted to understand the interactions between individual sentiments, voluntary behaviors, and government intervention — how they work together, and their outcomes.”

    Currently, Zheng’s team is monitoring social media data to detect behavior changes in the U.S. population before and after vaccination. Their theory is that individuals — once vaccinated against Covid-19 — are happier and take part in riskier behaviors, such as restaurant dining or not wearing a mask.

    “We’ve been monitoring emotional states on social media before the vaccination process began,” she says. “We can measure their emotional status and their activities from their social media posts. People lose their anxiety and fear after vaccination, and they stop taking precautions.”

    Zheng began using social media data as a tool to assess a population’s emotional status several years ago, when she studied emotions in conjunction with levels of air pollution in China. Her paper, “Air pollution lowers Chinese urbanites’ expressed happiness on social media,” appeared in Nature Human Behavior in 2019, and was the journal’s fourth-most popular paper that year.  

    Zheng used the same approach to understand how climate change affects people in China by coupling meteorological conditions with more than 400 million social media posts from 43 million users. Finding that extreme weather worsens emotional expressions on social media allowed the researchers to project the potentially harmful impacts of global warming on subjective well-being.

    CRE’s strategic directions

    Working with CRE Executive Director Professor Kairos Shen, and Associate Director Lisa Thoma, Zheng is mapping out a strategic plan for CRE. One emphasis is expanding interdisciplinary research. She is excited by the new work undertaken by the center’s postdocs and doctoral students, which she sees as fostering synergy with teaching.

    “This is MIT,” says Zheng. “We have excellent teaching — but that’s not enough. We need to have a strong research focus to support teaching because we need to introduce our brilliant students to the field’s frontiers.”

    A parallel strategy is expanding the center’s global perspective. Zheng notes the oft-used expression “location, location, location,” pointing out that, while CRE’s attention has leaned toward the United States and Boston, half of their students are from overseas and the majority of their alumni are based in Asia. As such, she is working to expand collaborations with academic institutions and alumni who are now leaders in the field in Korea, mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and India. Asia is also the region with the fastest urbanization and real estate growth potential. That’s why Zheng and her colleagues are now developing their “MIT Asia Real Estate Initiative.”

    “I like creating things from scratch,” Zheng says. “The center is small, flexible, and forward-looking, so I have an opportunity to create some new exciting programs and generate new impact.”

    As part of her globalization strategy, Zheng also expects to expand MIT/CRE’s online education offerings. While the center admits only 30 graduate students each year, Zheng sees opportunities for professionals in the global real estate industry to expand their education with an online certificate program. Currently, Zheng is designing six new courses to join the two already online.

    Having begun her new role during the global pandemic, Zheng and her team have only worked remotely. While anxious to get to know her team members “in person and not only over Zoom,” Zheng keeps busy managing various research initiatives, teaching and deepening MIT/CRE’s global connections. She is active on her social media accounts, sharing the Center’s many research activities, industry developments, and student achievements. On weekends however, she posts photos of hiking and exploring with her husband and son.

    “I want to be less intense outside of work; spending time outside surrounded by nature helps me unwind,” she says. More

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    Arlene Fiore appointed first Stone Professor in Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    The MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) has named atmospheric chemist Arlene Fiore the Peter H. Stone and Paola Malanotte Stone Professor in Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. Her chair began on July 1.

    Fiore is the first person to be appointed to this senior position, a full professorship that was generously endowed to EAPS by Professor Emeritus Peter H. Stone and Professor Paola Malanotte-Rizzoli. The couple’s $5 million donation sparked a multi-year campaign to find a suitable candidate to fill this prestigious named chair, intended to attract top scientists and enhance the department’s contributions to research, teaching, and mentorship in atmospheric sciences, physical oceanography, climate sciences, or planetary sciences. 

    The recruitment committee found a winning combination in Fiore, who brings with her 25 years of experience in the geosciences. She specializes in understanding how polluting emissions from anthropogenic and natural sources influence atmospheric chemistry, the climate system, and air pollution on regional to global scales, as well as the drivers of these interactions.

    “I am immensely grateful for the gift by Peter Stone and Paola Malanotte-Rizzoli — long-term colleagues and friends of EAPS — and excited to welcome Arlene into the EAPS community,” says head of EAPS Rob van der Hilst. “Professor Arlene Fiore will bring unique expertise to the EAPS climate program, at a time when MIT is ramping up its efforts to understand the underlying Earth systems and create solutions for mitigation and adaptations to climate change. Combined with her accolades in teaching, mentorship, and organization in support of women and diversity, she will be a huge asset to our research, education, and outreach programs.”

    Fiore comes to EAPS from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, where she breaks her research down into four pillars: air pollution, chemistry-climate connections, trends and variability in atmospheric constituents, and biosphere-atmosphere interactions. She uses a range of models alongside remote sensing and in situ observations to understand tropospheric ozone chemistry, its sensitivity to different sources and sinks including the terrestrial biosphere, on hourly and local scales up to global and decadal dimensions. Fiore and her group also investigate regional meteorology and climate feedbacks due to aerosols versus greenhouse gases, future air pollution responses to climate change, as well as the factors controlling the oxidizing capacity of the atmosphere. As a member of the NASA Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team, she partners with air and health management groups to address emerging needs with applications of satellite and other Earth science datasets.

    Since earning her undergraduate and PhD degrees from Harvard University, Fiore held a research scientist position at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory before joining Columbia University. She has since served on numerous boards and earned several awards. Among these are participating on the board of the Atmospheric Sciences and Climate of the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. CLIVAR Working Group on Large Initial-Condition Earth System Model Ensembles, the American Meteorological Society Statement on Atmospheric Ozone, and the Steering Committee for the IGAC/SPARC Chemistry-Climate Model Initiative. Fiore’s honors include the AGU James R. Holton Junior Scientist Award, Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, which is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on outstanding scientists and engineers in the early stages of their independent research careers, and AGU’s James B. Macelwane Medal. She is one of six co-founders of the Earth Science Women’s Network, promoting peer mentoring, career development, and equality in the geosciences. 

    “I enjoy studying interactions across realms that have in the past been considered separately (such as the climate system and air quality, urban air pollution and global atmospheric chemistry, the stratosphere and troposphere, terrestrial biosphere and atmosphere),” says Fiore. “Currently, I’m excited about a new research direction that seeks to identify imprints of climate variability on short, sparse observational records of trace gases, so that we can better detect and attribute the influence of human activities on atmospheric composition and climate.”

    Further, at MIT, she looks forward to inspiring the next generation of problem-solvers to understand atmospheric chemistry and climate system data, and equipping them to develop and leverage new computational methods.

    “Fiore is an accomplished researcher in several areas, especially the linking of atmospheric chemistry with climate change phenomena such as changes in rainfall and heat waves,” says Susan Solomon, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies at MIT. “EAPS has a lot of strengths in atmospheric chemistry, as well as plenty of depth in climate dynamics and meteorology. Fiore’s conversations with both have been positively electric, and we expect great new linkages to amplify our science impacts after she arrives.”

    Stone and Malanotte-Rizzoli see the greatest challenge of the 21st century to be climate change, making research in the geosciences front and center at this point in history. As such, they endeavored to continue the “tradition of excellence in atmospheric, climate, or planetary sciences,” at MIT. 

    At a reception honoring the generous endowment in 2015, van der Hilst described Stone and Malanotte-Rizzoli as “inspirational leaders,” whose gift not only strengthens the department but also bestows the unique “privilege of having their names forever associated” with EAPS. Both Stone and Malanotte-Rizzoli hold numerous awards and honors for contributions to their fields, and are renowned for their dedication to research and teaching alike. 

    Combined, Stone and Malanotte-Rizzoli have contributed 75 years of active service to the Institute and department. Stone first joined MIT in 1972 as a visiting professor of meteorology, and went on to become department head, director of MIT’s Center for Meteorology and Physical Oceanography, and director of the MIT Climate Modeling Initiative. He was at the forefront of atmospheric and climate dynamics research throughout his career, right up to his retirement in 2007. Malanotte-Rizzoli came to MIT in 1981 as an assistant professor of oceanography. While her physical oceanography interests are varied, she was named professor of physical oceanography in 1992, and spent 12 years directing the graduate-level MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program in Oceanography and Ocean Engineering. Malanotte-Rizzoli has also been a tireless voice in promoting gender equality among faculty at MIT. 

    On the selection of Fiore to the post, Malanotte-Rizzoli says, “We wish to see superb scientists and teachers, not limited to a very specialized scientific sector but who can cross, with equal excellence, disciplinary boundaries and build a new generation of researchers capable to do so. Arlene Fiore is such an example.”

    “We’re very grateful for the chance to bring in an accomplished senior climate person to MIT — especially at this special moment in history when MIT is marshaling its abilities to help address the climate challenge,” says Solomon. “The timing couldn’t be better for strengthening the already considerable climate arsenal in EAPS!” More

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    Designing exploratory robots that collect data for marine scientists

    As the Chemistry-Kayak (affectionately known as the ChemYak) swept over the Arctic estuary waters, Victoria Preston was glued to a monitor in a boat nearby, watching as the robot’s sensors captured new data. She and her team had spent weeks preparing for this deployment. With only a week to work on-site, they were making use of the long summer days to collect thousands of observations of a hypothesized chemical anomaly associated with the annual ice-cover retreat.

    The robot moved up and down the stream, using its chemical sensors to detect the composition of the flowing water. Its many measurements revealed a short-lived but massive influx of greenhouse gases in the water during the annual “flushing” of the estuary as ice thawed and receded. For Preston, the experiment’s success was a heartening affirmation of how robotic platforms can be leveraged to help scientists understand the environment in fundamentally new ways.

    Growing up near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, Preston learned about the importance of environmental conservation from a young age. She became passionate about how next-generation technologies could be used as tools to make a difference. In 2016, Preston completed her BS in robotics engineering from Olin College of Engineering.

    “My first research project involved creating a drone that could take noninvasive blow samples from exhaling whales,” Preston says. “Some of our work required us to do automatic detection, which would allow the drone to find the blowhole and track it. Overall, it was a great introduction on how to apply fundamental robotics concepts to the real world.”

    Preston’s undergraduate research inspired her to apply for a Fulbright award, which enabled her to work at the Center for Biorobotics in Tallinn, Estonia, for nine months. There, she worked on a variety of robotics projects, such as training a robotic vehicle to map an enclosed underwater space. “I really enjoyed the experience, and it helped shape the research interests I hold today. It also confirmed that grad school was the right next step for me and the work I wanted to do,” she says.

    Uncovering geochemical hotspots

    After her Fulbright ended, Preston began her PhD in aeronautics and astronautics and applied ocean physics and engineering through a joint program between MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Her co-advisors, Anna Michel and Nicholas Roy, have helped her pursue both theoretical and experimental questions. “I really wanted to have an advisor relationship with a scientist,” she says. “It was a high priority to me to make sure my work would always be a bridge between science and engineering objectives.”

    “Overall, I see robots as a tool for scientists. They take knowledge, explore, bring back datasets. Then scientists do the actual hard work of extracting meaningful information to solve these hard problems,” says Preston.

    The first two years of her research focused on how to deploy robots in environments and process their collected data. She developed algorithms that could allow the robot to move on its own. “My goal was to figure out how to exploit our knowledge of the world and use it to plan optimal sampling trajectories,” says Preston. “This would allow robots to independently navigate to sample in regions of high interest to scientists.”  

    Improving sampling trajectories becomes a major advantage when researchers are working under limited time or budget constraints. Preston was able to deploy her robot in Massachusetts’ Wareham River to detect dissolved methane and other greenhouse gases, byproducts of a wastewater treatment chemical feedstock and natural processes. “Imagine you have a ground seepage of radiation you’re trying to characterize. As the robot moves around, it might get ‘wafts’ of the radiation,” she says.

    “Our algorithm would update to give the robot a new estimate of where the leak might be. The robot responds by moving to that location, collecting more samples and potentially discovering the biggest hotspot or cause for the leak. It also builds a model we can interpret along the way.” This method is a major advancement in efficient sampling in the marine geochemical sciences, since historic strategies meant collecting random bottle samples to be analyzed later in the lab.

    Adapting to real-world requirements

    In the next phase of her work, Preston has been incorporating an important component — time. This will improve explorations that last over several days. “My previous work made this strong assumption that the robot goes in and by the time it’s done, nothing’s different about the environment. In reality this isn’t true, especially for a moving river,” she says. “We’re now trying to figure out how to better model how a space changes over time.”

    This fall, Preston will be traveling on the Scripps Institution of Oceanography research vessel Roger Revelle to the Guaymas Basin the Gulf of California. The research team will be releasing remotely operated and autonomous underwater robots near the bottom of the basin to investigate how hydrothermal plumes move in the water column. Working closely with engineers from the National Deep Submergence Facility, and in collaboration with her advisers and research colleagues at MIT, Preston will be on board, directing the deployment of the devices.

    “I’m looking forward to demonstrating how our algorithmic developments work in practice. It’s also thrilling to be part of a huge, diverse group that’s willing to try this,” she says.

    Preston is just finishing her fourth year of research, and is starting to look toward the future after her PhD. She plans to continue studying marine and other climate-impacted environments. She is driven by our plethora of unexplored questions about the ocean and hopes to use her knowledge to scratch its surface. She’s drawn to the field of computational sustainability, she says, which is based on “the idea is that machine learning, artificial intelligence, and similar tools can and should be applied to solve some of our most pressing challenges, and that these challenges will in turn change how we think about our tools.”

    “This is a really exciting time to be a roboticist who also cares about the environment — and to be a scientist who has access to new tools for research. Maybe I’m a little overly optimistic, but I believe we’re at a pivotal moment for exploration.” More

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    Pathfinder satellite paves way for constellation of tropical-storm observers

    The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the most brutal on record, producing an unprecedented 30 named storms. What’s more, a record-tying 10 of those storms were characterized as rapidly intensifying — some throttling up by 100 miles per hour in under two days.

    To provide a more consistent watch over Earth’s tropical belt where these storms form, NASA has launched a test satellite, or pathfinder, ahead of a constellation of six weather satellites called TROPICS (Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats).

    Planned for launch in 2022, the TROPICS satellites will work together to provide near-hourly microwave observations of a storm’s precipitation, temperature, and humidity — a revisit time for these measurements not currently possible with other satellites.

    “These storms affect a lot of people, and we expect that with the increased observations over a single storm from TROPICS, we will be able to improve forecasts, which translates to helping people get to safety sooner, protecting property, and overall enhancing the national economy,” says William Blackwell, principal investigator of the TROPICS program and an associate leader of the Applied Space Systems Group at MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

    Six years ago, Blackwell submitted TROPICS as a proposal to NASA’s Earth Venture Instrument program and was awarded funding. The program calls for innovative, science-driven, cost-effective missions to solve pressing issues related to Earth science.

    The TROPICS mission will be among the first to use a constellation of small satellites for global, rapid-revisit views of tropical storms. Since tropical cyclones and hurricanes can change rapidly as they travel across the ocean, the increased observations from the TROPICS satellites will not only advance the science of understanding storm intensity, they also may improve intensity forecasts.

    “As a lifelong Floridian, I’ve seen firsthand the devastating impact that hurricanes can have on our communities. And as climate change is making hurricanes even stronger, it’s more important than ever that NASA and our partners invest in missions like TROPICS to better track and understand extreme weather,” says NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “NASA’s innovation is strengthening data models that help scientists improve storm forecasting and understand the factors that feed these monster storms. TROPICS will help to do just that, and we look forward to next year’s launch of the TROPICS satellite constellation.”

    How a Squad of Small Satellites Will Help NASA Study Storms

    The project also holds promise to boost National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s steady improvements in weather and hurricane forecasts by feeding new environmental data into their numerical weather prediction models, says Frank Marks, director of the Hurricane Research Division of NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory.

    After all six satellites are launched, “this new constellation will provide high frequency temperature and humidity soundings as we seek to learn how hurricanes interact with the surrounding temperature and moisture environment — key data that could improve hurricane intensity forecasts,” Marks says.

    A critical step to preparing for the constellation was the launch on June 30 of a pathfinder satellite, a seventh identical copy of the TROPICS smallsats. The pathfinder will enable full testing of the technology, communication systems, data processing, and data flow to application users in advance of the constellation’s launch. This will allow time for adjustments to the ground system and data products, helping ensure the success of the TROPICS mission.

    “The TROPICS Pathfinder satellite is similar to a screening before the opening night of a big show,” says Nicholas Zorn, the pathfinder program manager from MIT Lincoln Laboratory. “Its mission is a real-world, end-to-end test, from environmental verification through integration, launch, ground communications, commissioning, calibration, operations, and science data processing. Any areas for improvement identified along the way can be reinforced before the constellation launches.”

    Aboard each TROPICS small satellite is an instrument called a microwave radiometer, which detects temperature, moisture, and rainfall in the atmosphere. On current weather satellites, microwave radiometers are about the size of a washing machine. On TROPICS’ small satellites the radiometers are about the size of a coffee mug.

    Microwave radiometers work by detecting the thermal radiation naturally emitted by oxygen and water vapor in the air. The TROPICS instrument measures these emissions via an antenna spinning at one end of the satellite. The antenna listens in at 12 microwave channels between 90 to 205 gigahertz, where the relevant emission signals are strongest. These channels capture signals at different heights throughout the lowest layer of the atmosphere, or troposphere, where most weather we experience occurs.

    Lincoln Laboratory has been working to miniaturize microwave radiometers for the last decade, spurred by the invention of CubeSats, satellites the size of a loaf of bread that are economical to launch. This work has been an ongoing collaboration between Blackwell and MIT Associate Professor Kerri Cahoy of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. TROPICS builds on that team’s joint 2018 success in launching the first microwave radiometer on a CubeSat to collect atmospheric profiling data. The instrument aboard the TROPICS’ six satellites has been upgraded to provide improved sensitivity, resolution, and reliability and will make more targeted and rapid weather observations.

    “It is amazing technology that we have proven out that allows us to maximize the science from the instrument’s size factor. To pull this off has taken contributions of so many people,” Blackwell says.

    The TROPICS science team includes researchers from MIT Lincoln Laboratory and the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics; NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory; NOAA National Hurricane Center; NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service; University of Miami; Colorado State University; Vanderbilt University; and University of Wisconsin. The University of Massachusetts Amherst, Texas A&M University, and Tufts University contributed to the technology development. Maverick Space Systems provided integration services for the Pathfinder, which was launched from SpaceX’s Transporter 2 mission. Astra Space Inc. is providing launch services for the constellation. NASA’s Launch Services Program based at Kennedy Space Center procured and managed the Tropics Pathfinder launch service. More

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    From NYC zookeeper to aspiring architect

    The crowd gasped as the zookeeper entered the room, cradling an armadillo between his hands. For many in the audience, this was their first chance at seeing this unique animal up close. James Brice smiled as he watched faces transform from reservation to delight.

    As a child growing up in New York City, Brice had always enjoyed sharing his love for the environment with others. While he pursued an applied physics degree as an undergraduate, teaching was often on his mind. He searched for opportunities that would take place in unconventional classrooms. When an instructor job opened at the nearby Staten Island Zoo, Brice knew it would be a perfect fit. He began his career by educating attendees about the local flora and fauna surrounding his beloved city.

    Brice’s love for nature soon led him to pursue other roles at the zoo. He became an aquarist and zoologist, caring for species ranging from emu to fish. The work also required him to maintain and design appropriate enclosures for each biome. Over time, Brice became more involved with systemic decision-making and joined the animal welfare committee. His focus shifted to analyzing habitat enclosures and ensuring they were in accordance with species-specific requirements.

    “We would zoom in and study what these animals needed based on their natural history,” Brice explains. “For example, if an animal was semiaquatic, we would need to adapt the enclosure to ensure they still had access to water. Or, for species that dig, we would provide an appropriate substrate. We would also incorporate private space away from the public eye, and multiple areas to eat, drink, or sleep, to introduce more elements of choice.” 

    Reimagining these enclosures allowed Brice to channel his passion for wildlife in a whole new way. He had to use an engineering mindset, innovating under limited resources while taking wildlife needs into account. The process made Brice realize he enjoyed making major design decisions that could have a positive impact on animals.

    “The experience brought me to this question: Is there a way that we can design urban buildings that better work with the natural environment?” he says.

    The question became so pressing to Brice that he decided to do something bold. After learning about the interdisciplinary initiatives at MIT, he applied to the School of Architecture and Planning’s professional masters of architecture program. His goal entering the field was to find a way to merge species conservation and architectural design.

    “I think the way we study these fields in silos creates a lot of problems in architecture,” Brice says. “I wanted to make sure I could work at the intersection between these disciplines and help bridge the gap.”

    Since coming to MIT, Brice has been involved with many activities that serve to build community. He is currently co-teaching a workshop over the summer with Bella Carmelita Carriker called COHABITATE: Entangling Architecture, Infrastructure, and Living Systems. It is focused on using ecological experiments to create visuals that can be translated into an architectural language. Brice approached the idea after struggling to visually represent the affected wildlife in a wetland restoration project he proposed during his first studio class.

    “We draw floor plans of massive structures at a quarter inch scale, making it difficult to properly visualize smaller nonhuman co-inhabitants,” explains Brice. “This leads to a major disconnect between architectural communication and the true complexities of the ecological system. We need to find ways to deepen our representation of the existing community.”

    To make his message clear, Brice plans on including interactive components for attendees. Participants will get to conduct experiments, such as soil sampling, to experience the basics of site analysis. Though people often overlook soil, Brice wants attendees to learn more about the quantity of life a single ounce contains. He hopes that communicating a greater attention to detail will encourage attendees to strengthen their environmental awareness in future projects.

    In addition to teaching interdisciplinary ideas, Brice joined the MIT Water Club to expand his own knowledge. While he knew little about the politics of water, he soon grew fascinated with learning more about coastal resilience. Brice is now co-directing the Fall 2021 Water Summit with fellow graduate student Autumn Deitrick. The theme is coastal cities and ecosystems, a personal interest they both share.

    “The Staten Island area is close to my heart, and I’ve seen the eradication of its coastal wetlands over time. I think people are just starting to realize how important these ecosystems are for protecting inland areas against storms,” says Brice. “I’m excited to make sure architecture is represented in these conversations.”

    Organizing the summit has also introduced Brice to the importance of environmental modeling. When designing a constructed wetland project, architects must understand how the environment and its water masses will change over time. This requires a background in understanding fluid dynamics, a topic Brice gained familiarity with through his physics degree. His unconventional background has become a tool he utilizes to improve his work.

    “Having enough language in physics is useful in articulating its importance to architects. But I think the key realization in the field is that a good design is going to take a diverse team of people,” he says.

    Outside of his day-to-day work, Brice continues to be involved with visual arts. He curated the student-run resource-sharing platform Open-Source and co-curated the architecture department’s virtual end-of-year exhibition with Ana Alice McIntosh. He also assisted with a film series earlier this year, called “Cinema and Architectural Imagination. The end of each showing featured conversations about the built environment, architecture, and landscapes throughout the film.

    “I still have a passion for communication and sharing knowledge. If there’s one constant in my life so far, it’s that I’ve always wanted to be an educator,” he says.

    In terms of a future career, Brice stands by keeping his options open. While he hopes to teach in some way, he is open to paths in both industry and academia. Overall, his main aspiration is to work with interdisciplinary teams that focus on preserving natural ecosystems within the urban landscape.

    “That’s kind of how I got here in the first place,” he says, laughing. “Even though I loved animals as a kid, it was never my plan to work at a zoo for four years. It was never my plan to be an architect.”

    “To me, it’s about working toward things that I find interesting — trusting that they eventually find synergies and bring new opportunities.” More

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    Grace Moore ’21 receives Michel David-Weill Scholarship

    Grace Moore ’21, a recent graduate of the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), is the first from MIT to receive the prestigious Michel David-Weill Scholarship, which provides funding for graduate study at Sciences Po in Paris, France. The scholarship carries an approximate monetary value of $80,000 and covers the cost of tuition and living expenses. The scholarship’s eponym, Michel David-Weill, is an alumnus of Sciences Po and former chair of Lazard Frère. His foundation created this award to encourage exceptional American students to pursue their graduate education at his alma mater. The university specializes in the social sciences and offers multidisciplinary programs taught in both English and French. Each year, the awards committee selects one American student who exemplifies the core values embodied by Michel David-Weill: academic excellence, leadership, multiculturalism, tolerance, and high achievement. Sciences Po has held a longtime partnership with the Institute through the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) MIT-France program. MISTI supported Moore’s candidacy. “MIT was honored to endorse Grace Moore as a candidate for the Michel David-Weill Scholarship,” says Candi Deblay, program manager for MIT-France. “Grace is committed to graduate studies at Sciences Po. She views France as a model for environmental reform at the national level and has demonstrated that she has a clear vision and the necessary expertise to navigate the French environmental and educational systems. We gave our strongest endorsement and look forward to her next steps in France.” Moore graduated in February with a bachelor of science in materials science and engineering (Course 3), recognized with both Phi Beta Kappa and Tau Beta Pi honors. This fall, she will begin a two-year master’s program in the energy, environment, and sustainability stream of public policy at Sciences Po. With her robust academic foundations at MIT and Sciences Po, she hopes to support decision-makers with a scientific perspective on climate change, its implications and potential future risks, and considerations of politically and economically feasible pollution mitigation strategies. When asked about her motivations and inspirations as she pursued this amazing opportunity, Moore said, “I have a heartfelt belief that international collaboration in environmental policy is an imperative mechanism for addressing our climate crisis.” Moore went on to credit her formative experiences with NEET Advanced Materials Machines track internationally and working on the MIT Climate Action Plan in the Office of the Vice President for Research. Her impressive academic candidacy was bolstered by a wealth of involvement and service across campus. A member of Alpha Phi sorority, the varsity field hockey team, and the alpine ski team, Moore also acted as a first-year advisor and teaching assistant for the Talented Scholars Resource Room (TSR^2), sharing her experience and academic passion with a new generation of MIT students.  Moore led the Energy Club by educating and lobbying for more efficient energy grids. She helped bring the Surfrider Foundation, a coastal cleanup and conservation organization, to MIT. She gained valuable experience piloting marine cleanup initiatives and plans to translate these experiences to French groups such as Guppy, helping to clean up the Seine. She also plans to take part in the Sciences Po Environment Club and hopes to organize a microplastics sampling initiative in the waterway to help inform local policy. Moore has been a highly visible part of the DMSE community, active in a multitude of curricular and non-curricular programs and supportive of her classmates. Elsa Olivetti, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in Materials Science and Engineering, says that Moore “has been a pleasure to have a part of the DMSE community, patiently pushing us to be the best educators and mentors we can be. She leads by example through her calm diplomacy, unparalleled work ethic, ability to balance and excel at a multitude of pursuits, as well as her commitment to being the best whole contributor to society she can be. She will be a force for bringing about effective change and advancement in environmental policy, linking technical pursuits with the broader context in which they function.” Moore’s language studies merged with her scientific interests to advance her academic career, making her the perfect example of MIT’s “new bilinguals,” a group of students heralded by the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences for being well-rounded in both humanities and the sciences.Raf Jaramillo, assistant professor of materials, says that “Grace will cut her own path to meaningful impact. She truly stands out in her balance of academic success with personal engagement with the world beyond academia. She is without fail inquisitive, self-aware, and friendly, and she does not suffer fools — a powerful combination! To the folks at Sciences Po, I say: Look out!” More

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    Imagining the distant past — and finding keys to the future

    The most dramatic moments of David McGee’s research occur when he is working with cores of sediment drilled from the Earth that hold clues to our planet’s climate long before there were records created by humans.

    “Some of the biggest excitement I have,” says McGee, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), “is when we’re working with sediments that have been taken from 2,000 meters down in the Atlantic Ocean, for example. You’re performing various geochemical measurements on the sediments, you’re using radiocarbon dating to figure how old a core is, and you’re developing records of how the climate has changed over the past thousands of years. You’re able to go basically from mud to a coherent picture of what the atmosphere was doing in the past, what the ocean was doing in the past.”

    Imagining the natural world as it was in the distant past, when no people were around to directly observe or write about it, always fascinated McGee. As a child, before it even occurred to him that there was such a thing as an Earth scientist, he was “constantly wondering about what mountains and beaches would have looked like millions of years ago and what they might look like a million years from now.” Recently, while going through the artifacts of his childhood, he found a rock collection and a creative writing project focused on time travel back to the Precambrian Era. He recalls that once when he was set loose in the school library to find a science project topic, he chose a book on ice ages and tried to develop related hypotheses that he could test.

    Later, stumbling into a geology class in college, as he describes it, McGee was completely taken in by the idea that Earth science involved a sort of detective work to uncover history out in the natural world, using the tools of modern science, such as geochemistry, computation, and close observation.

    “I really fell for it,” he says.

    McGee’s focus on studying paleoclimate and the atmosphere’s response to past climate changes satisfies his lifelong curiosity — and it yields important insights into the climate change the planet is currently undergoing.

    “A really basic message that comes from the study of paleoclimate is the sensitivity of the Earth’s system,” says McGee. “A few degrees of warming or cooling is a really big deal.”

    From the start of his career, McGee has been dedicated to sharing his love of exploration with students. He earned a master’s degree in teaching and spent seven years as a teacher in middle school and high school classrooms before earning his PhD in Earth and environmental sciences from Columbia University. He joined the MIT faculty in 2012 and in 2018 received the Excellence in Mentoring Award from MIT’s Undergraduate Advising and Academic Programming office. In 2019, he was granted tenure.

    In 2016, McGee became the director of MIT’s Terrascope first-year learning community, where he says he has been able to continue to pursue his interest in how students learn.

    “Part of why Terrascope has been so important to me is it’s a place where there is a lot of great thinking about what makes a meaningful educational experience,” he says.

    Terrascope, one of four learning communities offered to first-year MIT students, allows them to address real-world sustainability issues in interdisciplinary, student-led teams. The projects the students undertake connect them to related experts and professionals, in part so the students can figure out what blend of areas of expertise — such as technology, policy, economics, and human behaviors — will serve them as they head toward their life’s work.

    “Students are often asking themselves, ‘How do I connect what I really like to do, what I’m good at, and what the world actually needs?’” McGee says. “In Terrascope, we try to provide a space for that exploration.”

    McGee’s work with Terrascope was, in part, the basis for his September 2020 appointment to the role of associate department head for diversity, equity, and inclusion within EAPS. On the occasion of McGee’s appointment, EAPS department head Rob van der Hilst said, “David has proven he is a dedicated and compassionate leader, able to build a robust community around collaboration, shared purpose, and deep respect for the strengths each member brings.”

    McGee says Earth science is often unwelcoming to women, members of racial or ethnic minoritized groups, and people who are LGBTQ+. Improved recruitment and retention policies are needed to diversify the field, he says.

    “Earth science is a very white science,” McGee says. “And yet we’re working on problems that affect everyone and disproportionately affect communities of color — things like climate change and natural disasters. It’s really important that the future of Earth science look different than the present in terms of the demographics.”

    One of the things McGee takes from his research experience as he approaches students is his observation that being an Earth scientist represents many different approaches and avenues of study — inherently, the field can extend itself to a wide diversity of talent.

    “The thing I try to make clear to students is there’s no way to be the expert in every aspect of even one Earth science study,” he says. “With the study of paleoclimate, for instance, there’s field geology, careful analytical chemistry, data analysis, computation, the physics of climate systems. You’re constantly on the edge of your learning and working with people who know more than you about a certain aspect of a study. Students are not coming to Earth science to become a carbon copy of any of us.” More