More stories

  • in

    Setting carbon management in stone

    Keeping global temperatures within limits deemed safe by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change means doing more than slashing carbon emissions. It means reversing them.

    “If we want to be anywhere near those limits [of 1.5 or 2 C], then we have to be carbon neutral by 2050, and then carbon negative after that,” says Matěj Peč, a geoscientist and the Victor P. Starr Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS).

    Going negative will require finding ways to radically increase the world’s capacity to capture carbon from the atmosphere and put it somewhere where it will not leak back out. Carbon capture and storage projects already suck in tens of million metric tons of carbon each year. But putting a dent in emissions will mean capturing many billions of metric tons more. Today, people emit around 40 billion tons of carbon each year globally, mainly by burning fossil fuels.

    Because of the need for new ideas when it comes to carbon storage, Peč has created a proposal for the MIT Climate Grand Challenges competition — a bold and sweeping effort by the Institute to support paradigm-shifting research and innovation to address the climate crisis. Called the Advanced Carbon Mineralization Initiative, his team’s proposal aims to bring geologists, chemists, and biologists together to make permanently storing carbon underground workable under different geological conditions. That means finding ways to speed-up the process by which carbon pumped underground is turned into rock, or mineralized.

    “That’s what the geology has to offer,” says Peč, who is a lead on the project, along with Ed Boyden, professor of biological engineering, brain and cognitive sciences, and media arts and sciences, and Yogesh Surendranath, professor of chemistry. “You look for the places where you can safely and permanently store these huge volumes of CO2.”

    Peč‘s proposal is one of 27 finalists selected from a pool of almost 100 Climate Grand Challenge proposals submitted by collaborators from across the Institute. Each finalist team received $100,000 to further develop their research proposals. A subset of finalists will be announced in April, making up a portfolio of multiyear “flagship” projects receiving additional funding and support.

    Building industries capable of going carbon negative presents huge technological, economic, environmental, and political challenges. For one, it’s expensive and energy-intensive to capture carbon from the air with existing technologies, which are “hellishly complicated,” says Peč. Much of the carbon capture underway today focuses on more concentrated sources like coal- or gas-burning power plants.

    It’s also difficult to find geologically suitable sites for storage. To keep it in the ground after it has been captured, carbon must either be trapped in airtight reservoirs or turned to stone.

    One of the best places for carbon capture and storage (CCS) is Iceland, where a number of CCS projects are up and running. The island’s volcanic geology helps speed up the mineralization process, as carbon pumped underground interacts with basalt rock at high temperatures. In that ideal setting, says Peč, 95 percent of carbon injected underground is mineralized after just two years — a geological flash.

    But Iceland’s geology is unusual. Elsewhere requires deeper drilling to reach suitable rocks at suitable temperature, which adds costs to already expensive projects. Further, says Peč, there’s not a complete understanding of how different factors influence the speed of mineralization.

    Peč‘s Climate Grand Challenge proposal would study how carbon mineralizes under different conditions, as well as explore ways to make mineralization happen more rapidly by mixing the carbon dioxide with different fluids before injecting it underground. Another idea — and the reason why there are biologists on the team — is to learn from various organisms adept at turning carbon into calcite shells, the same stuff that makes up limestone.

    Two other carbon management proposals, led by EAPS Cecil and Ida Green Professor Bradford Hager, were also selected as Climate Grand Challenge finalists. They focus on both the technologies necessary for capturing and storing gigatons of carbon as well as the logistical challenges involved in such an enormous undertaking.

    That involves everything from choosing suitable sites for storage, to regulatory and environmental issues, as well as how to bring disparate technologies together to improve the whole pipeline. The proposals emphasize CCS systems that can be powered by renewable sources, and can respond dynamically to the needs of different hard-to-decarbonize industries, like concrete and steel production.

    “We need to have an industry that is on the scale of the current oil industry that will not be doing anything but pumping CO2 into storage reservoirs,” says Peč.

    For a problem that involves capturing enormous amounts of gases from the atmosphere and storing it underground, it’s no surprise EAPS researchers are so involved. The Earth sciences have “everything” to offer, says Peč, including the good news that the Earth has more than enough places where carbon might be stored.

    “Basically, the Earth is really, really large,” says Peč. “The reasonably accessible places, which are close to the continents, store somewhere on the order of tens of thousands to hundreds thousands of gigatons of carbon. That’s orders of magnitude more than we need to put back in.” More

  • in

    Microbes and minerals may have set off Earth’s oxygenation

    For the first 2 billion years of Earth’s history, there was barely any oxygen in the air. While some microbes were photosynthesizing by the latter part of this period, oxygen had not yet accumulated at levels that would impact the global biosphere.

    But somewhere around 2.3 billion years ago, this stable, low-oxygen equilibrium shifted, and oxygen began building up in the atmosphere, eventually reaching the life-sustaining levels we breathe today. This rapid infusion is known as the Great Oxygenation Event, or GOE. What triggered the event and pulled the planet out of its low-oxygen funk is one of the great mysteries of science.

    A new hypothesis, proposed by MIT scientists, suggests that oxygen finally started accumulating in the atmosphere thanks to interactions between certain marine microbes and minerals in ocean sediments. These interactions helped prevent oxygen from being consumed, setting off a self-amplifying process where more and more oxygen was made available to accumulate in the atmosphere.

    The scientists have laid out their hypothesis using mathematical and evolutionary analyses, showing that there were indeed microbes that existed before the GOE and evolved the ability to interact with sediment in the way that the researchers have proposed.

    Their study, appearing today in Nature Communications, is the first to connect the co-evolution of microbes and minerals to Earth’s oxygenation.

    “Probably the most important biogeochemical change in the history of the planet was oxygenation of the atmosphere,” says study author Daniel Rothman, professor of geophysics in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). “We show how the interactions of microbes, minerals, and the geochemical environment acted in concert to increase oxygen in the atmosphere.”

    The study’s co-authors include lead author Haitao Shang, a former MIT graduate student, and Gregory Fournier, associate professor of geobiology in EAPS.

    A step up

    Today’s oxygen levels in the atmosphere are a stable balance between processes that produce oxygen and those that consume it. Prior to the GOE, the atmosphere maintained a different kind of equilibrium, with producers and consumers of oxygen  in balance, but in a way that didn’t leave much extra oxygen for the atmosphere.

    What could have pushed the planet out of one stable, oxygen-deficient state to another stable, oxygen-rich state?

    “If you look at Earth’s history, it appears there were two jumps, where you went from a steady state of low oxygen to a steady state of much higher oxygen, once in the Paleoproterozoic, once in the Neoproterozoic,” Fournier notes. “These jumps couldn’t have been because of a gradual increase in excess oxygen. There had to have been some feedback loop that caused this step-change in stability.”

    He and his colleagues wondered whether such a positive feedback loop could have come from a process in the ocean that made some organic carbon unavailable to its consumers. Organic carbon is mainly consumed through oxidation, usually accompanied by the consumption of oxygen — a process by which microbes in the ocean use oxygen to break down organic matter, such as detritus that has settled in sediment. The team wondered: Could there have been some process by which the presence of oxygen stimulated its further accumulation?

    Shang and Rothman worked out a mathematical model that made the following prediction: If microbes possessed the ability to only partially oxidize organic matter, the partially-oxidized matter, or “POOM,” would effectively become “sticky,” and chemically bind to minerals in sediment in a way that would protect the material from further oxidation. The oxygen that would otherwise have been consumed to fully degrade the material would instead be free to build up in the atmosphere. This process, they found, could serve as a positive feedback, providing a natural pump to push the atmosphere into a new, high-oxygen equilibrium.

    “That led us to ask, is there a microbial metabolism out there that produced POOM?” Fourier says.

    In the genes

    To answer this, the team searched through the scientific literature and identified a group of microbes that partially oxidizes organic matter in the deep ocean today. These microbes belong to the bacterial group SAR202, and their partial oxidation is carried out through an enzyme, Baeyer-Villiger monooxygenase, or BVMO.

    The team carried out a phylogenetic analysis to see how far back the microbe, and the gene for the enzyme, could be traced. They found that the bacteria did indeed have ancestors dating back before the GOE, and that the gene for the enzyme could be traced across various microbial species, as far back as pre-GOE times.

    What’s more, they found that the gene’s diversification, or the number of species that acquired the gene, increased significantly during times when the atmosphere experienced spikes in oxygenation, including once during the GOE’s Paleoproterozoic, and again in the Neoproterozoic.

    “We found some temporal correlations between diversification of POOM-producing genes, and the oxygen levels in the atmosphere,” Shang says. “That supports our overall theory.”

    To confirm this hypothesis will require far more follow-up, from experiments in the lab to surveys in the field, and everything in between. With their new study, the team has introduced a new suspect in the age-old case of what oxygenated Earth’s atmosphere.

    “Proposing a novel method, and showing evidence for its plausibility, is the first but important step,” Fournier says. “We’ve identified this as a theory worthy of study.”

    This work was supported in part by the mTerra Catalyst Fund and the National Science Foundation. More

  • in

    Nanograins make for a seismic shift

    In Earth’s crust, tectonic blocks slide and grind past each other like enormous ships loosed from anchor. Earthquakes are generated along these fault zones when enough stress builds for a block to stick, then suddenly slip.

    These slips can be aided by several factors that reduce friction within a fault zone, such as hotter temperatures or pressurized gases that can separate blocks like pucks on an air-hockey table. The decreasing friction enables one tectonic block to accelerate against the other until it runs out of energy. Seismologists have long believed this kind of frictional instability can explain how all crustal earthquakes start. But that might not be the whole story.

    In a study published today in Nature Communications, scientists Hongyu Sun and Matej Pec, from MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), find that ultra-fine-grained crystals within fault zones can behave like low-viscosity fluids. The finding offers an alternative explanation for the instability that leads to crustal earthquakes. It also suggests a link between quakes in the crust and other types of temblors that occur deep in the Earth.

    Nanograins are commonly found in rocks from seismic environments along the smooth surface of “fault mirrors.” These polished, reflective rock faces betray the slipping, sliding forces of past earthquakes. However, it was unclear whether the crystals caused quakes or were merely formed by them.

    To better characterize how these crystals behaved within a fault, the researchers used a planetary ball milling machine to pulverize granite rocks into particles resembling those found in nature. Like a super-powered washing machine filled with ceramic balls, the machine pounded the rock until all its crystals were about 100 nanometers in width, each grain 1/2,000 the size of an average grain of sand.

    After packing the nanopowder into postage-stamp sized cylinders jacketed in gold, the researchers then subjected the material to stresses and heat, creating laboratory miniatures of real fault zones. This process enabled them to isolate the effect of the crystals from the complexity of other factors involved in an actual earthquake.

    The researchers report that the crystals were extremely weak when shearing was initiated — an order of magnitude weaker than more common microcrystals. But the nanocrystals became significantly stronger when the deformation rate was accelerated. Pec, professor of geophysics and the Victor P. Starr Career Development Chair, compares this characteristic, called “rate-strengthening,” to stirring honey in a jar. Stirring the honey slowly is easy, but becomes more difficult the faster you stir.

    The experiment suggests something similar happens in fault zones. As tectonic blocks accelerate past each other, the crystals gum things up between them like honey stirred in a seismic pot.

    Sun, the study’s lead author and EAPS graduate student, explains that their finding runs counter to the dominant frictional weakening theory of how earthquakes start. That theory would predict surfaces of a fault zone have material that gets weaker as the fault block accelerates, and friction should be decreasing. The nanocrystals did just the opposite. However, the crystals’ intrinsic weakness could mean that when enough of them accumulate within a fault, they can give way, causing an earthquake.

    “We don’t totally disagree with the old theorem, but our study really opens new doors to explain the mechanisms of how earthquakes happen in the crust,” Sun says.

    The finding also suggests a previously unrecognized link between earthquakes in the crust and the earthquakes that rumble hundreds of kilometers beneath the surface, where the same tectonic dynamics aren’t at play. That deep, there are no tectonic blocks to grind against each other, and even if there were, the immense pressure would prevent the type of quakes observed in the crust that necessitate some dilatancy and void creation.

    “We know that earthquakes happen all the way down to really big depths where this motion along a frictional fault is basically impossible,” says Pec. “And so clearly, there must be different processes that allow for these earthquakes to happen.”

    Possible mechanisms for these deep-Earth tremors include “phase transitions” which occur due to atomic re-arrangement in minerals and are accompanied by a volume change, and other kinds of metamorphic reactions, such as dehydration of water-bearing minerals, in which the released fluid is pumped through pores and destabilizes a fault. These mechanisms are all characterized by a weak, rate-strengthening layer.

    If weak, rate-strengthening nanocrystals are abundant in the deep Earth, they could present another possible mechanism, says Pec. “Maybe crustal earthquakes are not a completely different beast than the deeper earthquakes. Maybe they have something in common.” More

  • in

    Rover images confirm Jezero crater is an ancient Martian lake

    The first scientific analysis of images taken by NASA’s Perseverance rover has now confirmed that Mars’ Jezero crater — which today is a dry, wind-eroded depression — was once a quiet lake, fed steadily by a small river some 3.7 billion years ago.

    The images also reveal evidence that the crater endured flash floods. This flooding was energetic enough to sweep up large boulders from tens of miles upstream and deposit them into the lakebed, where the massive rocks lie today.

    The new analysis, published today in the journal Science, is based on images of the outcropping rocks inside the crater on its western side. Satellites had previously shown that this outcrop, seen from above, resembled river deltas on Earth, where layers of sediment are deposited in the shape of a fan as the river feeds into a lake.

    Perseverance’s new images, taken from inside the crater, confirm that this outcrop was indeed a river delta. Based on the sedimentary layers in the outcrop, it appears that the river delta fed into a lake that was calm for much of its existence, until a dramatic shift in climate triggered episodic flooding at or toward the end of the lake’s history.

    “If you look at these images, you’re basically staring at this epic desert landscape. It’s the most forlorn place you could ever visit,” says Benjamin Weiss, professor of planetary sciences in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and a member of the analysis team. “There’s not a drop of water anywhere, and yet, here we have evidence of a very different past. Something very profound happened in the planet’s history.”

    As the rover explores the crater, scientists hope to uncover more clues to its climatic evolution. Now that they have confirmed the crater was once a lake environment, they believe its sediments could hold traces of ancient aqueous life. In its mission going forward, Perseverance will look for locations to collect and preserve sediments. These samples will eventually be returned to Earth, where scientists can probe them for Martian biosignatures.

    “We now have the opportunity to look for fossils,” says team member Tanja Bosak, associate professor of geobiology at MIT. “It will take some time to get to the rocks that we really hope to sample for signs of life. So, it’s a marathon, with a lot of potential.”

    Tilted beds

    On Feb. 18, 2021, the Perseverance rover landed on the floor of Jezero crater, a little more than a mile away from its western fan-shaped outcrop. In the first three months, the vehicle remained stationary as NASA engineers performed remote checks of the rover’s many instruments.

    During this time, two of Perseverance’s cameras, Mastcam-Z and the SuperCam Remote Micro-Imager (RMI), captured images of their surroundings, including long-distance photos of the outcrop’s edge and a formation known as Kodiak butte, a smaller outcop that planetary geologists surmise may have once been connected to the main fan-shaped outcrop but has since partially eroded.

    Once the rover downlinked images to Earth, NASA’s Perseverance science team processed and combined the images, and were able to observe distinct beds of sediment along Kodiak butte in surprisingly high resolution. The researchers measured each layer’s thickness, slope, and lateral extent, finding that the sediment must have been deposited by flowing water into a lake, rather than by wind, sheet-like floods, or other geologic processes.

    The rover also captured similar tilted sediment beds along the main outcrop. These images, together with those of Kodiak, confirm that the fan-shaped formation was indeed an ancient delta and that this delta fed into an ancient Martian lake.

    “Without driving anywhere, the rover was able to solve one of the big unknowns, which was that this crater was once a lake,” Weiss says. “Until we actually landed there and confirmed it was a lake, it was always a question.”

    Boulder flow

    When the researchers took a closer look at images of the main outcrop, they noticed large boulders and cobbles embedded in the youngest, topmost layers of the delta. Some boulders measured as wide as 1 meter across, and were estimated to weigh up to several tons. These massive rocks, the team concluded, must have come from outside the crater, and was likely part of bedrock located on the crater rim or else 40 or more miles upstream.

    Judging from their current location and dimensions, the team says the boulders were carried downstream and into the lakebed by a flash-flood that flowed up to 9 meters per second and moved up to 3,000 cubic meters of water per second.

    “You need energetic flood conditions to carry rocks that big and heavy,” Weiss says. “It’s a special thing that may be indicative of a fundamental change in the local hydrology or perhaps the regional climate on Mars.”

    Because the huge rocks lie in the upper layers of the delta, they represent the most recently deposited material. The boulders sit atop layers of older, much finer sediment. This stratification, the researchers say, indicates that for much of its existence, the ancient lake was filled by a gently flowing river. Fine sediments — and possibly organic material — drifted down the river, and settled into a gradual, sloping delta.

    However, the crater later experienced sudden flash floods that deposited large boulders onto the delta. Once the lake dried up, and over billions of years wind eroded the landscape, leaving the crater we see today.

    The cause of this climate turnaround is unknown, although Weiss says the delta’s boulders may hold some answers.

    “The most surprising thing that’s come out of these images is the potential opportunity to catch the time when this crater transitioned from an Earth-like habitable environment, to this desolate landscape wasteland we see now,” he says. “These boulder beds may be records of this transition, and we haven’t seen this in other places on Mars.”

    This research was supported, in part, by NASA. More

  • in

    Zeroing in on the origins of Earth’s “single most important evolutionary innovation”

    Some time in Earth’s early history, the planet took a turn toward habitability when a group of enterprising microbes known as cyanobacteria evolved oxygenic photosynthesis — the ability to turn light and water into energy, releasing oxygen in the process.

    This evolutionary moment made it possible for oxygen to eventually accumulate in the atmosphere and oceans, setting off a domino effect of diversification and shaping the uniquely habitable planet we know today.  

    Now, MIT scientists have a precise estimate for when cyanobacteria, and oxygenic photosynthesis, first originated. Their results appear today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

    They developed a new gene-analyzing technique that shows that all the species of cyanobacteria living today can be traced back to a common ancestor that evolved around 2.9 billion years ago. They also found that the ancestors of cyanobacteria branched off from other bacteria around 3.4 billion years ago, with oxygenic photosynthesis likely evolving during the intervening half-billion years, during the Archean Eon.

    Interestingly, this estimate places the appearance of oxygenic photosynthesis at least 400 million years before the Great Oxidation Event, a period in which the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans first experienced a rise in oxygen. This suggests that cyanobacteria may have evolved the ability to produce oxygen early on, but that it took a while for this oxygen to really take hold in the environment.

    “In evolution, things always start small,” says lead author Greg Fournier, associate professor of geobiology in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “Even though there’s evidence for early oxygenic photosynthesis — which is the single most important and really amazing evolutionary innovation on Earth — it still took hundreds of millions of years for it to take off.”

    Fournier’s MIT co-authors include Kelsey Moore, Luiz Thiberio Rangel, Jack Payette, Lily Momper, and Tanja Bosak.

    Slow fuse, or wildfire?

    Estimates for the origin of oxygenic photosynthesis vary widely, along with the methods to trace its evolution.

    For instance, scientists can use geochemical tools to look for traces of oxidized elements in ancient rocks. These methods have found hints that oxygen was present as early as 3.5 billion years ago — a sign that oxygenic photosynthesis may have been the source, although other sources are also possible.

    Researchers have also used molecular clock dating, which uses the genetic sequences of microbes today to trace back changes in genes through evolutionary history. Based on these sequences, researchers then use models to estimate the rate at which genetic changes occur, to trace when groups of organisms first evolved. But molecular clock dating is limited by the quality of ancient fossils, and the chosen rate model, which can produce different age estimates, depending on the rate that is assumed.

    Fournier says different age estimates can imply conflicting evolutionary narratives. For instance, some analyses suggest oxygenic photosynthesis evolved very early on and progressed “like a slow fuse,” while others indicate it appeared much later and then “took off like wildfire” to trigger the Great Oxidation Event and the accumulation of oxygen in the biosphere.

    “In order for us to understand the history of habitability on Earth, it’s important for us to distinguish between these hypotheses,” he says.

    Horizontal genes

    To precisely date the origin of cyanobacteria and oxygenic photosynthesis, Fournier and his colleagues paired molecular clock dating with horizontal gene transfer — an independent method that doesn’t rely entirely on fossils or rate assumptions.

    Normally, an organism inherits a gene “vertically,” when it is passed down from the organism’s parent. In rare instances, a gene can also jump from one species to another, distantly related species. For instance, one cell may eat another, and in the process incorporate some new genes into its genome.

    When such a horizontal gene transfer history is found, it’s clear that the group of organisms that acquired the gene is evolutionarily younger than the group from which the gene originated. Fournier reasoned that such instances could be used to determine the relative ages between certain bacterial groups. The ages for these groups could then be compared with the ages that various molecular clock models predict. The model that comes closest would likely be the most accurate, and could then be used to precisely estimate the age of other bacterial species — specifically, cyanobacteria.

    Following this reasoning, the team looked for instances of horizontal gene transfer across the genomes of thousands of bacterial species, including cyanobacteria. They also used new cultures of modern cyanobacteria taken by Bosak and Moore, to more precisely use fossil cyanobacteria as calibrations. In the end, they identified 34 clear instances of horizontal gene transfer. They then found that one out of six molecular clock models consistently matched the relative ages identified in the team’s horizontal gene transfer analysis.

    Fournier ran this model to estimate the age of the “crown” group of cyanobacteria, which encompasses all the species living today and known to exhibit oxygenic photosynthesis. They found that, during the Archean eon, the crown group originated around 2.9 billion years ago, while cyanobacteria as a whole branched off from other bacteria around 3.4 billion years ago. This strongly suggests that oxygenic photosynthesis was already happening 500 million years before the Great Oxidation Event (GOE), and that cyanobacteria were producing oxygen for quite a long time before it accumulated in the atmosphere.

    The analysis also revealed that, shortly before the GOE, around 2.4 billion years ago, cyanobacteria experienced a burst of diversification. This implies that a rapid expansion of cyanobacteria may have tipped the Earth into the GOE and launched oxygen into the atmosphere.

    Fournier plans to apply horizontal gene transfer beyond cyanobacteria to pin down the origins of other elusive species.

    “This work shows that molecular clocks incorporating horizontal gene transfers (HGTs) promise to reliably provide the ages of groups across the entire tree of life, even for ancient microbes that have left no fossil record … something that was previously impossible,” Fournier says. 

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

  • in

    Taylor Perron receives 2021 MacArthur Fellowship

    Taylor Perron, professor of geology and associate department head for education in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, has been named a recipient of a 2021 MacArthur Fellowship.

    Often referred to as “genius grants,” the fellowships are awarded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to talented individuals in a variety of fields. Each MacArthur fellow receives a $625,000 stipend, which they are free to use as they see fit. Recipients are notified by the foundation of their selection shortly before the fellowships are publicly announced.

    “After I had absorbed what they were saying, the first thing I thought was, I couldn’t wait to tell my wife, Lisa,” Perron says of receiving the call. “We’ve been a team through all of this and have had a pretty incredible journey, and I was just eager to share that with her.”

    Perron is a geomorphologist who seeks to understand the mechanisms that shape landscapes on Earth and other planets. His work combines mathematical modeling and computer simulations of landscape evolution; analysis of remote-sensing and spacecraft data; and field studies in regions such as the Appalachian Mountains, Hawaii, and the Amazon rainforest to trace how landscapes evolved over time and how they may change in the future.

    “If we can understand how climate and life and geological processes have interacted over a long time to create the landscapes we see now, we can use that information to anticipate where the landscape is headed in the future,” Perron says.

    His group has developed models that describe how river systems generate intricate branching patterns as a result of competing erosional processes, and how climate influences erosion on continents, islands, and reefs.

    Perron has also applied his methods beyond Earth, to retrace the evolution of the surfaces of Mars and Saturn’s moon Titan. His group has used spacecraft images and data to show how features on Titan, which appear to be active river networks, were likely carved out by raining liquid methane. On Mars, his analyses have supported the idea that the Red Planet once harbored an ocean and that the former shoreline of this Martian ocean is now warped as a result of a shift in the planet’s spin axis.

    He is continuing to map out the details of Mars and Titan’s landscape histories, which he hopes will provide clues to their ancient climates and habitability.

    “I think answers to some of the big questions about the solar system are written in planetary landscapes,” Perron says. “For example, why did Mars start off with lakes and rivers, but end up as a frozen desert? And if a world like Titan has weather like ours, but with a methane cycle instead of a water cycle, could an environment like that have supported life? One thing we try to do is figure out how to read the landscape to find the answers to those questions.”

    Perron has expanded his group’s focus to examine how changing landscapes affect biodiversity, for instance in Appalachia and in the Amazon — both freshwater systems that host some of the most diverse populations of life on the planet.

    “If we can figure out how changes in the physical landscape may have generated regions of really high biodiversity, that should help us learn how to conserve it,” Perron says.

    Recently, his group has also begun to investigate the influence of landscape evolution on human history. Perron is collaborating with archaeologists on projects to study the effect of physical landscapes on human migration in the Americas, and how the response of rivers to ice ages may have helped humans develop complex farming societies in the Amazon.

    Looking ahead, he plans to apply the MacArthur grant toward these projects and other “intellectual risks” — ideas that have potential for failure but could be highly rewarding if they succeed. The fellowship will also provide resources for his group to continue collaborating across disciplines and continents.

    “I’ve learned a lot from reaching out to people in other fields — everything from granular mechanics to fish biology,” Perron says. “That has broadened my scientific horizons and helped us do innovative work. Having the fellowship will provide more flexibility to allow us to continue connecting with people from other fields and other parts of the world.”

    Perron holds a BA in earth and planetary sciences and archaeology from Harvard University and a PhD in earth and planetary science from the University of California at Berkeley. He joined MIT as a faculty member in 2009. More

  • in

    A new approach to preventing human-induced earthquakes

    When humans pump large volumes of fluid into the ground, they can set off potentially damaging earthquakes, depending on the underlying geology. This has been the case in certain oil- and gas-producing regions, where wastewater, often mixed with oil, is disposed of by injecting it back into the ground — a process that has triggered sizable seismic events in recent years.

    Now MIT researchers, working with an interdisciplinary team of scientists from industry and academia, have developed a method to manage such human-induced seismicity, and have demonstrated that the technique successfully reduced the number of earthquakes occurring in an active oil field.

    Their results, appearing today in Nature, could help mitigate earthquakes caused by the oil and gas industry, not just from the injection of wastewater produced with oil, but also that produced from hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The team’s approach could also help prevent quakes from other human activities, such as the filling of water reservoirs and aquifers, and the sequestration of carbon dioxide in deep geologic formations.

    “Triggered seismicity is a problem that goes way beyond producing oil,” says study lead author Bradford Hager, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Earth Sciences in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “This is a huge problem for society that will have to be confronted if we are to safely inject carbon dioxide into the subsurface. We demonstrated the kind of study that will be necessary for doing this.”

    The study’s co-authors include Ruben Juanes, professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT, and collaborators from the University of California at Riverside, the University of Texas at Austin, Harvard University, and Eni, a multinational oil and gas company based in Italy.

    Safe injections

    Both natural and human-induced earthquakes occur along geologic faults, or fractures between two blocks of rock in the Earth’s crust. In stable periods, the rocks on either side of a fault are held in place by the pressures generated by surrounding rocks. But when a large volume of fluid is suddenly injected at high rates, it can upset a fault’s fluid stress balance. In some cases, this sudden injection can lubricate a fault and cause rocks on either side to slip and trigger an earthquake.

    The most common source of such fluid injections is from the oil and gas industry’s disposal of wastewater that is brought up along with oil. Field operators dispose of this water through injection wells that continuously pump the water back into the ground at high pressures.

    “There’s a lot of water produced with the oil, and that water is injected into the ground, which has caused a large number of quakes,” Hager notes. “So, for a while, oil-producing regions in Oklahoma had more magnitude 3 quakes than California, because of all this wastewater that was being injected.”

    In recent years, a similar problem arose in southern Italy, where injection wells on oil fields operated by Eni triggered microseisms in an area where large naturally occurring earthquakes had previously occurred. The company, looking for ways to address the problem, sought consulation from Hager and Juanes, both leading experts in seismicity and subsurface flows.

    “This was an opportunity for us to get access to high-quality seismic data about the subsurface, and learn how to do these injections safely,” Juanes says.

    Seismic blueprint

    The team made use of detailed information, accumulated by the oil company over years of operation in the Val D’Agri oil field, a region of southern Italy that lies in a tectonically active basin. The data included information about the region’s earthquake record, dating back to the 1600s, as well as the structure of rocks and faults, and the state of the subsurface corresponding to the various injection rates of each well.

    This video shows the change in stress on the geologic faults of the Val d’Agri field from 2001 to 2019, as predicted by a new MIT-derived model. Video credit: A. Plesch (Harvard University)

    This video shows small earthquakes occurring on the Costa Molina fault within the Val d’Agri field from 2004 to 2016. Each event is shown for two years fading from an initial bright color to the final dark color. Video credit: A. Plesch (Harvard University)

    The researchers integrated these data into a coupled subsurface flow and geomechanical model, which predicts how the stresses and strains of underground structures evolve as the volume of pore fluid, such as from the injection of water, changes. They connected this model to an earthquake mechanics model in order to translate the changes in underground stress and fluid pressure into a likelihood of triggering earthquakes. They then quantified the rate of earthquakes associated with various rates of water injection, and identified scenarios that were unlikely to trigger large quakes.

    When they ran the models using data from 1993 through 2016, the predictions of seismic activity matched with the earthquake record during this period, validating their approach. They then ran the models forward in time, through the year 2025, to predict the region’s seismic response to three different injection rates: 2,000, 2,500, and 3,000 cubic meters per day. The simulations showed that large earthquakes could be avoided if operators kept injection rates at 2,000 cubic meters per day — a flow rate comparable to a small public fire hydrant.

    Eni field operators implemented the team’s recommended rate at the oil field’s single water injection well over a 30-month period between January 2017 and June 2019. In this time, the team observed only a few tiny seismic events, which coincided with brief periods when operators went above the recommended injection rate.

    “The seismicity in the region has been very low in these two-and-a-half years, with around four quakes of 0.5 magnitude, as opposed to hundreds of quakes, of up to 3 magnitude, that were happening between 2006 and 2016,” Hager says. 

    The results demonstrate that operators can successfully manage earthquakes by adjusting injection rates, based on the underlying geology. Juanes says the team’s modeling approach may help to prevent earthquakes related to other processes, such as the building of water reservoirs and the sequestration of carbon dioxide — as long as there is detailed information about a region’s subsurface.

    “A lot of effort needs to go into understanding the geologic setting,” says Juanes, who notes that, if carbon sequestration were carried out on depleted oil fields, “such reservoirs could have this type of history, seismic information, and geologic interpretation that you could use to build similar models for carbon sequestration. We show it’s at least possible to manage seismicity in an operational setting. And we offer a blueprint for how to do it.”

    This research was supported, in part, by Eni. More