More stories

  • in

    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

  • in

    Ocean microbes get their diet through a surprising mix of sources, study finds

    One of the smallest and mightiest organisms on the planet is a plant-like bacterium known to marine biologists as Prochlorococcus. The green-tinted microbe measures less than a micron across, and its populations suffuse through the upper layers of the ocean, where a single teaspoon of seawater can hold millions of the tiny organisms.

    Prochlorococcus grows through photosynthesis, using sunlight to convert the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide into organic carbon molecules. The microbe is responsible for 5 percent of the world’s photosynthesizing activity, and scientists have assumed that photosynthesis is the microbe’s go-to strategy for acquiring the carbon it needs to grow.

    But a new MIT study in Nature Microbiology today has found that Prochlorococcus relies on another carbon-feeding strategy, more than previously thought.

    Organisms that use a mix of strategies to provide carbon are known as mixotrophs. Most marine plankton are mixotrophs. And while Prochlorococcus is known to occasionally dabble in mixotrophy, scientists have assumed the microbe primarily lives a phototrophic lifestyle.

    The new MIT study shows that in fact, Prochlorococcus may be more of a mixotroph than it lets on. The microbe may get as much as one-third of its carbon through a second strategy: consuming the dissolved remains of other dead microbes.

    The new estimate may have implications for climate models, as the microbe is a significant force in capturing and “fixing” carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere and ocean.

    “If we wish to predict what will happen to carbon fixation in a different climate, or predict where Prochlorococcus will or will not live in the future, we probably won’t get it right if we’re missing a process that accounts for one-third of the population’s carbon supply,” says Mick Follows, a professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), and its Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

    The study’s co-authors include first author and MIT postdoc Zhen Wu, along with collaborators from the University of Haifa, the Leibniz-Institute for Baltic Sea Research, the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, and Potsdam University.

    Persistent plankton

    Since Prochlorococcus was first discovered in the Sargasso Sea in 1986, by MIT Institute Professor Sallie “Penny” Chisholm and others, the microbe has been observed throughout the world’s oceans, inhabiting the upper sunlit layers ranging from the surface down to about 160 meters. Within this range, light levels vary, and the microbe has evolved a number of ways to photosynthesize carbon in even low-lit regions.

    The organism has also evolved ways to consume organic compounds including glucose and certain amino acids, which could help the microbe survive for limited periods of time in dark ocean regions. But surviving on organic compounds alone is a bit like only eating junk food, and there is evidence that Prochlorococcus will die after a week in regions where photosynthesis is not an option.

    And yet, researchers including Daniel Sher of the University of Haifa, who is a co-author of the new study, have observed healthy populations of Prochlorococcus that persist deep in the sunlit zone, where the light intensity should be too low to maintain a population. This suggests that the microbes must be switching to a non-photosynthesizing, mixotrophic lifestyle in order to consume other organic sources of carbon.

    “It seems that at least some Prochlorococcus are using existing organic carbon in a mixotrophic way,” Follows says. “That stimulated the question: How much?”

    What light cannot explain

    In their new paper, Follows, Wu, Sher, and their colleagues looked to quantify the amount of carbon that Prochlorococcus is consuming through processes other than photosynthesis.

    The team looked first to measurements taken by Sher’s team, which previously took ocean samples at various depths in the Mediterranean Sea and measured the concentration of phytoplankton, including Prochlorococcus, along with the associated intensity of light and the concentration of nitrogen — an essential nutrient that is richly available in deeper layers of the ocean and that plankton can assimilate to make proteins.

    Wu and Follows used this data, and similar information from the Pacific Ocean, along with previous work from Chisholm’s lab, which established the rate of photosynthesis that Prochlorococcus could carry out in a given intensity of light.

    “We converted that light intensity profile into a potential growth rate — how fast the population of Prochlorococcus could grow if it was acquiring all it’s carbon by photosynthesis, and light is the limiting factor,” Follows explains.

    The team then compared this calculated rate to growth rates that were previously observed in the Pacific Ocean by several other research teams.

    “This data showed that, below a certain depth, there’s a lot of growth happening that photosynthesis simply cannot explain,” Follows says. “Some other process must be at work to make up the difference in carbon supply.”

    The researchers inferred that, in deeper, darker regions of the ocean, Prochlorococcus populations are able to survive and thrive by resorting to mixotrophy, including consuming organic carbon from detritus. Specifically, the microbe may be carrying out osmotrophy — a process by which an organism passively absorbs organic carbon molecules via osmosis.

    Judging by how fast the microbe is estimated to be growing below the sunlit zone, the team calculates that Prochlorococcus obtains up to one-third of its carbon diet through mixotrophic strategies.

    “It’s kind of like going from a specialist to a generalist lifestyle,” Follows says. “If I only eat pizza, then if I’m 20 miles from a pizza place, I’m in trouble, whereas if I eat burgers as well, I could go to the nearby McDonald’s. People had thought of Prochlorococcus as a specialist, where they do this one thing (photosynthesis) really well. But it turns out they may have more of a generalist lifestyle than we previously thought.”

    Chisholm, who has both literally and figuratively written the book on Prochlorococcus, says the group’s findings “expand the range of conditions under which their populations can not only survive, but also thrive. This study changes the way we think about the role of Prochlorococcus in the microbial food web.”

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

  • in

    Coordinating climate and air-quality policies to improve public health

    As America’s largest investment to fight climate change, the Inflation Reduction Act positions the country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. But as it edges the United States closer to achieving its international climate commitment, the legislation is also expected to yield significant — and more immediate — improvements in the nation’s health. If successful in accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy alternatives, the IRA will sharply reduce atmospheric concentrations of fine particulates known to exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular disease and cause premature deaths, along with other air pollutants that degrade human health. One recent study shows that eliminating air pollution from fossil fuels in the contiguous United States would prevent more than 50,000 premature deaths and avoid more than $600 billion in health costs each year.

    While national climate policies such as those advanced by the IRA can simultaneously help mitigate climate change and improve air quality, their results may vary widely when it comes to improving public health. That’s because the potential health benefits associated with air quality improvements are much greater in some regions and economic sectors than in others. Those benefits can be maximized, however, through a prudent combination of climate and air-quality policies.

    Several past studies have evaluated the likely health impacts of various policy combinations, but their usefulness has been limited due to a reliance on a small set of standard policy scenarios. More versatile tools are needed to model a wide range of climate and air-quality policy combinations and assess their collective effects on air quality and human health. Now researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and MIT Institute for Data, Systems and Society (IDSS) have developed a publicly available, flexible scenario tool that does just that.

    In a study published in the journal Geoscientific Model Development, the MIT team introduces its Tool for Air Pollution Scenarios (TAPS), which can be used to estimate the likely air-quality and health outcomes of a wide range of climate and air-quality policies at the regional, sectoral, and fuel-based level. 

    “This tool can help integrate the siloed sustainability issues of air pollution and climate action,” says the study’s lead author William Atkinson, who recently served as a Biogen Graduate Fellow and research assistant at the IDSS Technology and Policy Program’s (TPP) Research to Policy Engagement Initiative. “Climate action does not guarantee a clean air future, and vice versa — but the issues have similar sources that imply shared solutions if done right.”

    The study’s initial application of TAPS shows that with current air-quality policies and near-term Paris Agreement climate pledges alone, short-term pollution reductions give way to long-term increases — given the expected growth of emissions-intensive industrial and agricultural processes in developing regions. More ambitious climate and air-quality policies could be complementary, each reducing different pollutants substantially to give tremendous near- and long-term health benefits worldwide.

    “The significance of this work is that we can more confidently identify the long-term emission reduction strategies that also support air quality improvements,” says MIT Joint Program Deputy Director C. Adam Schlosser, a co-author of the study. “This is a win-win for setting climate targets that are also healthy targets.”

    TAPS projects air quality and health outcomes based on three integrated components: a recent global inventory of detailed emissions resulting from human activities (e.g., fossil fuel combustion, land-use change, industrial processes); multiple scenarios of emissions-generating human activities between now and the year 2100, produced by the MIT Economic Projection and Policy Analysis model; and emissions intensity (emissions per unit of activity) scenarios based on recent data from the Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollution Interactions and Synergies model.

    “We see the climate crisis as a health crisis, and believe that evidence-based approaches are key to making the most of this historic investment in the future, particularly for vulnerable communities,” says Johanna Jobin, global head of corporate reputation and responsibility at Biogen. “The scientific community has spoken with unanimity and alarm that not all climate-related actions deliver equal health benefits. We’re proud of our collaboration with the MIT Joint Program to develop this tool that can be used to bridge research-to-policy gaps, support policy decisions to promote health among vulnerable communities, and train the next generation of scientists and leaders for far-reaching impact.”

    The tool can inform decision-makers about a wide range of climate and air-quality policies. Policy scenarios can be applied to specific regions, sectors, or fuels to investigate policy combinations at a more granular level, or to target short-term actions with high-impact benefits.

    TAPS could be further developed to account for additional emissions sources and trends.

    “Our new tool could be used to examine a large range of both climate and air quality scenarios. As the framework is expanded, we can add detail for specific regions, as well as additional pollutants such as air toxics,” says study supervising co-author Noelle Selin, professor at IDSS and the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and director of TPP.    

    This research was supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program; Biogen; TPP’s Leading Technology and Policy Initiative; and TPP’s Research to Policy Engagement Initiative. More

  • in

    Small eddies play a big role in feeding ocean microbes

    Subtropical gyres are enormous rotating ocean currents that generate sustained circulations in the Earth’s subtropical regions just to the north and south of the equator. These gyres are slow-moving whirlpools that circulate within massive basins around the world, gathering up nutrients, organisms, and sometimes trash, as the currents rotate from coast to coast.

    For years, oceanographers have puzzled over conflicting observations within subtropical gyres. At the surface, these massive currents appear to host healthy populations of phytoplankton — microbes that feed the rest of the ocean food chain and are responsible for sucking up a significant portion of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide.

    But judging from what scientists know about the dynamics of gyres, they estimated the currents themselves wouldn’t be able to maintain enough nutrients to sustain the phytoplankton they were seeing. How, then, were the microbes able to thrive?

    Now, MIT researchers have found that phytoplankton may receive deliveries of nutrients from outside the gyres, and that the delivery vehicle is in the form of eddies — much smaller currents that swirl at the edges of a gyre. These eddies pull nutrients in from high-nutrient equatorial regions and push them into the center of a gyre, where the nutrients are then taken up by other currents and pumped to the surface to feed phytoplankton.

    Ocean eddies, the team found, appear to be an important source of nutrients in subtropical gyres. Their replenishing effect, which the researchers call a “nutrient relay,” helps maintain populations of phytoplankton, which play a central role in the ocean’s ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. While climate models tend to project a decline in the ocean’s ability to sequester carbon over the coming decades, this “nutrient relay” could help sustain carbon storage over the subtropical oceans.

    “There’s a lot of uncertainty about how the carbon cycle of the ocean will evolve as climate continues to change, ” says Mukund Gupta, a postdoc at Caltech who led the study as a graduate student at MIT. “As our paper shows, getting the carbon distribution right is not straightforward, and depends on understanding the role of eddies and other fine-scale motions in the ocean.”

    Gupta and his colleagues report their findings this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study’s co-authors are Jonathan Lauderdale, Oliver Jahn, Christopher Hill, Stephanie Dutkiewicz, and Michael Follows at MIT, and Richard Williams at the University of Liverpool.

    A snowy puzzle

    A cross-section of an ocean gyre resembles a stack of nesting bowls that is stratified by density: Warmer, lighter layers lie at the surface, while colder, denser waters make up deeper layers. Phytoplankton live within the ocean’s top sunlit layers, where the microbes require sunlight, warm temperatures, and nutrients to grow.

    When phytoplankton die, they sink through the ocean’s layers as “marine snow.” Some of this snow releases nutrients back into the current, where they are pumped back up to feed new microbes. The rest of the snow sinks out of the gyre, down to the deepest layers of the ocean. The deeper the snow sinks, the more difficult it is for it to be pumped back to the surface. The snow is then trapped, or sequestered, along with any unreleased carbon and nutrients.

    Oceanographers thought that the main source of nutrients in subtropical gyres came from recirculating marine snow. But as a portion of this snow inevitably sinks to the bottom, there must be another source of nutrients to explain the healthy populations of phytoplankton at the surface. Exactly what that source is “has left the oceanography community a little puzzled for some time,” Gupta says.

    Swirls at the edge

    In their new study, the team sought to simulate a subtropical gyre to see what other dynamics may be at work. They focused on the North Pacific gyre, one of the Earth’s five major gyres, which circulates over most of the North Pacific Ocean, and spans more than 20 million square kilometers. 

    The team started with the MITgcm, a general circulation model that simulates the physical circulation patterns in the atmosphere and oceans. To reproduce the North Pacific gyre’s dynamics as realistically as possible, the team used an MITgcm algorithm, previously developed at NASA and MIT, which tunes the model to match actual observations of the ocean, such as ocean currents recorded by satellites, and temperature and salinity measurements taken by ships and drifters.  

    “We use a simulation of the physical ocean that is as realistic as we can get, given the machinery of the model and the available observations,” Lauderdale says.

    Play video

    An animation of the North Pacific Ocean shows phosphate nutrient concentrations at 500 meters below the ocean surface. The swirls represent small eddies transporting phosphate from the nutrient-rich equator (lighter colors), northward toward the nutrient-depleted subtropics (darker colors). This nutrient relay mechanism helps sustain biological activity and carbon sequestration in the subtropical ocean. Credit: Oliver Jahn

    The realistic model captured finer details, at a resolution of less than 20 kilometers per pixel, compared to other models that have a more limited resolution. The team combined the simulation of the ocean’s physical behavior with the Darwin model — a simulation of microbe communities such as phytoplankton, and how they grow and evolve with ocean conditions.

    The team ran the combined simulation of the North Pacific gyre over a decade, and created animations to visualize the pattern of currents and the nutrients they carried, in and around the gyre. What emerged were small eddies that ran along the edges of the enormous gyre and appeared to be rich in nutrients.

    “We were picking up on little eddy motions, basically like weather systems in the ocean,” Lauderdale says. “These eddies were carrying packets of high-nutrient waters, from the equator, north into the center of the gyre and downwards along the sides of the bowls. We wondered if these eddy transfers made an important delivery mechanism.”

    Surprisingly, the nutrients first move deeper, away from the sunlight, before being returned upwards where the phytoplankton live. The team found that ocean eddies could supply up to 50 percent of the nutrients in subtropical gyres.

    “That is very significant,” Gupta says. “The vertical process that recycles nutrients from marine snow is only half the story. The other half is the replenishing effect of these eddies. As subtropical gyres contribute a significant part of the world’s oceans, we think this nutrient relay is of global importance.”

    This research was supported, in part, by the Simons Foundation and NASA. More

  • in

    Divorce is more common in albatross couples with shy males, study finds

    The wandering albatross is the poster bird for avian monogamy. The graceful glider is known to mate for life, partnering up with the same bird to breed, season after season, between long flights at sea.

    But on rare occasions, an albatross pair will “divorce” — a term ornithologists use for instances when one partner leaves the pair for another mate while the other partner remains in the flock. Divorce rates vary widely across the avian world, and the divorce rate for wandering albatrosses is relatively low.

    Nevertheless, the giant drifters can split up. Scientists at MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have found that, at least for one particular population of wandering albatross, whether a pair will divorce boils down to one important factor: personality. 

    In a study appearing today in the journal Biology Letters, the team reports that an albatross couple’s chance of divorce is highly influenced by the male partner’s “boldness.” The bolder and more aggressive the male, the more likely the pair is to stay together. The shyer the male, the higher the chance that the pair will divorce.

    The researchers say their study is the first to link personality and divorce in a wild animal species.

    “We thought that bold males, being more aggressive, would be more likely to divorce, because they would be more likely to take the risk of switching partners to improve future reproductive outcomes,” says study senior author Stephanie Jenouvrier, an associate scientist and seabird ecologist in WHOI’s FLEDGE Lab. “Instead we find the shy divorce more because they are more likely to be forced to divorce by a more competitive intruder. We expect personality may impact divorce rates in many species, but in different ways.”

    Lead author Ruijiao Sun, a graduate student in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program and MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, says that this new evidence of a link between personality and divorce in the wandering albatross may help scientists predict the resilience of the population.

    “The wandering albatross is a vulnerable species,” Sun says. “Understanding the effect of personality on divorce is important because it can help researchers predict the consequences for population dynamics, and implement conservation efforts.”

    The study’s co-authors include Joanie Van de Walle of WHOI, Samantha Patrick of the University of Liverpool, and Christophe Barbraud, Henri Weimerskirch, and Karine Delord of CNRS- La Rochelle University in France.

    Repeat divorcées

    The new study concentrates on a population of wandering albatross that return regularly to Possession Island in the Southern Indian Ocean to breed. This population has been the focus of a long-term study dating back to the 1950s, in which researchers have been monitoring the birds each breeding season and recording the pairings and breakups of individuals through the years.

    This particular population is skewed toward more male individuals than females because the foraging grounds of female albatrosses overlap with fishing vessels, where they are more prone to being accidentally caught in fishing lines as bycatch.  

    In earlier research, Sun analyzed data from this long-term study and picked up a curious pattern: Those individuals that divorced were more likely to do so again and again.

    “Then we wanted to know, what drives divorce, and why are some individuals divorcing more often,” Jenouvrier says. “In humans, you see this repetitive divorce pattern as well, linked to personality. And the wandering albatross is one of the rare species for which we have both demographic and personality data.”

    That personality data comes from an ongoing study that began in 2008 and is led by co-author Patrick, who has been measuring the personality of individuals among the same population of wandering albatross on Possession Island. In the study of animal behavior, personality is defined as a consistent behavioral difference displayed by an individual. Biologists mainly measure personality in animals as a gradient between shy and bold, or less to more aggressive.

    In Patrick’s study, researchers have measured boldness in albatrosses by gauging a bird’s reaction to a human approaching its nest, from a distance of about 5 meters. A bird is assigned a score depending on how it reacts (a bird that does not respond scores a zero, being the most shy, while a bird that lifts its head, and even stands up, can score higher, being the most bold).

    Patrick has made multiple personality assessments of the same individuals over multiple years. Sun and Jenouvrier wondered: Could an individual’s personality have anything to do with their chance to divorce?

    “We had seen this repetitive divorce pattern, and then talked with Sam (Patrick) to see, could this be related to personality?” Sun recalls. “We know that personality predicts divorce in human beings, and it would be intuitive to make the link between personality and divorce in wild populations.”

    Shy birds

    In their new study, the team used data from both the demographic and personality studies to see whether any patterns between the two emerged. They applied a statistical model to both datasets, to test whether the personality of individuals in an albatross pair affected the fate of that pair.

    They found that for females, personality had little to do with whether the birds divorced. But in males, the pattern was clear: Those that were identified as shy were more likely to divorce, while bolder males stayed with their partner.

    “Divorce does not happen very often,” Jenouvrier says. “But we found that the shyer a bird is, the more likely they are to divorce.”

    But why? In their study, the team puts forth an explanation, which ecologists call “forced divorce.” They point out that, in this particular population of wandering albatross, males far outnumber females and therefore are more likely to compete with each other for mates. Males that are already partnered up, therefore, may be faced with a third “intruder” — a male who is competing for a place in the pair.

    “When there is a third intruder that competes, shy birds could step away and give away their mates, where bolder individuals are aggressive and will guard their partner and secure their partnership,” Sun explains. “That’s why shyer individuals may have higher divorce rates.”

    The team is planning to extend their work to examine how the personality of individuals can affect how the larger population changes and evolves. 

    “Now we’re talking about a connection between personality and divorce at the individual level,” Sun says. “But we want to understand the impact at the population level.”

    This research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation. More

  • in

    Using seismology for groundwater management

    As climate change increases the number of extreme weather events, such as megadroughts, groundwater management is key for sustaining water supply. But current groundwater monitoring tools are either costly or insufficient for deeper aquifers, limiting our ability to monitor and practice sustainable management in populated areas.

    Now, a new paper published in Nature Communications bridges seismology and hydrology with a pilot application that uses seismometers as a cost-effective way to monitor and map groundwater fluctuations.

    “Our measurements are independent from and complementary to traditional observations,” says Shujuan Mao PhD ’21, lead author on the paper. “It provides a new way to dictate groundwater management and evaluate the impact of human activity on shaping underground hydrologic systems.”

    Mao, currently a Thompson Postdoctoral Fellow in the Geophysics department at Stanford University, conducted most of the research during her PhD in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). Other contributors to the paper include EAPS department chair and Schlumberger Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Robert van der Hilst, as well as Michel Campillo and Albanne Lecointre from the Institut des Sciences de la Terre in France.

    While there are a few different methods currently used for measuring groundwater, they all come with notable drawbacks. Hydraulic heads, which drill through the ground and into the aquifers, are expensive and can only give limited information at the specific location they’re placed. Noninvasive techniques based on satellite- or airborne-sensing lack the sensitivity and resolution needed to observe deeper depths.

    Mao proposes using seismometers, which are instruments used to measure ground vibrations such as the waves produced by earthquakes. They can measure seismic velocity, which is the propagation speed of seismic waves. Seismic velocity measurements are unique to the mechanical state of rocks, or the ways rocks respond to their physical environment, and can tell us a lot about them.

    The idea of using seismic velocity to characterize property changes in rocks has long been used in laboratory-scale analysis, but only recently have scientists been able to measure it continuously in realistic-scale geological settings. For aquifer monitoring, Mao and her team associate the seismic velocity with the hydraulic property, or the water content, in the rocks.

    Seismic velocity measurements make use of ambient seismic fields, or background noise, recorded by seismometers. “The Earth’s surface is always vibrating, whether due to ocean waves, winds, or human activities,” she explains. “Most of the time those vibrations are really small and are considered ‘noise’ by traditional seismologists. But in recent years scientists have shown that the continuous noise records in fact contain a wealth of information about the properties and structures of the Earth’s interior.”

    To extract useful information from the noise records, Mao and her team used a technique called seismic interferometry, which analyzes wave interference to calculate the seismic velocity of the medium the waves pass through. For their pilot application, Mao and her team applied this analysis to basins in the Metropolitan Los Angeles region, an area suffering from worsening drought and a growing population.

    By doing this, Mao and her team were able to see how the aquifers changed physically over time at a high resolution. Their seismic velocity measurements verified measurements taken by hydraulic heads over the last 20 years, and the images matched very well with satellite data. They could also see differences in how the storage areas changed between counties in the area that used different water pumping practices, which is important for developing water management protocol.

    Mao also calls using the seismometers a “buy-one get-one free” deal, since seismometers are already in use for earthquake and tectonic studies not just across California, but worldwide, and could help “avoid the expensive cost of drilling and maintaining dedicated groundwater monitoring wells,” she says.

    Mao emphasizes that this study is just the beginning of exploring possible applications of seismic noise interferometry in this way. It can be used to monitor other near-surface systems, such as geothermal or volcanic systems, and Mao is currently applying it to oil and gas fields. But in places like California currently experiencing megadroughts, and who rely on groundwater for a large portion of their water needs, this kind of information is key for sustainable water management.

    “It’s really important, especially now, to characterize these changes in groundwater storage so that we can promote data-informed policymaking to help them thrive under increasing water stress,” she says.

    This study was funded, in part, by the European Research Council, with additional support from the Thompson Fellowship at Stanford University. More

  • in

    Kerry Emanuel: A climate scientist and meteorologist in the eye of the storm

    Kerry Emanuel once joked that whenever he retired, he would start a “hurricane safari” so other people could experience what it’s like to fly into the eye of a hurricane.

    “All of a sudden, the turbulence stops, the sun comes out, bright sunshine, and it’s amazingly calm. And you’re in this grand stadium [of clouds miles high],” he says. “It’s quite an experience.”

    While the hurricane safari is unlikely to come to fruition — “You can’t just conjure up a hurricane,” he explains — Emanuel, a world-leading expert on links between hurricanes and climate change, is retiring from teaching in the Department of Earth Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) at MIT after a more than 40-year career.

    Best known for his foundational contributions to the science of tropical cyclones, climate, and links between them, Emanuel has also been a prominent voice in public debates on climate change, and what we should do about it.

    “Kerry has had an enormous effect on the world through the students and junior scientists he has trained,” says William Boos PhD ’08, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. “He’s a brilliant enough scientist and theoretician that he didn’t need any of us to accomplish what he has, but he genuinely cares about educating new generations of scientists and helping to launch their careers.”

    In recognition of Emanuel’s teaching career and contributions to science, a symposium was held in his honor at MIT on June 21 and 22, organized by several of his former students and collaborators, including Boos. Research presented at the symposium focused on the many fields influenced by Emanuel’s more than 200 published research papers — on everything from forecasting the risks posed by tropical cyclones to understanding how rainfall is produced by continent-sized patterns of atmospheric circulation.

    Emanuel’s career observing perturbations of Earth’s atmosphere started earlier than he can remember. “According to my older brother, from the age of 2, I would crawl to the window whenever there was a thunderstorm,” he says. At first, those were the rolling thunderheads of the Midwest where he grew up, then it was the edges of hurricanes during a few teenage years in Florida. Eventually, he would find himself watching from the very eye of the storm, both physically and mathematically.

    Emanuel attended MIT both as an undergraduate studying Earth and planetary sciences, and for his PhD in meteorology, writing a dissertation on thunderstorms that form ahead of cold fronts. Within the department, he worked with some of the central figures of modern meteorology such as Jule Charney, Fred Sanders, and Edward Lorenz — the founder of chaos theory.

    After receiving his PhD in 1978, Emanuel joined the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles. During this period, he also took a semester sabbatical to film the wind speeds of tornadoes in Texas and Oklahoma. After three years, he returned to MIT and joined the Department of Meteorology in 1981. Two years later, the department merged with Earth and Planetary Sciences to form EAPS as it is known today, and where Emanuel has remained ever since.

    At MIT, he shifted scales. The thunderstorms and tornadoes that had been the focus of Emanuel’s research up to then were local atmospheric phenomena, or “mesoscale” in the language of meteorologists. The larger “synoptic scale” storms that are hurricanes blew into Emanuel’s research when as a young faculty member he was asked to teach a class in tropical meteorology; in prepping for the class, Emanuel found his notes on hurricanes from graduate school no longer made sense.

    “I realized I didn’t understand them because they couldn’t have been correct,” he says. “And so I set out to try to find a much better theoretical formulation for hurricanes.”

    He soon made two important contributions. In 1986, his paper “An Air-Sea Interaction Theory for Tropical Cyclones. Part 1: Steady-State Maintenance” developed a new theory for upper limits of hurricane intensity given atmospheric conditions. This work in turn led to even larger-scale questions to address. “That upper bound had to be dependent on climate, and it was likely to go up if we were to warm the climate,” Emanuel says — a phenomenon he explored in another paper, “The Dependence of Hurricane Intensity on Climate,” which showed how warming sea surface temperatures and changing atmospheric conditions from a warming climate would make hurricanes more destructive.

    “In my view, this is among the most remarkable achievements in theoretical geophysics,” says Adam Sobel PhD ’98, an atmospheric scientist at Columbia University who got to know Emanuel after he graduated and became interested in tropical meteorology. “From first principles, using only pencil-and-paper analysis and physical reasoning, he derives a quantitative bound on hurricane intensity that has held up well over decades of comparison to observations” and underpins current methods of predicting hurricane intensity and how it changes with climate.

    This and diverse subsequent work led to numerous honors, including membership to the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

    Emanuel’s research was never confined to academic circles, however; when politicians and industry leaders voiced loud opposition to the idea that human-caused climate change posed a threat, he spoke up.

    “I felt kind of a duty to try to counter that,” says Emanuel. “I thought it was an interesting challenge to see if you could go out and convince what some people call climate deniers, skeptics, that this was a serious risk and we had to treat it as such.”

    In addition to many public lectures and media appearances discussing climate change, Emanuel penned a book for general audiences titled “What We Know About Climate Change,” in addition to a widely-read primer on climate change and risk assessment designed to influence business leaders.

    “Kerry has an unmatched physical understanding of tropical climate phenomena,” says Emanuel’s colleague, Susan Solomon, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies at EAPS. “But he’s also a great communicator and has generously given his time to public outreach. His book ‘What We Know About Climate Change’ is a beautiful piece of work that is readily understandable and has captivated many a non-expert reader.”

    Along with a number of other prominent climate scientists, Emanuel also began advocating for expanding nuclear power as the most rapid path to decarbonizing the world’s energy systems.

    “I think the impediment to nuclear is largely irrational in the United States,” he says. “So, I’ve been trying to fight that just like I’ve been trying to fight climate denial.”

    One lesson Emanuel has taken from his public work on climate change is that skeptical audiences often respond better to issues framed in positive terms than to doom and gloom; he’s found emphasizing the potential benefits rather than the sacrifices involved in the energy transition can engage otherwise wary audiences.

    “It’s really not opposition to science, per se,” he says. “It’s fear of the societal changes they think are required to do something about it.”

    He has also worked to raise awareness about how insurance companies significantly underestimate climate risks in their policies, in particular by basing hurricane risk on unreliable historical data. One recent practical result has been a project by the First Street Foundation to assess the true flood risk of every property in the United States using hurricane models Emanuel developed.

    “I think it’s transformative,” Emanuel says of the project with First Street. “That may prove to be the most substantive research I’ve done.”

    Though Emanuel is retiring from teaching, he has no plans to stop working. “When I say ‘retire’ it’s in quotes,” he says. In 2011, Emanuel and Professor of Geophysics Daniel Rothman founded the Lorenz Center, a climate research center at MIT in honor of Emanuel’s mentor and friend Edward Lorenz. Emanuel will continue to participate in work at the center, which aims to counter what Emanuel describes as a trend away from “curiosity-driven” work in climate science.

    “Even if there were no such thing as global warming, [climate science] would still be a really, really exciting field,” says Emanuel. “There’s so much to understand about climate, about the climates of the past, about the climates of other planets.”

    In addition to work with the Lorenz Center, he’s become interested once again in tornadoes and severe local storms, and understanding whether climate also controls such local phenomena. He’s also involved in two of MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges projects focused on translating climate hazards to explicit financial and health risks — what will bring the dangers of climate change home to people, he says, is for the public to understand more concrete risks, like agricultural failure, water shortages, electricity shortages, and severe weather events. Capturing that will drive the next few years of his work.

    “I’m going to be stepping up research in some respects,” he says, now living full-time at his home in Maine.

    Of course, “retiring” does mean a bit more free time for new pursuits, like learning a language or an instrument, and “rediscovering the art of sailing,” says Emanuel. He’s looking forward to those days on the water, whatever storms are to come. More

  • in

    Study finds natural sources of air pollution exceed air quality guidelines in many regions

    Alongside climate change, air pollution is one of the biggest environmental threats to human health. Tiny particles known as particulate matter or PM2.5 (named for their diameter of just 2.5 micrometers or less) are a particularly hazardous type of pollutant. These particles are produced from a variety of sources, including wildfires and the burning of fossil fuels, and can enter our bloodstream, travel deep into our lungs, and cause respiratory and cardiovascular damage. Exposure to particulate matter is responsible for millions of premature deaths globally every year.

    In response to the increasing body of evidence on the detrimental effects of PM2.5, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently updated its air quality guidelines, lowering its recommended annual PM2.5 exposure guideline by 50 percent, from 10 micrograms per meter cubed (μm3) to 5 μm3. These updated guidelines signify an aggressive attempt to promote the regulation and reduction of anthropogenic emissions in order to improve global air quality.

    A new study by researchers in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering explores if the updated air quality guideline of 5 μm3 is realistically attainable across different regions of the world, particularly if anthropogenic emissions are aggressively reduced. 

    The first question the researchers wanted to investigate was to what degree moving to a no-fossil-fuel future would help different regions meet this new air quality guideline.

    “The answer we found is that eliminating fossil-fuel emissions would improve air quality around the world, but while this would help some regions come into compliance with the WHO guidelines, for many other regions high contributions from natural sources would impede their ability to meet that target,” says senior author Colette Heald, the Germeshausen Professor in the MIT departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. 

    The study by Heald, Professor Jesse Kroll, and graduate students Sidhant Pai and Therese Carter, published June 6 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters, finds that over 90 percent of the global population is currently exposed to average annual concentrations that are higher than the recommended guideline. The authors go on to demonstrate that over 50 percent of the world’s population would still be exposed to PM2.5 concentrations that exceed the new air quality guidelines, even in the absence of all anthropogenic emissions.

    This is due to the large natural sources of particulate matter — dust, sea salt, and organics from vegetation — that still exist in the atmosphere when anthropogenic emissions are removed from the air. 

    “If you live in parts of India or northern Africa that are exposed to large amounts of fine dust, it can be challenging to reduce PM2.5 exposures below the new guideline,” says Sidhant Pai, co-lead author and graduate student. “This study challenges us to rethink the value of different emissions abatement controls across different regions and suggests the need for a new generation of air quality metrics that can enable targeted decision-making.”

    The researchers conducted a series of model simulations to explore the viability of achieving the updated PM2.5 guidelines worldwide under different emissions reduction scenarios, using 2019 as a representative baseline year. 

    Their model simulations used a suite of different anthropogenic sources that could be turned on and off to study the contribution of a particular source. For instance, the researchers conducted a simulation that turned off all human-based emissions in order to determine the amount of PM2.5 pollution that could be attributed to natural and fire sources. By analyzing the chemical composition of the PM2.5 aerosol in the atmosphere (e.g., dust, sulfate, and black carbon), the researchers were also able to get a more accurate understanding of the most important PM2.5 sources in a particular region. For example, elevated PM2.5 concentrations in the Amazon were shown to predominantly consist of carbon-containing aerosols from sources like deforestation fires. Conversely, nitrogen-containing aerosols were prominent in Northern Europe, with large contributions from vehicles and fertilizer usage. The two regions would thus require very different policies and methods to improve their air quality. 

    “Analyzing particulate pollution across individual chemical species allows for mitigation and adaptation decisions that are specific to the region, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach, which can be challenging to execute without an understanding of the underlying importance of different sources,” says Pai. 

    When the WHO air quality guidelines were last updated in 2005, they had a significant impact on environmental policies. Scientists could look at an area that was not in compliance and suggest high-level solutions to improve the region’s air quality. But as the guidelines have tightened, globally-applicable solutions to manage and improve air quality are no longer as evident. 

    “Another benefit of speciating is that some of the particles have different toxicity properties that are correlated to health outcomes,” says Therese Carter, co-lead author and graduate student. “It’s an important area of research that this work can help motivate. Being able to separate out that piece of the puzzle can provide epidemiologists with more insights on the different toxicity levels and the impact of specific particles on human health.”

    The authors view these new findings as an opportunity to expand and iterate on the current guidelines.  

    “Routine and global measurements of the chemical composition of PM2.5 would give policymakers information on what interventions would most effectively improve air quality in any given location,” says Jesse Kroll, a professor in the MIT departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Chemical Engineering. “But it would also provide us with new insights into how different chemical species in PM2.5 affect human health.”

    “I hope that as we learn more about the health impacts of these different particles, our work and that of the broader atmospheric chemistry community can help inform strategies to reduce the pollutants that are most harmful to human health,” adds Heald. More