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    Study: Smoke particles from wildfires can erode the ozone layer

    A wildfire can pump smoke up into the stratosphere, where the particles drift for over a year. A new MIT study has found that while suspended there, these particles can trigger chemical reactions that erode the protective ozone layer shielding the Earth from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet radiation.

    The study, which appears today in Nature, focuses on the smoke from the “Black Summer” megafire in eastern Australia, which burned from December 2019 into January 2020. The fires — the country’s most devastating on record — scorched tens of millions of acres and pumped more than 1 million tons of smoke into the atmosphere.

    The MIT team identified a new chemical reaction by which smoke particles from the Australian wildfires made ozone depletion worse. By triggering this reaction, the fires likely contributed to a 3-5 percent depletion of total ozone at mid-latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, in regions overlying Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Africa and South America.

    The researchers’ model also indicates the fires had an effect in the polar regions, eating away at the edges of the ozone hole over Antarctica. By late 2020, smoke particles from the Australian wildfires widened the Antarctic ozone hole by 2.5 million square kilometers — 10 percent of its area compared to the previous year.

    It’s unclear what long-term effect wildfires will have on ozone recovery. The United Nations recently reported that the ozone hole, and ozone depletion around the world, is on a recovery track, thanks to a sustained international effort to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals. But the MIT study suggests that as long as these chemicals persist in the atmosphere, large fires could spark a reaction that temporarily depletes ozone.

    “The Australian fires of 2020 were really a wake-up call for the science community,” says Susan Solomon, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies at MIT and a leading climate scientist who first identified the chemicals responsible for the Antarctic ozone hole. “The effect of wildfires was not previously accounted for in [projections of] ozone recovery. And I think that effect may depend on whether fires become more frequent and intense as the planet warms.”

    The study is led by Solomon and MIT research scientist Kane Stone, along with collaborators from the Institute for Environmental and Climate Research in Guangzhou, China; the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research; and Colorado State University.

    Chlorine cascade

    The new study expands on a 2022 discovery by Solomon and her colleagues, in which they first identified a chemical link between wildfires and ozone depletion. The researchers found that chlorine-containing compounds, originally emitted by factories in the form of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), could react with the surface of fire aerosols. This interaction, they found, set off a chemical cascade that produced chlorine monoxide — the ultimate ozone-depleting molecule. Their results showed that the Australian wildfires likely depleted ozone through this newly identified chemical reaction.

    “But that didn’t explain all the changes that were observed in the stratosphere,” Solomon says. “There was a whole bunch of chlorine-related chemistry that was totally out of whack.”

    In the new study, the team took a closer look at the composition of molecules in the stratosphere following the Australian wildfires. They combed through three independent sets of satellite data and observed that in the months following the fires, concentrations of hydrochloric acid dropped significantly at mid-latitudes, while chlorine monoxide spiked.

    Hydrochloric acid (HCl) is present in the stratosphere as CFCs break down naturally over time. As long as chlorine is bound in the form of HCl, it doesn’t have a chance to destroy ozone. But if HCl breaks apart, chlorine can react with oxygen to form ozone-depleting chlorine monoxide.

    In the polar regions, HCl can break apart when it interacts with the surface of cloud particles at frigid temperatures of about 155 kelvins. However, this reaction was not expected to occur at mid-latitudes, where temperatures are much warmer.

    “The fact that HCl at mid-latitudes dropped by this unprecedented amount was to me kind of a danger signal,” Solomon says.

    She wondered: What if HCl could also interact with smoke particles, at warmer temperatures and in a way that released chlorine to destroy ozone? If such a reaction was possible, it would explain the imbalance of molecules and much of the ozone depletion observed following the Australian wildfires.

    Smoky drift

    Solomon and her colleagues dug through the chemical literature to see what sort of organic molecules could react with HCl at warmer temperatures to break it apart.

    “Lo and behold, I learned that HCl is extremely soluble in a whole broad range of organic species,” Solomon says. “It likes to glom on to lots of compounds.”

    The question then, was whether the Australian wildfires released any of those compounds that could have triggered HCl’s breakup and any subsequent depletion of ozone. When the team looked at the composition of smoke particles in the first days after the fires, the picture was anything but clear.

    “I looked at that stuff and threw up my hands and thought, there’s so much stuff in there, how am I ever going to figure this out?” Solomon recalls. “But then I realized it had actually taken some weeks before you saw the HCl drop, so you really need to look at the data on aged wildfire particles.”

    When the team expanded their search, they found that smoke particles persisted over months, circulating in the stratosphere at mid-latitudes, in the same regions and times when concentrations of HCl dropped.

    “It’s the aged smoke particles that really take up a lot of the HCl,” Solomon says. “And then you get, amazingly, the same reactions that you get in the ozone hole, but over mid-latitudes, at much warmer temperatures.”

    When the team incorporated this new chemical reaction into a model of atmospheric chemistry, and simulated the conditions of the Australian wildfires, they observed a 5 percent depletion of ozone throughout the stratosphere at mid-latitudes, and a 10 percent widening of the ozone hole over Antarctica.

    The reaction with HCl is likely the main pathway by which wildfires can deplete ozone. But Solomon guesses there may be other chlorine-containing compounds drifting in the stratosphere, that wildfires could unlock.

    “There’s now sort of a race against time,” Solomon says. “Hopefully, chlorine-containing compounds will have been destroyed, before the frequency of fires increases with climate change. This is all the more reason to be vigilant about global warming and these chlorine-containing compounds.”

    This research was supported, in part, by NASA and the U.S. National Science Foundation. More

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    Aviva Intveld named 2023 Gates Cambridge Scholar

    MIT senior Aviva Intveld has won the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship, which offers students an opportunity to pursue graduate study in the field of their choice at Cambridge University in the U.K. Intveld will join the other 23 U.S. citizens selected for the 2023 class of scholars.

    Intveld, from Los Angeles, is majoring in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences, and minoring in materials science and engineering with concentrations in geology, geochemistry, and archaeology. Her research interests span the intersections among those fields to better understand how the natural environments of the past have shaped human movement and decision-making.

    At Cambridge, Intveld will undertake a research MPhil in earth sciences at the Godwin Lab for Paleoclimate Research, where she will investigate the impact of past climate on the ancient Maya in northwest Yucatán via cave sediment records. She hopes to pursue an impact-oriented research career in paleoclimate and paleoenvironment reconstruction and ultimately apply the lessons learned from her research to inform modern climate policy. She is particularly passionate about sustainable mining of energy-critical elements and addressing climate change inequality in her home state of California.

    Intveld’s work at Cambridge will build upon her extensive research experience at MIT. She currently works in the McGee Lab reconstructing the Late Pleistocene-Early Holocene paleoclimate of northeastern Mexico to provide a climatic background to the first peopling of the Americas. Previously, she explored the influence of mountain plate tectonics on biodiversity in the Perron Lab. During a summer research position at the University of Haifa in Israel she analyzed the microfossil assemblage of an offshore sediment core for paleo-coastal reconstruction.

    Last summer, Intveld interned at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Homer, Alaska, to identify geologic controls on regional groundwater chemistry. She has also interned with the World Wildlife Fund and with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. During her the spring semester of her junior year, Intveld studied abroad through MISTI at Imperial College London’s Royal School of Mines and completed geology field work in Sardinia, Italy.

    Intveld has been a strong presence on MIT’s campus, serving as the undergraduate representative on the EAPS Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. She leads tours for the MIT List Visual Arts Center, is a member of and associate advisor for the Terrascope Learning Community, and is a participant in the Addir Interfaith Dialogue Fellowship.

    Inveld was advised in her application by Kim Benard, associate dean of the Distinguished Fellowships team in Career Advising and Professional Development, who says, “Aviva’s work is at a fascinating crossroads of archeology, geology, and sustainability. She has already done extraordinary work, and this opportunity will prepare her even more to be influential in the fight for climate mitigation.”

    Established by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000, the Gates Cambridge Scholarship provides full funding for talented students from outside the United Kingdom to pursue postgraduate study in any subject at Cambridge University. Since the program’s inception in 2001, there have been 33 Gates Cambridge Scholars from MIT. More

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    Improving health outcomes by targeting climate and air pollution simultaneously

    Climate policies are typically designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that result from human activities and drive climate change. The largest source of these emissions is the combustion of fossil fuels, which increases atmospheric concentrations of ozone, fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and other air pollutants that pose public health risks. While climate policies may result in lower concentrations of health-damaging air pollutants as a “co-benefit” of reducing greenhouse gas emissions-intensive activities, they are most effective at improving health outcomes when deployed in tandem with geographically targeted air-quality regulations.

    Yet the computer models typically used to assess the likely air quality/health impacts of proposed climate/air-quality policy combinations come with drawbacks for decision-makers. Atmospheric chemistry/climate models can produce high-resolution results, but they are expensive and time-consuming to run. Integrated assessment models can produce results for far less time and money, but produce results at global and regional scales, rendering them insufficiently precise to obtain accurate assessments of air quality/health impacts at the subnational level.

    To overcome these drawbacks, a team of researchers at MIT and the University of California at Davis has developed a climate/air-quality policy assessment tool that is both computationally efficient and location-specific. Described in a new study in the journal ACS Environmental Au, the tool could enable users to obtain rapid estimates of combined policy impacts on air quality/health at more than 1,500 locations around the globe — estimates precise enough to reveal the equity implications of proposed policy combinations within a particular region.

    “The modeling approach described in this study may ultimately allow decision-makers to assess the efficacy of multiple combinations of climate and air-quality policies in reducing the health impacts of air pollution, and to design more effective policies,” says Sebastian Eastham, the study’s lead author and a principal research scientist at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. “It may also be used to determine if a given policy combination would result in equitable health outcomes across a geographical area of interest.”

    To demonstrate the efficiency and accuracy of their policy assessment tool, the researchers showed that outcomes projected by the tool within seconds were consistent with region-specific results from detailed chemistry/climate models that took days or even months to run. While continuing to refine and develop their approaches, they are now working to embed the new tool into integrated assessment models for direct use by policymakers.

    “As decision-makers implement climate policies in the context of other sustainability challenges like air pollution, efficient modeling tools are important for assessment — and new computational techniques allow us to build faster and more accurate tools to provide credible, relevant information to a broader range of users,” says Noelle Selin, a professor at MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society and Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and supervising author of the study. “We are looking forward to further developing such approaches, and to working with stakeholders to ensure that they provide timely, targeted and useful assessments.”

    The study was funded, in part, by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Biogen Foundation. More

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    Featured video: Investigating our blue ocean planet

    A five-year doctoral degree program, the MIT – Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Joint Program in Oceanography/Applied Ocean Science and Engineering combines the strengths of MIT and WHOI to create one of the largest oceanographic facilities in the world. Graduate study in oceanography encompasses virtually all the basic sciences as they apply to the marine environment: physics, chemistry, geochemistry, geology, geophysics, and biology.

    “As a species and as a society we really want to understand the planet that we live on and our place in it,” says Professor Michael Follows, who serves as director of the MIT-WHOI Joint Program.

    “The reason I joined the program was because we cannot afford to wait to be able to address the climate crisis,” explains graduate student Paris Smalls. “The freedom to be able to execute on and have your interests come to life has been incredibly rewarding.”

    “If you have a research problem, you can think of the top five people in that particular niche of a topic and they’re either down the hallway or have some association with WHOI,” adds graduate student Samantha Clevenger. “It’s a really incredible place in terms of connections and just having access to really anything you need.”

    Video by: Melanie Gonick/MIT | 5 min, 12 sec More

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    Moving water and earth

    As a river cuts through a landscape, it can operate like a conveyer belt, moving truckloads of sediment over time. Knowing how quickly or slowly this sediment flows can help engineers plan for the downstream impact of restoring a river or removing a dam. But the models currently used to estimate sediment flow can be off by a wide margin.

    An MIT team has come up with a better formula to calculate how much sediment a fluid can push across a granular bed — a process known as bed load transport. The key to the new formula comes down to the shape of the sediment grains.

    It may seem intuitive: A smooth, round stone should skip across a river bed faster than an angular pebble. But flowing water also pushes harder on the angular pebble, which could erase the round stone’s advantage. Which effect wins? Existing sediment transport models surprisingly don’t offer an answer, mainly because the problem of measuring grain shape is too unwieldy: How do you quantify a pebble’s contours?

    The MIT researchers found that instead of considering a grain’s exact shape, they could boil the concept of shape down to two related properties: friction and drag. A grain’s drag, or resistance to fluid flow, relative to its internal friction, the resistance to sliding past other grains, can provide an easy way to gauge the effects of a grain’s shape.

    When they incorporated this new mathematical measure of grain shape into a standard model for bed load transport, the new formula made predictions that matched experiments that the team performed in the lab.

    “Sediment transport is a part of life on Earth’s surface, from the impact of storms on beaches to the gravel nests in mountain streams where salmon lay their eggs,” the team writes of their new study, appearing today in Nature. “Damming and sea level rise have already impacted many such terrains and pose ongoing threats. A good understanding of bed load transport is crucial to our ability to maintain these landscapes or restore them to their natural states.”

    The study’s authors are Eric Deal, Santiago Benavides, Qiong Zhang, Ken Kamrin, and Taylor Perron of MIT, and Jeremy Venditti and Ryan Bradley of Simon Fraser University in Canada.

    Figuring flow

    Video of glass spheres (top) and natural river gravel (bottom) undergoing bed load transport in a laboratory flume, slowed down 17x relative to real time. Average grain diameter is about 5 mm. This video shows how rolling and tumbling natural grains interact with one another in a way that is not possible for spheres. What can’t be seen so easily is that natural grains also experience higher drag forces from the flowing water than spheres do.

    Credit: Courtesy of the researchers

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    Bed load transport is the process by which a fluid such as air or water drags grains across a bed of sediment, causing the grains to hop, skip, and roll along the surface as a fluid flows through. This movement of sediment in a current is what drives rocks to migrate down a river and sand grains to skip across a desert.

    Being able to estimate bed load transport can help scientists prepare for situations such as urban flooding and coastal erosion. Since the 1930s, one formula has been the go-to model for calculating bed load transport; it’s based on a quantity known as the Shields parameter, after the American engineer who originally derived it. This formula sets a relationship between the force of a fluid pushing on a bed of sediment, and how fast the sediment moves in response. Albert Shields incorporated certain variables into this formula, including the average size and density of a sediment’s grains — but not their shape.

    “People may have backed away from accounting for shape because it’s one of these very scary degrees of freedom,” says Kamrin, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “Shape is not a single number.”

    And yet, the existing model has been known to be off by a factor of 10 in its predictions of sediment flow. The team wondered whether grain shape could be a missing ingredient, and if so, how the nebulous property could be mathematically represented.

    “The trick was to focus on characterizing the effect that shape has on sediment transport dynamics, rather than on characterizing the shape itself,” says Deal.

    “It took some thinking to figure that out,” says Perron, a professor of geology in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “But we went back to derive the Shields parameter, and when you do the math, this ratio of drag to friction falls out.”

    Drag and drop

    Their work showed that the Shields parameter — which predicts how much sediment is transported — can be modified to include not just size and density, but also grain shape, and furthermore, that a grain’s shape can be simply represented by a measure of the grain’s drag and its internal friction. The math seemed to make sense. But could the new formula predict how sediment actually flows?

    To answer this, the researchers ran a series of flume experiments, in which they pumped a current of water through an inclined tank with a floor covered in sediment. They ran tests with sediment of various grain shapes, including beds of round glass beads, smooth glass chips, rectangular prisms, and natural gravel. They measured the amount of sediment that was transported through the tank in a fixed amount of time. They then determined the effect of each sediment type’s grain shape by measuring the grains’ drag and friction.

    For drag, the researchers simply dropped individual grains down through a tank of water and gathered statistics for the time it took the grains of each sediment type to reach the bottom. For instance, a flatter grain type takes a longer time on average, and therefore has greater drag, than a round grain type of the same size and density.

    To measure friction, the team poured grains through a funnel and onto a circular tray, then measured the resulting pile’s angle, or slope — an indication of the grains’ friction, or ability to grip onto each other.

    For each sediment type, they then worked the corresponding shape’s drag and friction into the new formula, and found that it could indeed predict the bedload transport, or the amount of moving sediment that the researchers measured in their experiments.

    The team says the new model more accurately represents sediment flow. Going forward, scientists and engineers can use the model to better gauge how a river bed will respond to scenarios such as sudden flooding from severe weather or the removal of a dam.

    “If you were trying to make a prediction of how fast all that sediment will get evacuated after taking a dam out, and you’re wrong by a factor of three or five, that’s pretty bad,” Perron says. “Now we can do a lot better.”

    This research was supported, in part, by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. More

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    Looking to the past to prepare for an uncertain future

    Aviva Intveld, an MIT senior majoring in Earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences, is accustomed to city life. But despite hailing from metropolitan Los Angeles, she has always maintained a love for the outdoors.

    “Growing up in L.A., you just have a wealth of resources when it comes to beautiful environments,” she says, “but you’re also constantly living connected to the environment.” She developed a profound respect for the natural world and its effects on people, from the earthquakes that shook the ground to the wildfires that displaced inhabitants.

    “I liked the lifestyle that environmental science afforded,” Intveld recalls. “I liked the idea that you can make a career out of spending a huge amount of time in the field and exploring different parts of the world.”

    From the moment she arrived at MIT, Intveld threw herself into research on and off campus. During her first semester, she joined Terrascope, a program that encourages first-year students to tackle complex, real-world problems. Intveld and her cohort developed proposals to make recovery from major storms in Puerto Rico faster, more sustainable, and more equitable.

    Intveld also spent a semester studying drought stress in the lab of Assistant Professor David Des Marais, worked as a research assistant at a mineral sciences research lab back in L.A., and interned at the World Wildlife Fund. Most of her work focused on contemporary issues like food insecurity and climate change. “I was really interested in questions about today,” Intveld says.

    Her focus began to shift to the past when she interned as a research assistant at the Marine Geoarchaeology and Micropaleontology Lab at the University of Haifa. For weeks, she would spend eight hours a day hunched over a microscope, using a paintbrush to sort through grains of sand from the coastal town of Caesarea. She was looking for tiny spiral-shaped fossils of foraminifera, an organism that resides in seafloor sediments.

    These microfossils can reveal a lot about the environment in which they originated, including extreme weather events. By cataloging diverse species of foraminifera, Intveld was helping to settle a rather niche debate in the field of geoarchaeology: Did tsunamis destroy the harbor of Caesarea during the time of the ancient Romans?

    But in addition to figuring out if and when these natural disasters occurred, Intveld was interested in understanding how ancient communities prepared for and recovered from them. What methods did they use? Could those same methods be used today?

    Intveld’s research at the University of Haifa was part of the Onward Israel program, which offers young Jewish people the chance to participate in internships, academic study, and fellowships in Israel. Intveld describes the experience as a great opportunity to learn about the culture, history, and diversity of the Israeli community. The trip was also an excellent lesson in dealing with challenging situations.

    Intveld suffers from claustrophobia, but she overcame her fears to climb through the Bar Kokhba caves, and despite a cat allergy, she grew to adore the many stray cats that roam the streets of Haifa. “Sometimes you can’t let your physical limitations stop you from doing what you love,” she quips.

    Over the course of her research, Intveld has often found herself in difficult and even downright dangerous situations, all of which she looks back on with good humor. As part of an internship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, she spent three months investigating groundwater in Homer, Alaska. While she was there, she learned to avoid poisonous plants out in the field, got lost bushwhacking, and was twice charged by a moose.

    These days, Intveld spends less time in the field and more time thinking about the ancient past. She works in the lab of Associate Professor David McGee, where her undergraduate thesis research focuses on reconstructing the paleoclimate and paleoecology of northeastern Mexico during the Early Holocene. To get an idea of what the Mexican climate looked like thousands of years ago, Intveld analyzes stable isotopes and trace elements in stalagmites taken from Mexican caves. By analyzing the isotopes of carbon and oxygen present in these stalagmites, which were formed over thousands of years from countless droplets of mineral-rich rainwater, Intveld can estimate the amount of rainfall and average temperature in a given time period.

    Intveld is primarily interested in how the area’s climate may have influenced human migration. “It’s very interesting to learn about the history of human motivation, what drives us to do what we do,” she explains. “What causes humans to move, and what causes us to stay?” So far, it seems the Mexican climate during the Early Holocene was quite inconsistent, with oscillating periods of wet and dry, but Intveld needs to conduct more research before drawing any definitive conclusions.

    Recent research has linked periods of drought in the geological record to periods of violence in the archaeological one, suggesting ancient humans often fought over access to water. “I think you can easily see the connections to stuff that we deal with today,” Intveld says, pointing out the parallels between paleolithic migration and today’s climate refugees. “We have to answer a lot of difficult questions, and one way that we can do so is by looking to see what earlier human communities did and what we can learn from them.”

    Intveld recognizes the impact of the past on our present and future in many other areas. She works as a tour guide for the List Visual Arts Center, where she educates people about public art on the MIT campus. “[Art] interested me as a way to experience history and learn about the story of different communities and people over time,” she says.

    Intveld is also unafraid to acknowledge the history of discrimination and exclusion in science. “Earth science has a big problem when it comes to inclusion and diversity,” she says. As a member of the EAPS Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, she aims to make earth science more accessible.

    “Aviva has a clear drive to be at the front lines of geoscience research, connecting her work to the urgent environmental issues we’re all facing,” says McGee. “She also understands the critical need for our field to include more voices, more perspectives — ultimately making for better science.”

    After MIT, Intveld hopes to pursue an advanced degree in the field of sustainable mining. This past spring, she studied abroad at Imperial College London, where she took courses within the Royal School of Mines. As Intveld explains, mining is becoming crucial to sustainable energy. The rise of electric vehicles in places like California has increased the need for energy-critical elements like lithium and cobalt, but mining for these elements often does more harm than good. “The current mining complex is very environmentally destructive,” Intveld says.

    But Intveld hopes to take the same approach to mining she does with her other endeavors — acknowledging the destructive past to make way for a better future. More

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    A healthy wind

    Nearly 10 percent of today’s electricity in the United States comes from wind power. The renewable energy source benefits climate, air quality, and public health by displacing emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants that would otherwise be produced by fossil-fuel-based power plants.

    A new MIT study finds that the health benefits associated with wind power could more than quadruple if operators prioritized turning down output from the most polluting fossil-fuel-based power plants when energy from wind is available.

    In the study, published today in Science Advances, researchers analyzed the hourly activity of wind turbines, as well as the reported emissions from every fossil-fuel-based power plant in the country, between the years 2011 and 2017. They traced emissions across the country and mapped the pollutants to affected demographic populations. They then calculated the regional air quality and associated health costs to each community.

    The researchers found that in 2014, wind power that was associated with state-level policies improved air quality overall, resulting in $2 billion in health benefits across the country. However, only roughly 30 percent of these health benefits reached disadvantaged communities.

    The team further found that if the electricity industry were to reduce the output of the most polluting fossil-fuel-based power plants, rather than the most cost-saving plants, in times of wind-generated power, the overall health benefits could quadruple to $8.4 billion nationwide. However, the results would have a similar demographic breakdown.

    “We found that prioritizing health is a great way to maximize benefits in a widespread way across the U.S., which is a very positive thing. But it suggests it’s not going to address disparities,” says study co-author Noelle Selin, a professor in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT. “In order to address air pollution disparities, you can’t just focus on the electricity sector or renewables and count on the overall air pollution benefits addressing these real and persistent racial and ethnic disparities. You’ll need to look at other air pollution sources, as well as the underlying systemic factors that determine where plants are sited and where people live.”

    Selin’s co-authors are lead author and former MIT graduate student Minghao Qiu PhD ’21, now at Stanford University, and Corwin Zigler at the University of Texas at Austin.

    Turn-down service

    In their new study, the team looked for patterns between periods of wind power generation and the activity of fossil-fuel-based power plants, to see how regional electricity markets adjusted the output of power plants in response to influxes of renewable energy.

    “One of the technical challenges, and the contribution of this work, is trying to identify which are the power plants that respond to this increasing wind power,” Qiu notes.

    To do so, the researchers compared two historical datasets from the period between 2011 and 2017: an hour-by-hour record of energy output of wind turbines across the country, and a detailed record of emissions measurements from every fossil-fuel-based power plant in the U.S. The datasets covered each of seven major regional electricity markets, each market providing energy to one or multiple states.

    “California and New York are each their own market, whereas the New England market covers around seven states, and the Midwest covers more,” Qiu explains. “We also cover about 95 percent of all the wind power in the U.S.”

    In general, they observed that, in times when wind power was available, markets adjusted by essentially scaling back the power output of natural gas and sub-bituminous coal-fired power plants. They noted that the plants that were turned down were likely chosen for cost-saving reasons, as certain plants were less costly to turn down than others.

    The team then used a sophisticated atmospheric chemistry model to simulate the wind patterns and chemical transport of emissions across the country, and determined where and at what concentrations the emissions generated fine particulates and ozone — two pollutants that are known to damage air quality and human health. Finally, the researchers mapped the general demographic populations across the country, based on U.S. census data, and applied a standard epidemiological approach to calculate a population’s health cost as a result of their pollution exposure.

    This analysis revealed that, in the year 2014, a general cost-saving approach to displacing fossil-fuel-based energy in times of wind energy resulted in $2 billion in health benefits, or savings, across the country. A smaller share of these benefits went to disadvantaged populations, such as communities of color and low-income communities, though this disparity varied by state.

    “It’s a more complex story than we initially thought,” Qiu says. “Certain population groups are exposed to a higher level of air pollution, and those would be low-income people and racial minority groups. What we see is, developing wind power could reduce this gap in certain states but further increase it in other states, depending on which fossil-fuel plants are displaced.”

    Tweaking power

    The researchers then examined how the pattern of emissions and the associated health benefits would change if they prioritized turning down different fossil-fuel-based plants in times of wind-generated power. They tweaked the emissions data to reflect several alternative scenarios: one in which the most health-damaging, polluting power plants are turned down first; and two other scenarios in which plants producing the most sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide respectively, are first to reduce their output.

    They found that while each scenario increased health benefits overall, and the first scenario in particular could quadruple health benefits, the original disparity persisted: Communities of color and low-income communities still experienced smaller health benefits than more well-off communities.

    “We got to the end of the road and said, there’s no way we can address this disparity by being smarter in deciding which plants to displace,” Selin says.

    Nevertheless, the study can help identify ways to improve the health of the general population, says Julian Marshall, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Washington.

    “The detailed information provided by the scenarios in this paper can offer a roadmap to electricity-grid operators and to state air-quality regulators regarding which power plants are highly damaging to human health and also are likely to noticeably reduce emissions if wind-generated electricity increases,” says Marshall, who was not involved in the study.

    “One of the things that makes me optimistic about this area is, there’s a lot more attention to environmental justice and equity issues,” Selin concludes. “Our role is to figure out the strategies that are most impactful in addressing those challenges.”

    This work was supported, in part, by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and by the National Institutes of Health. More

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    Earth can regulate its own temperature over millennia, new study finds

    The Earth’s climate has undergone some big changes, from global volcanism to planet-cooling ice ages and dramatic shifts in solar radiation. And yet life, for the last 3.7 billion years, has kept on beating.

    Now, a study by MIT researchers in Science Advances confirms that the planet harbors a “stabilizing feedback” mechanism that acts over hundreds of thousands of years to pull the climate back from the brink, keeping global temperatures within a steady, habitable range.

    Just how does it accomplish this? A likely mechanism is “silicate weathering” — a geological process by which the slow and steady weathering of silicate rocks involves chemical reactions that ultimately draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and into ocean sediments, trapping the gas in rocks.

    Scientists have long suspected that silicate weathering plays a major role in regulating the Earth’s carbon cycle. The mechanism of silicate weathering could provide a geologically constant force in keeping carbon dioxide — and global temperatures — in check. But there’s never been direct evidence for the continual operation of such a feedback, until now.

    The new findings are based on a study of paleoclimate data that record changes in average global temperatures over the last 66 million years. The MIT team applied a mathematical analysis to see whether the data revealed any patterns characteristic of stabilizing phenomena that reined in global temperatures on a  geologic timescale.

    They found that indeed there appears to be a consistent pattern in which the Earth’s temperature swings are dampened over timescales of hundreds of thousands of years. The duration of this effect is similar to the timescales over which silicate weathering is predicted to act.

    The results are the first to use actual data to confirm the existence of a stabilizing feedback, the mechanism of which is likely silicate weathering. This stabilizing feedback would explain how the Earth has remained habitable through dramatic climate events in the geologic past.

    “On the one hand, it’s good because we know that today’s global warming will eventually be canceled out through this stabilizing feedback,” says Constantin Arnscheidt, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). “But on the other hand, it will take hundreds of thousands of years to happen, so not fast enough to solve our present-day issues.”

    The study is co-authored by Arnscheidt and Daniel Rothman, professor of geophysics at MIT.

    Stability in data

    Scientists have previously seen hints of a climate-stabilizing effect in the Earth’s carbon cycle: Chemical analyses of ancient rocks have shown that the flux of carbon in and out of Earth’s surface environment has remained relatively balanced, even through dramatic swings in global temperature. Furthermore, models of silicate weathering predict that the process should have some stabilizing effect on the global climate. And finally, the fact of the Earth’s enduring habitability points to some inherent, geologic check on extreme temperature swings.

    “You have a planet whose climate was subjected to so many dramatic external changes. Why did life survive all this time? One argument is that we need some sort of stabilizing mechanism to keep temperatures suitable for life,” Arnscheidt says. “But it’s never been demonstrated from data that such a mechanism has consistently controlled Earth’s climate.”

    Arnscheidt and Rothman sought to confirm whether a stabilizing feedback has indeed been at work, by looking at data of global temperature fluctuations through geologic history. They worked with a range of global temperature records compiled by other scientists, from the chemical composition of ancient marine fossils and shells, as well as preserved Antarctic ice cores.

    “This whole study is only possible because there have been great advances in improving the resolution of these deep-sea temperature records,” Arnscheidt notes. “Now we have data going back 66 million years, with data points at most thousands of years apart.”

    Speeding to a stop

    To the data, the team applied the mathematical theory of stochastic differential equations, which is commonly used to reveal patterns in widely fluctuating datasets.

    “We realized this theory makes predictions for what you would expect Earth’s temperature history to look like if there had been feedbacks acting on certain timescales,” Arnscheidt explains.

    Using this approach, the team analyzed the history of average global temperatures over the last 66 million years, considering the entire period over different timescales, such as tens of thousands of years versus hundreds of thousands, to see whether any patterns of stabilizing feedback emerged within each timescale.

    “To some extent, it’s like your car is speeding down the street, and when you put on the brakes, you slide for a long time before you stop,” Rothman says. “There’s a timescale over which frictional resistance, or a stabilizing feedback, kicks in, when the system returns to a steady state.”

    Without stabilizing feedbacks, fluctuations of global temperature should grow with timescale. But the team’s analysis revealed a regime in which fluctuations did not grow, implying that a stabilizing mechanism reigned in the climate before fluctuations grew too extreme. The timescale for this stabilizing effect — hundreds of thousands of years — coincides with what scientists predict for silicate weathering.

    Interestingly, Arnscheidt and Rothman found that on longer timescales, the data did not reveal any stabilizing feedbacks. That is, there doesn’t appear to be any recurring pull-back of global temperatures on timescales longer than a million years. Over these longer timescales, then, what has kept global temperatures in check?

    “There’s an idea that chance may have played a major role in determining why, after more than 3 billion years, life still exists,” Rothman offers.

    In other words, as the Earth’s temperatures fluctuate over longer stretches, these fluctuations may just happen to be small enough in the geologic sense, to be within a range that a stabilizing feedback, such as silicate weathering, could periodically keep the climate in check, and more to the point, within a habitable zone.

    “There are two camps: Some say random chance is a good enough explanation, and others say there must be a stabilizing feedback,” Arnscheidt says. “We’re able to show, directly from data, that the answer is probably somewhere in between. In other words, there was some stabilization, but pure luck likely also played a role in keeping Earth continuously habitable.”

    This research was supported, in part, by a MathWorks fellowship and the National Science Foundation. More