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    Atmospheric observations in China show rise in emissions of a potent greenhouse gas

    To achieve the aspirational goal of the Paris Agreement on climate change — limiting the increase in global average surface temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — will require its 196 signatories to dramatically reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Those greenhouse gases differ widely in their global warming potential (GWP), or ability to absorb radiative energy and thereby warm the Earth’s surface. For example, measured over a 100-year period, the GWP of methane is about 28 times that of carbon dioxide (CO2), and the GWP of sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) is 24,300 times that of CO2, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report. 

    Used primarily in high-voltage electrical switchgear in electric power grids, SF6 is one of the most potent greenhouse gases on Earth. In the 21st century, atmospheric concentrations of SF6 have risen sharply along with global electric power demand, threatening the world’s efforts to stabilize the climate. This heightened demand for electric power is particularly pronounced in China, which has dominated the expansion of the global power industry in the past decade. Quantifying China’s contribution to global SF6 emissions — and pinpointing its sources in the country — could lead that nation to implement new measures to reduce them, and thereby reduce, if not eliminate, an impediment to the Paris Agreement’s aspirational goal. 

    To that end, a new study by researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, Fudan University, Peking University, University of Bristol, and Meteorological Observation Center of China Meteorological Administration determined total SF6 emissions in China over 2011-21 from atmospheric observations collected from nine stations within a Chinese network, including one station from the Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment (AGAGE) network. For comparison, global total emissions were determined from five globally distributed, relatively unpolluted “background” AGAGE stations, involving additional researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and CSIRO, Australia’s National Science Agency.

    The researchers found that SF6 emissions in China almost doubled from 2.6 gigagrams (Gg) per year in 2011, when they accounted for 34 percent of global SF6 emissions, to 5.1 Gg per year in 2021, when they accounted for 57 percent of global total SF6 emissions. This increase from China over the 10-year period — some of it emerging from the country’s less-populated western regions — was larger than the global total SF6 emissions rise, highlighting the importance of lowering SF6 emissions from China in the future.

    The open-access study, which appears in the journal Nature Communications, explores prospects for future SF6 emissions reduction in China.

    “Adopting maintenance practices that minimize SF6 leakage rates or using SF6-free equipment or SF6 substitutes in the electric power grid will benefit greenhouse-gas mitigation in China,” says Minde An, a postdoc at the MIT Center for Global Change Science (CGCS) and the study’s lead author. “We see our findings as a first step in quantifying the problem and identifying how it can be addressed.”

    Emissions of SF6 are expected to last more than 1,000 years in the atmosphere, raising the stakes for policymakers in China and around the world.

    “Any increase in SF6 emissions this century will effectively alter our planet’s radiative budget — the balance between incoming energy from the sun and outgoing energy from the Earth — far beyond the multi-decadal time frame of current climate policies,” says MIT Joint Program and CGCS Director Ronald Prinn, a coauthor of the study. “So it’s imperative that China and all other nations take immediate action to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, their SF6 emissions.”

    The study was supported by the National Key Research and Development Program of China and Shanghai B&R Joint Laboratory Project, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and other funding agencies.   More

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    Gosha Geogdzhayev and Sadhana Lolla named 2024 Gates Cambridge Scholars

    This article was updated on April 23 to reflect the promotion of Gosha Geogdzhayev from alternate to winner of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

    MIT seniors Gosha Geogdzhayev and Sadhana Lolla have 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.

    Established in 2000, Gates Cambridge offers full-cost post-graduate scholarships to outstanding applicants from countries outside of the U.K. The mission of Gates Cambridge is to build a global network of future leaders committed to improving the lives of others.

    Gosha Geogdzhayev

    Originally from New York City, Geogdzhayev is a senior majoring in physics with minors in mathematics and computer science. At Cambridge, Geogdzhayev intends to pursue an MPhil in quantitative climate and environmental science. He is interested in applying these subjects to climate science and intends to spend his career developing novel statistical methods for climate prediction.

    At MIT, Geogdzhayev researches climate emulators with Professor Raffaele Ferrari’s group in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and is part of the “Bringing Computation to the Climate Challenge” Grand Challenges project. He is currently working on an operator-based emulator for the projection of climate extremes. Previously, Geogdzhayev studied the statistics of changing chaotic systems, work that has recently been published as a first-author paper.

    As a recipient of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) Hollings Scholarship, Geogdzhayev has worked on bias correction methods for climate data at the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. He is the recipient of several other awards in the field of earth and atmospheric sciences, notably the American Meteorological Society Ward and Eileen Seguin Scholarship.

    Outside of research, Geogdzhayev enjoys writing poetry and is actively involved with his living community, Burton 1, for which he has previously served as floor chair.

    Sadhana Lolla

    Lolla, a senior from Clarksburg, Maryland, is majoring in computer science and minoring in mathematics and literature. At Cambridge, she will pursue an MPhil in technology policy.

    In the future, Lolla aims to lead conversations on deploying and developing technology for marginalized communities, such as the rural Indian village that her family calls home, while also conducting research in embodied intelligence.

    At MIT, Lolla conducts research on safe and trustworthy robotics and deep learning at the Distributed Robotics Laboratory with Professor Daniela Rus. Her research has spanned debiasing strategies for autonomous vehicles and accelerating robotic design processes. At Microsoft Research and Themis AI, she works on creating uncertainty-aware frameworks for deep learning, which has impacts across computational biology, language modeling, and robotics. She has presented her work at the Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS) conference and the International Conference on Machine Learning (ICML). 

    Outside of research, Lolla leads initiatives to make computer science education more accessible globally. She is an instructor for class 6.s191 (MIT Introduction to Deep Learning), one of the largest AI courses in the world, which reaches millions of students annually. She serves as the curriculum lead for Momentum AI, the only U.S. program that teaches AI to underserved students for free, and she has taught hundreds of students in Northern Scotland as part of the MIT Global Teaching Labs program.

    Lolla was also the director for xFair, MIT’s largest student-run career fair, and is an executive board member for Next Sing, where she works to make a cappella more accessible for students across musical backgrounds. In her free time, she enjoys singing, solving crossword puzzles, and baking. More

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    Study: Global deforestation leads to more mercury pollution

    About 10 percent of human-made mercury emissions into the atmosphere each year are the result of global deforestation, according to a new MIT study.

    The world’s vegetation, from the Amazon rainforest to the savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa, acts as a sink that removes the toxic pollutant from the air. However, if the current rate of deforestation remains unchanged or accelerates, the researchers estimate that net mercury emissions will keep increasing.

    “We’ve been overlooking a significant source of mercury, especially in tropical regions,” says Ari Feinberg, a former postdoc in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and lead author of the study.

    The researchers’ model shows that the Amazon rainforest plays a particularly important role as a mercury sink, contributing about 30 percent of the global land sink. Curbing Amazon deforestation could thus have a substantial impact on reducing mercury pollution.

    The team also estimates that global reforestation efforts could increase annual mercury uptake by about 5 percent. While this is significant, the researchers emphasize that reforestation alone should not be a substitute for worldwide pollution control efforts.

    “Countries have put a lot of effort into reducing mercury emissions, especially northern industrialized countries, and for very good reason. But 10 percent of the global anthropogenic source is substantial, and there is a potential for that to be even greater in the future. [Addressing these deforestation-related emissions] needs to be part of the solution,” says senior author Noelle Selin, a professor in IDSS and MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

    Feinberg and Selin are joined on the paper by co-authors Martin Jiskra, a former Swiss National Science Foundation Ambizione Fellow at the University of Basel; Pasquale Borrelli, a professor at Roma Tre University in Italy; and Jagannath Biswakarma, a postdoc at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. The paper appears today in Environmental Science and Technology.

    Modeling mercury

    Over the past few decades, scientists have generally focused on studying deforestation as a source of global carbon dioxide emissions. Mercury, a trace element, hasn’t received the same attention, partly because the terrestrial biosphere’s role in the global mercury cycle has only recently been better quantified.

    Plant leaves take up mercury from the atmosphere, in a similar way as they take up carbon dioxide. But unlike carbon dioxide, mercury doesn’t play an essential biological function for plants. Mercury largely stays within a leaf until it falls to the forest floor, where the mercury is absorbed by the soil.

    Mercury becomes a serious concern for humans if it ends up in water bodies, where it can become methylated by microorganisms. Methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin, can be taken up by fish and bioaccumulated through the food chain. This can lead to risky levels of methylmercury in the fish humans eat.

    “In soils, mercury is much more tightly bound than it would be if it were deposited in the ocean. The forests are doing a sort of ecosystem service, in that they are sequestering mercury for longer timescales,” says Feinberg, who is now a postdoc in the Blas Cabrera Institute of Physical Chemistry in Spain.

    In this way, forests reduce the amount of toxic methylmercury in oceans.

    Many studies of mercury focus on industrial sources, like burning fossil fuels, small-scale gold mining, and metal smelting. A global treaty, the 2013 Minamata Convention, calls on nations to reduce human-made emissions. However, it doesn’t directly consider impacts of deforestation.

    The researchers launched their study to fill in that missing piece.

    In past work, they had built a model to probe the role vegetation plays in mercury uptake. Using a series of land use change scenarios, they adjusted the model to quantify the role of deforestation.

    Evaluating emissions

    This chemical transport model tracks mercury from its emissions sources to where it is chemically transformed in the atmosphere and then ultimately to where it is deposited, mainly through rainfall or uptake into forest ecosystems.

    They divided the Earth into eight regions and performed simulations to calculate deforestation emissions factors for each, considering elements like type and density of vegetation, mercury content in soils, and historical land use.

    However, good data for some regions were hard to come by.

    They lacked measurements from tropical Africa or Southeast Asia — two areas that experience heavy deforestation. To get around this gap, they used simpler, offline models to simulate hundreds of scenarios, which helped them improve their estimations of potential uncertainties.

    They also developed a new formulation for mercury emissions from soil. This formulation captures the fact that deforestation reduces leaf area, which increases the amount of sunlight that hits the ground and accelerates the outgassing of mercury from soils.

    The model divides the world into grid squares, each of which is a few hundred square kilometers. By changing land surface and vegetation parameters in certain squares to represent deforestation and reforestation scenarios, the researchers can capture impacts on the mercury cycle.

    Overall, they found that about 200 tons of mercury are emitted to the atmosphere as the result of deforestation, or about 10 percent of total human-made emissions. But in tropical and sub-tropical countries, deforestation emissions represent a higher percentage of total emissions. For example, in Brazil deforestation emissions are 40 percent of total human-made emissions.

    In addition, people often light fires to prepare tropical forested areas for agricultural activities, which causes more emissions by releasing mercury stored by vegetation.

    “If deforestation was a country, it would be the second highest emitting country, after China, which emits around 500 tons of mercury a year,” Feinberg adds.

    And since the Minamata Convention is now addressing primary mercury emissions, scientists can expect deforestation to become a larger fraction of human-made emissions in the future.

    “Policies to protect forests or cut them down have unintended effects beyond their target. It is important to consider the fact that these are systems, and they involve human activities, and we need to understand them better in order to actually solve the problems that we know are out there,” Selin says.

    By providing this first estimate, the team hopes to inspire more research in this area.

    In the future, they want to incorporate more dynamic Earth system models into their analysis, which would enable them to interactively track mercury uptake and better model the timescale of vegetation regrowth.

    “This paper represents an important advance in our understanding of global mercury cycling by quantifying a pathway that has long been suggested but not yet quantified. Much of our research to date has focused on primary anthropogenic emissions — those directly resulting from human activity via coal combustion or mercury-gold amalgam burning in artisanal and small-scale gold mining,” says Jackie Gerson, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Michigan State University, who was not involved with this research. “This research shows that deforestation can also result in substantial mercury emissions and needs to be considered both in terms of global mercury models and land management policies. It therefore has the potential to advance our field scientifically as well as to promote policies that reduce mercury emissions via deforestation.

    This work was funded, in part, by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Swiss National Science Foundation, and Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. More

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    Susan Solomon wins VinFuture Award for Female Innovators

    Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies Susan Solomon has been awarded the 2023 VinFuture Award for Female Innovators. Solomon was picked out of almost 1,400 international nominations across four categories for “The discovery of the ozone depletion mechanism in Antarctica, contributing to the establishment of the Montreal Protocol.” The award, which comes with a $500,000 prize, highlights outstanding female researchers and innovators that can serve as role models for aspiring scientists.

    “I’m tremendously humbled by that, and I’ll do my best to live up to it,” says Solomon, who attended the ceremony in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Dec. 20.

    The VinFuture Awards are given annually to “honor scientific research and breakthrough technological innovations that can make a significant difference” according to their site. In addition to Female Innovators, the award has two other special categories, Innovators from Developing Countries and Innovators with Outstanding Achievements in Emerging Fields, as well as their overall grand prize. The awards have been given out by the Vietnam-based VinFuture Foundation since 2021.

    “Countries all around the world are part of scientific progress and innovation, and that a developing country is honoring that is really very lovely,” says Solomon, whose career as an atmospheric chemist has brought her onto the international stage and has shown her firsthand how important developing countries are in crafting global policy.

    In 1986 Solomon led an expedition of 16 scientists to Antarctica to measure the degradation of the ozone layer; she was the only woman on the team. She and her collaborators were able to figure out the atmospheric chemistry of chlorofluorocarbons and other similar chemicals that are now known as ozone-depleting substances. This work became foundational to the creation of the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement that banned damaging chemicals and has allowed the ozone to recover.

    Solomon joined the MIT faculty in 2012 and holds joint appointments in the departments of Chemistry and Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. The success of the Montreal Protocol demonstrates the ability for international cooperation to enact effective environmental agreements; Solomon sees it as a blueprint for crafting further policy when it comes to addressing global climate change.

    “Women can do anything, even help save the ozone layer and solve other environmental problems,” she says. “Today’s problem of climate change is for all of us to be involved in solving.” More

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    New tool predicts flood risk from hurricanes in a warming climate

    Coastal cities and communities will face more frequent major hurricanes with climate change in the coming years. To help prepare coastal cities against future storms, MIT scientists have developed a method to predict how much flooding a coastal community is likely to experience as hurricanes evolve over the next decades.

    When hurricanes make landfall, strong winds whip up salty ocean waters that generate storm surge in coastal regions. As the storms move over land, torrential rainfall can induce further flooding inland. When multiple flood sources such as storm surge and rainfall interact, they can compound a hurricane’s hazards, leading to significantly more flooding than would result from any one source alone. The new study introduces a physics-based method for predicting how the risk of such complex, compound flooding may evolve under a warming climate in coastal cities.

    One example of compound flooding’s impact is the aftermath from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The storm made landfall on the East Coast of the United States as heavy winds whipped up a towering storm surge that combined with rainfall-driven flooding in some areas to cause historic and devastating floods across New York and New Jersey.

    In their study, the MIT team applied the new compound flood-modeling method to New York City to predict how climate change may influence the risk of compound flooding from Sandy-like hurricanes over the next decades.  

    They found that, in today’s climate, a Sandy-level compound flooding event will likely hit New York City every 150 years. By midcentury, a warmer climate will drive up the frequency of such flooding, to every 60 years. At the end of the century, destructive Sandy-like floods will deluge the city every 30 years — a fivefold increase compared to the present climate.

    “Long-term average damages from weather hazards are usually dominated by the rare, intense events like Hurricane Sandy,” says study co-author Kerry Emanuel, professor emeritus of atmospheric science at MIT. “It is important to get these right.”

    While these are sobering projections, the researchers hope the flood forecasts can help city planners prepare and protect against future disasters. “Our methodology equips coastal city authorities and policymakers with essential tools to conduct compound flooding risk assessments from hurricanes in coastal cities at a detailed, granular level, extending to each street or building, in both current and future decades,” says study author Ali Sarhadi, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

    The team’s open-access study appears online today in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. Co-authors include Raphaël Rousseau-Rizzi at MIT’s Lorenz Center, Kyle Mandli at Columbia University, Jeffrey Neal at the University of Bristol, Michael Wiper at the Charles III University of Madrid, and Monika Feldmann at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne.

    The seeds of floods

    To forecast a region’s flood risk, weather modelers typically look to the past. Historical records contain measurements of previous hurricanes’ wind speeds, rainfall, and spatial extent, which scientists use to predict where and how much flooding may occur with coming storms. But Sarhadi believes that the limitations and brevity of these historical records are insufficient for predicting future hurricanes’ risks.

    “Even if we had lengthy historical records, they wouldn’t be a good guide for future risks because of climate change,” he says. “Climate change is changing the structural characteristics, frequency, intensity, and movement of hurricanes, and we cannot rely on the past.”

    Sarhadi and his colleagues instead looked to predict a region’s risk of hurricane flooding in a changing climate using a physics-based risk assessment methodology. They first paired simulations of hurricane activity with coupled ocean and atmospheric models over time. With the hurricane simulations, developed originally by Emanuel, the researchers virtually scatter tens of thousands of “seeds” of hurricanes into a simulated climate. Most seeds dissipate, while a few grow into category-level storms, depending on the conditions of the ocean and atmosphere.

    When the team drives these hurricane simulations with climate models of ocean and atmospheric conditions under certain global temperature projections, they can see how hurricanes change, for instance in terms of intensity, frequency, and size, under past, current, and future climate conditions.

    The team then sought to precisely predict the level and degree of compound flooding from future hurricanes in coastal cities. The researchers first used rainfall models to simulate rain intensity for a large number of simulated hurricanes, then applied numerical models to hydraulically translate that rainfall intensity into flooding on the ground during landfalling of hurricanes, given information about a region such as its surface and topography characteristics. They also simulated the same hurricanes’ storm surges, using hydrodynamic models to translate hurricanes’ maximum wind speed and sea level pressure into surge height in coastal areas. The simulation further assessed the propagation of ocean waters into coastal areas, causing coastal flooding.

    Then, the team developed a numerical hydrodynamic model to predict how two sources of hurricane-induced flooding, such as storm surge and rain-driven flooding, would simultaneously interact through time and space, as simulated hurricanes make landfall in coastal regions such as New York City, in both current and future climates.  

    “There’s a complex, nonlinear hydrodynamic interaction between saltwater surge-driven flooding and freshwater rainfall-driven flooding, that forms compound flooding that a lot of existing methods ignore,” Sarhadi says. “As a result, they underestimate the risk of compound flooding.”

    Amplified risk

    With their flood-forecasting method in place, the team applied it to a specific test case: New York City. They used the multipronged method to predict the city’s risk of compound flooding from hurricanes, and more specifically from Sandy-like hurricanes, in present and future climates. Their simulations showed that the city’s odds of experiencing Sandy-like flooding will increase significantly over the next decades as the climate warms, from once every 150 years in the current climate, to every 60 years by 2050, and every 30 years by 2099.

    Interestingly, they found that much of this increase in risk has less to do with how hurricanes themselves will change with warming climates, but with how sea levels will increase around the world.

    “In future decades, we will experience sea level rise in coastal areas, and we also incorporated that effect into our models to see how much that would increase the risk of compound flooding,” Sarhadi explains. “And in fact, we see sea level rise is playing a major role in amplifying the risk of compound flooding from hurricanes in New York City.”

    The team’s methodology can be applied to any coastal city to assess the risk of compound flooding from hurricanes and extratropical storms. With this approach, Sarhadi hopes decision-makers can make informed decisions regarding the implementation of adaptive measures, such as reinforcing coastal defenses to enhance infrastructure and community resilience.

    “Another aspect highlighting the urgency of our research is the projected 25 percent increase in coastal populations by midcentury, leading to heightened exposure to damaging storms,” Sarhadi says. “Additionally, we have trillions of dollars in assets situated in coastal flood-prone areas, necessitating proactive strategies to reduce damages from compound flooding from hurricanes under a warming climate.”

    This research was supported, in part, by Homesite Insurance. More

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    Co-creating climate futures with real-time data and spatial storytelling

    Virtual story worlds and game engines aren’t just for video games anymore. They are now tools for scientists and storytellers to digitally twin existing physical spaces and then turn them into vessels to dream up speculative climate stories and build collective designs of the future. That’s the theory and practice behind the MIT WORLDING initiative.

    Twice this year, WORLDING matched world-class climate story teams working in XR (extended reality) with relevant labs and researchers across MIT. One global group returned for a virtual gathering online in partnership with Unity for Humanity, while another met for one weekend in person, hosted at the MIT Media Lab.

    “We are witnessing the birth of an emergent field that fuses climate science, urban planning, real-time 3D engines, nonfiction storytelling, and speculative fiction, and it is all fueled by the urgency of the climate crises,” says Katerina Cizek, lead designer of the WORLDING initiative at the Co-Creation Studio of MIT Open Documentary Lab. “Interdisciplinary teams are forming and blossoming around the planet to collectively imagine and tell stories of healthy, livable worlds in virtual 3D spaces and then finding direct ways to translate that back to earth, literally.”

    At this year’s virtual version of WORLDING, five multidisciplinary teams were selected from an open call. In a week-long series of research and development gatherings, the teams met with MIT scientists, staff, fellows, students, and graduates, as well as other leading figures in the field. Guests ranged from curators at film festivals such as Sundance and Venice, climate policy specialists, and award-winning media creators to software engineers and renowned Earth and atmosphere scientists. The teams heard from MIT scholars in diverse domains, including geomorphology, urban planning as acts of democracy, and climate researchers at MIT Media Lab.

    Mapping climate data

    “We are measuring the Earth’s environment in increasingly data-driven ways. Hundreds of terabytes of data are taken every day about our planet in order to study the Earth as a holistic system, so we can address key questions about global climate change,” explains Rachel Connolly, an MIT Media Lab research scientist focused in the “Future Worlds” research theme, in a talk to the group. “Why is this important for your work and storytelling in general? Having the capacity to understand and leverage this data is critical for those who wish to design for and successfully operate in the dynamic Earth environment.”

    Making sense of billions of data points was a key theme during this year’s sessions. In another talk, Taylor Perron, an MIT professor of Earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, shared how his team uses computational modeling combined with many other scientific processes to better understand how geology, climate, and life intertwine to shape the surfaces of Earth and other planets. His work resonated with one WORLDING team in particular, one aiming to digitally reconstruct the pre-Hispanic Lake Texcoco — where current day Mexico City is now situated — as a way to contrast and examine the region’s current water crisis.

    Democratizing the future

    While WORLDING approaches rely on rigorous science and the interrogation of large datasets, they are also founded on democratizing community-led approaches.

    MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning graduate Lafayette Cruise MCP ’19 met with the teams to discuss how he moved his own practice as a trained urban planner to include a futurist component involving participatory methods. “I felt we were asking the same limited questions in regards to the future we were wanting to produce. We’re very limited, very constrained, as to whose values and comforts are being centered. There are so many possibilities for how the future could be.”

    Scaling to reach billions

    This work scales from the very local to massive global populations. Climate policymakers are concerned with reaching billions of people in the line of fire. “We have a goal to reach 1 billion people with climate resilience solutions,” says Nidhi Upadhyaya, deputy director at Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. To get that reach, Upadhyaya is turning to games. “There are 3.3 billion-plus people playing video games across the world. Half of these players are women. This industry is worth $300 billion. Africa is currently among the fastest-growing gaming markets in the world, and 55 percent of the global players are in the Asia Pacific region.” She reminded the group that this conversation is about policy and how formats of mass communication can be used for policymaking, bringing about change, changing behavior, and creating empathy within audiences.

    Socially engaged game development is also connected to education at Unity Technologies, a game engine company. “We brought together our education and social impact work because we really see it as a critical flywheel for our business,” said Jessica Lindl, vice president and global head of social impact/education at Unity Technologies, in the opening talk of WORLDING. “We upscale about 900,000 students, in university and high school programs around the world, and about 800,000 adults who are actively learning and reskilling and upskilling in Unity. Ultimately resulting in our mission of the ‘world is a better place with more creators in it,’ millions of creators who reach billions of consumers — telling the world stories, and fostering a more inclusive, sustainable, and equitable world.”

    Access to these technologies is key, especially the hardware. “Accessibility has been missing in XR,” explains Reginé Gilbert, who studies and teaches accessibility and disability in user experience design at New York University. “XR is being used in artificial intelligence, assistive technology, business, retail, communications, education, empathy, entertainment, recreation, events, gaming, health, rehabilitation meetings, navigation, therapy, training, video programming, virtual assistance wayfinding, and so many other uses. This is a fun fact for folks: 97.8 percent of the world hasn’t tried VR [virtual reality] yet, actually.”

    Meanwhile, new hardware is on its way. The WORLDING group got early insights into the highly anticipated Apple Vision Pro headset, which promises to integrate many forms of XR and personal computing in one device. “They’re really pushing this kind of pass-through or mixed reality,” said Dan Miller, a Unity engineer on the poly spatial team, collaborating with Apple, who described the experience of the device as “You are viewing the real world. You’re pulling up windows, you’re interacting with content. It’s a kind of spatial computing device where you have multiple apps open, whether it’s your email client next to your messaging client with a 3D game in the middle. You’re interacting with all these things in the same space and at different times.”

    “WORLDING combines our passion for social-impact storytelling and incredible innovative storytelling,” said Paisley Smith of the Unity for Humanity Program at Unity Technologies. She added, “This is an opportunity for creators to incubate their game-changing projects and connect with experts across climate, story, and technology.”

    Meeting at MIT

    In a new in-person iteration of WORLDING this year, organizers collaborated closely with Connolly at the MIT Media Lab to co-design an in-person weekend conference Oct. 25 – Nov. 7 with 45 scholars and professionals who visualize climate data at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, planetariums, and museums across the United States.

    A participant said of the event, “An incredible workshop that had had a profound effect on my understanding of climate data storytelling and how to combine different components together for a more [holistic] solution.”

    “With this gathering under our new Future Worlds banner,” says Dava Newman, director of the MIT Media Lab and Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics chair, “the Media Lab seeks to affect human behavior and help societies everywhere to improve life here on Earth and in worlds beyond, so that all — the sentient, natural, and cosmic — worlds may flourish.” 

    “WORLDING’s virtual-only component has been our biggest strength because it has enabled a true, international cohort to gather, build, and create together. But this year, an in-person version showed broader opportunities that spatial interactivity generates — informal Q&As, physical worksheets, and larger-scale ideation, all leading to deeper trust-building,” says WORLDING producer Srushti Kamat SM ’23.

    The future and potential of WORLDING lies in the ongoing dialogue between the virtual and physical, both in the work itself and in the format of the workshops. More

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    The science and art of complex systems

    As a high school student, Gosha Geogdzhayev attended Saturday science classes at Columbia University, including one called The Physics of Climate Change. “They showed us a satellite image of the Earth’s atmosphere, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is so beautiful,’” he recalls. Since then, climate science has been one of his driving interests.

    With the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and the BC3 Climate Grand Challenges project, Geogdzhayev is creating climate model “emulators” in order to localize the large-scale data provided by global climate models (GCMs). As he explains, GCMs can make broad predictions about climate change, but they are not proficient at analyzing impacts in localized areas. However, simpler “emulator” models can learn from GCMs and other data sources to answer specialized questions. The model Geogdzhayev is currently working on will project the frequency of extreme heat events in Nigeria.

    A senior majoring in physics, Geogdzhayev hopes that his current and future research will help reshape the scientific approach to studying climate trends. More accurate predictions of climate conditions could have benefits far beyond scientific analysis, and affect the decisions of policymakers, businesspeople, and truly anyone concerned about climate change.

    “I have this fascination with complex systems, and reducing that complexity and picking it apart,” Geogdzhayev says.

    His pursuit of discovery has led him from Berlin, Germany, to Princeton, New Jersey, with stops in between. He has worked with Transsolar KlimaEngineering, NASA, NOAA, FU Berlin, and MIT, including through the MIT Climate Stability Consortium’s Climate Scholars Program, in research positions that explore climate science in different ways. His projects have involved applications such as severe weather alerts, predictions of late seasonal freezes, and eco-friendly building design. 

    The written word

    Originating even earlier than his passion for climate science is Geogdzhayev’s love of writing. He recently discovered original poetry dating back all the way to middle school. In this poetry he found a coincidental throughline to his current life: “There was one poem about climate, actually. It was so bad,” he says, laughing. “But it was cool to see.”

    As a scientist, Geogdzhayev finds that poetry helps quiet his often busy mind. Writing provides a vehicle to understand himself, and therefore to communicate more effectively with others, which he sees as necessary for success in his field.

    “A lot of good work comes from being able to communicate with other people. And poetry is a way for me to flex those muscles. If I can communicate with myself, and if I can communicate myself to others, that is transferable to science,” he says.

    Since last spring Geogdzhayev has attended poetry workshop classes at Harvard University, which he enjoys partly because it nudges him to explore spaces outside of MIT.

    He has contributed prolifically to platforms on campus as well. Since his first year, he has written as a staff blogger for MIT Admissions, creating posts about his life at MIT for prospective students. He has also written for the yearly fashion publication “Infinite Magazine.”

    Merging both science and writing, a peer-reviewed publication by Geogdzhayev will soon be published in the journal “Physica D: Nonlinear Phenomena.” The piece explores the validity of climate statistics under climate change through an abstract mathematical system.

    Leading with heart

    Geogdzhayev enjoys being a collaborator, but also excels in leadership positions. When he first arrived at MIT, his dorm, Burton Conner, was closed for renovation, and he could not access that living community directly. Once his sophomore year arrived however, he was quick to volunteer to streamline the process to get new students involved, and eventually became floor chair for his living community, Burton 1.

    Following the social stagnation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the dorm renovation, he helped rebuild a sense of community for his dorm by planning social events and governmental organization for the floor. He now regards the members of Burton 1 as his closest friends and partners in “general tomfoolery.”

    This sense of leadership is coupled with an affinity for teaching. Geogdzhayev is a peer mentor in the Physics Mentorship Program and taught climate modeling classes to local high school students as a part of SPLASH. He describes these experiences as “very fun” and can imagine himself as a university professor dedicated to both teaching and research.

    Following graduation, Geogdzhayev intends to pursue a PhD in climate science or applied math. “I can see myself working on research for the rest of my life,” he says. More

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    Accelerated climate action needed to sharply reduce current risks to life and life-support systems

    Hottest day on record. Hottest month on record. Extreme marine heatwaves. Record-low Antarctic sea-ice.

    While El Niño is a short-term factor in this year’s record-breaking heat, human-caused climate change is the long-term driver. And as global warming edges closer to 1.5 degrees Celsius — the aspirational upper limit set in the Paris Agreement in 2015 — ushering in more intense and frequent heatwaves, floods, wildfires, and other climate extremes much sooner than many expected, current greenhouse gas emissions-reduction policies are far too weak to keep the planet from exceeding that threshold. In fact, on roughly one-third of days in 2023, the average global temperature was at least 1.5 C higher than pre-industrial levels. Faster and bolder action will be needed — from the in-progress United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) and beyond — to stabilize the climate and minimize risks to human (and nonhuman) lives and the life-support systems (e.g., food, water, shelter, and more) upon which they depend.

    Quantifying the risks posed by simply maintaining existing climate policies — and the benefits (i.e., avoided damages and costs) of accelerated climate action aligned with the 1.5 C goal — is the central task of the 2023 Global Change Outlook, recently released by the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

    Based on a rigorous, integrated analysis of population and economic growth, technological change, Paris Agreement emissions-reduction pledges (Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs), geopolitical tensions, and other factors, the report presents the MIT Joint Program’s latest projections for the future of the earth’s energy, food, water, and climate systems, as well as prospects for achieving the Paris Agreement’s short- and long-term climate goals.

    The 2023 Global Change Outlook performs its risk-benefit analysis by focusing on two scenarios. The first, Current Trends, assumes that Paris Agreement NDCs are implemented through the year 2030, and maintained thereafter. While this scenario represents an unprecedented global commitment to limit greenhouse gas emissions, it neither stabilizes climate nor limits climate change. The second scenario, Accelerated Actions, extends from the Paris Agreement’s initial NDCs and aligns with its long-term goals. This scenario aims to limit and stabilize human-induced global climate warming to 1.5 C by the end of this century with at least a 50 percent probability. Uncertainty is quantified using 400-member ensembles of projections for each scenario.

    This year’s report also includes a visualization tool that enables a higher-resolution exploration of both scenarios.

    Energy

    Between 2020 and 2050, population and economic growth are projected to drive continued increases in energy needs and electrification. Successful achievement of current Paris Agreement pledges will reinforce a shift away from fossil fuels, but additional actions will be required to accelerate the energy transition needed to cap global warming at 1.5 C by 2100.

    During this 30-year period under the Current Trends scenario, the share of fossil fuels in the global energy mix drops from 80 percent to 70 percent. Variable renewable energy (wind and solar) is the fastest growing energy source with more than an 8.6-fold increase. In the Accelerated Actions scenario, the share of low-carbon energy sources grows from 20 percent to slightly more than 60 percent, a much faster growth rate than in the Current Trends scenario; wind and solar energy undergo more than a 13.3-fold increase.

    While the electric power sector is expected to successfully scale up (with electricity production increasing by 73 percent under Current Trends, and 87 percent under Accelerated Actions) to accommodate increased demand (particularly for variable renewables), other sectors face stiffer challenges in their efforts to decarbonize.

    “Due to a sizeable need for hydrocarbons in the form of liquid and gaseous fuels for sectors such as heavy-duty long-distance transport, high-temperature industrial heat, agriculture, and chemical production, hydrogen-based fuels and renewable natural gas remain attractive options, but the challenges related to their scaling opportunities and costs must be resolved,” says MIT Joint Program Deputy Director Sergey Paltsev, a lead author of the 2023 Global Change Outlook.

    Water, food, and land

    With a global population projected to reach 9.9 billion by 2050, the Current Trends scenario indicates that more than half of the world’s population will experience pressures to its water supply, and that three of every 10 people will live in water basins where compounding societal and environmental pressures on water resources will be experienced. Population projections under combined water stress in all scenarios reveal that the Accelerated Actions scenario can reduce approximately 40 million of the additional 570 million people living in water-stressed basins at mid-century.

    Under the Current Trends scenario, agriculture and food production will keep growing. This will increase pressure for land-use change, water use, and use of energy-intensive inputs, which will also lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions. Under the Accelerated Actions scenario, less agricultural and food output is observed by 2050 compared to the Current Trends scenario, since this scenario affects economic growth and increases production costs. Livestock production is more greenhouse gas emissions-intensive than crop and food production, which, under carbon-pricing policies, drives demand downward and increases costs and prices. Such impacts are transmitted to the food sector and imply lower consumption of livestock-based products.

    Land-use changes in the Accelerated Actions scenario are similar to those in the Current Trends scenario by 2050, except for land dedicated to bioenergy production. At the world level, the Accelerated Actions scenario requires cropland area to increase by 1 percent and pastureland to decrease by 4.2 percent, but land use for bioenergy must increase by 44 percent.

    Climate trends

    Under the Current Trends scenario, the world is likely (more than 50 percent probability) to exceed 2 C global climate warming by 2060, 2.8 C by 2100, and 3.8 C by 2150. Our latest climate-model information indicates that maximum temperatures will likely outpace mean temperature trends over much of North and South America, Europe, northern and southeast Asia, and southern parts of Africa and Australasia. So as human-forced climate warming intensifies, these regions are expected to experience more pronounced record-breaking extreme heat events.

    Under the Accelerated Actions scenario, global temperature will continue to rise through the next two decades. But by 2050, global temperature will stabilize, and then slightly decline through the latter half of the century.

    “By 2100, the Accelerated Actions scenario indicates that the world can be virtually assured of remaining below 2 C of global warming,” says MIT Joint Program Deputy Director C. Adam Schlosser, a lead author of the report. “Nevertheless, additional policy mechanisms must be designed with more comprehensive targets that also support a cleaner environment, sustainable resources, as well as improved and equitable human health.”

    The Accelerated Actions scenario not only stabilizes global precipitation increase (by 2060), but substantially reduces the magnitude and potential range of increases to almost one-third of Current Trends global precipitation changes. Any global increase in precipitation heightens flood risk worldwide, so policies aligned with the Accelerated Actions scenario would considerably reduce that risk.

    Prospects for meeting Paris Agreement climate goals

    Numerous countries and regions are progressing in fulfilling their Paris Agreement pledges. Many have declared more ambitious greenhouse gas emissions-mitigation goals, while financing to assist the least-developed countries in sustainable development is not forthcoming at the levels needed. In this year’s Global Stocktake Synthesis Report, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change evaluated emissions reductions communicated by the parties of the Paris Agreement and concluded that global emissions are not on track to fulfill the most ambitious long-term global temperature goals of the Paris Agreement (to keep warming well below 2 C — and, ideally, 1.5 C — above pre-industrial levels), and there is a rapidly narrowing window to raise ambition and implement existing commitments in order to achieve those targets. The Current Trends scenario arrives at the same conclusion.

    The 2023 Global Change Outlook finds that both global temperature targets remain achievable, but require much deeper near-term emissions reductions than those embodied in current NDCs.

    Reducing climate risk

    This report explores two well-known sets of risks posed by climate change. Research highlighted indicates that elevated climate-related physical risks will continue to evolve by mid-century, along with heightened transition risks that arise from shifts in the political, technological, social, and economic landscapes that are likely to occur during the transition to a low-carbon economy.

    “Our Outlook shows that without aggressive actions the world will surpass critical greenhouse gas concentration thresholds and climate targets in the coming decades,” says MIT Joint Program Director Ronald Prinn. “While the costs of inaction are getting higher, the costs of action are more manageable.” More