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    Using plant biology to address climate change

    On April 11, MIT announced five multiyear flagship projects in the first-ever Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to tackle complex climate problems and deliver breakthrough solutions to the world as quickly as possible. This article is the fourth in a five-part series highlighting the most promising concepts to emerge from the competition and the interdisciplinary research teams behind them.

    The impact of our changing climate on agriculture and food security — and how contemporary agriculture contributes to climate change — is at the forefront of MIT’s multidisciplinary project “Revolutionizing agriculture with low-emissions, resilient crops.” The project The project is one of five flagship winners in the Climate Grand Challenges competition, and brings together researchers from the departments of Biology, Biological Engineering, Chemical Engineering, and Civil and Environmental Engineering.

    “Our team’s research seeks to address two connected challenges: first, the need to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions produced by agricultural fertilizer; second, the fact that the yields of many current agricultural crops will decrease, due to the effects of climate change on plant metabolism,” says the project’s faculty lead, Christopher Voigt, the Daniel I.C. Wang Professor in MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering. “We are pursuing six interdisciplinary projects that are each key to our overall goal of developing low-emissions methods for fertilizing plants that are bioengineered to be more resilient and productive in a changing climate.”

    Whitehead Institute members Mary Gehring and Jing-Ke Weng, plant biologists who are also associate professors in MIT’s Department of Biology, will lead two of those projects.

    Promoting crop resilience

    For most of human history, climate change occurred gradually, over hundreds or thousands of years. That pace allowed plants to adapt to variations in temperature, precipitation, and atmospheric composition. However, human-driven climate change has occurred much more quickly, and crop plants have suffered: Crop yields are down in many regions, as is seed protein content in cereal crops.

    “If we want to ensure an abundant supply of nutritious food for the world, we need to develop fundamental mechanisms for bioengineering a wide variety of crop plants that will be both hearty and nutritious in the face of our changing climate,” says Gehring. In her previous work, she has shown that many aspects of plant reproduction and seed development are controlled by epigenetics — that is, by information outside of the DNA sequence. She has been using that knowledge and the research methods she has developed to identify ways to create varieties of seed-producing plants that are more productive and resilient than current food crops.

    But plant biology is complex, and while it is possible to develop plants that integrate robustness-enhancing traits by combining dissimilar parental strains, scientists are still learning how to ensure that the new traits are carried forward from one generation to the next. “Plants that carry the robustness-enhancing traits have ‘hybrid vigor,’ and we believe that the perpetuation of those traits is controlled by epigenetics,” Gehring explains. “Right now, some food crops, like corn, can be engineered to benefit from hybrid vigor, but those traits are not inherited. That’s why farmers growing many of today’s most productive varieties of corn must purchase and plant new batches of seeds each year. Moreover, many important food crops have not yet realized the benefits of hybrid vigor.”

    The project Gehring leads, “Developing Clonal Seed Production to Fix Hybrid Vigor,” aims to enable food crop plants to create seeds that are both more robust and genetically identical to the parent — and thereby able to pass beneficial traits from generation to generation.

    The process of clonal (or asexual) production of seeds that are genetically identical to the maternal parent is called apomixis. Gehring says, “Because apomixis is present in 400 flowering plant species — about 1 percent of flowering plant species — it is probable that genes and signaling pathways necessary for apomixis are already present within crop plants. Our challenge is to tweak those genes and pathways so that the plant switches reproduction from sexual to asexual.”

    The project will leverage the fact that genes and pathways related to autonomous asexual development of the endosperm — a seed’s nutritive tissue — exist in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. In previous work on Arabidopsis, Gehring’s lab researched a specific gene that, when misregulated, drives development of an asexual endosperm-like material. “Normally, that seed would not be viable,” she notes. “But we believe that by epigenetic tuning of the expression of additional relevant genes, we will enable the plant to retain that material — and help achieve apomixis.”

    If Gehring and her colleagues succeed in creating a gene-expression “formula” for introducing endosperm apomixis into a wide range of crop plants, they will have made a fundamental and important achievement. Such a method could be applied throughout agriculture to create and perpetuate new crop breeds able to withstand their changing environments while requiring less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

    Creating “self-fertilizing” crops

    Roughly a quarter of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States are a product of agriculture. Fertilizer production and use accounts for one third of those emissions and includes nitrous oxide, which has heat-trapping capacity 298-fold stronger than carbon dioxide, according to a 2018 Frontiers in Plant Science study. Most artificial fertilizer production also consumes huge quantities of natural gas and uses minerals mined from nonrenewable resources. After all that, much of the nitrogen fertilizer becomes runoff that pollutes local waterways. For those reasons, this Climate Grand Challenges flagship project aims to greatly reduce use of human-made fertilizers.

    One tantalizing approach is to cultivate cereal crop plants — which account for about 75 percent of global food production — capable of drawing nitrogen from metabolic interactions with bacteria in the soil. Whitehead Institute’s Weng leads an effort to do just that: genetically bioengineer crops such as corn, rice, and wheat to, essentially, create their own fertilizer through a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing microbes.

    “Legumes such as bean and pea plants can form root nodules through which they receive nitrogen from rhizobia bacteria in exchange for carbon,” Weng explains. “This metabolic exchange means that legumes release far less greenhouse gas — and require far less investment of fossil energy — than do cereal crops, which use a huge portion of the artificially produced nitrogen fertilizers employed today.

    “Our goal is to develop methods for transferring legumes’ ‘self-fertilizing’ capacity to cereal crops,” Weng says. “If we can, we will revolutionize the sustainability of food production.”

    The project — formally entitled “Mimicking legume-rhizobia symbiosis for fertilizer production in cereals” — will be a multistage, five-year effort. It draws on Weng’s extensive studies of metabolic evolution in plants and his identification of molecules involved in formation of the root nodules that permit exchanges between legumes and nitrogen-fixing bacteria. It also leverages his expertise in reconstituting specific signaling and metabolic pathways in plants.

    Weng and his colleagues will begin by deciphering the full spectrum of small-molecule signaling processes that occur between legumes and rhizobium bacteria. Then they will genetically engineer an analogous system in nonlegume crop plants. Next, using state-of-the-art metabolomic methods, they will identify which small molecules excreted from legume roots prompt a nitrogen/carbon exchange from rhizobium bacteria. Finally, the researchers will genetically engineer the biosynthesis of those molecules in the roots of nonlegume plants and observe their effect on the rhizobium bacteria surrounding the roots.

    While the project is complex and technically challenging, its potential is staggering. “Focusing on corn alone, this could reduce the production and use of nitrogen fertilizer by 160,000 tons,” Weng notes. “And it could halve the related emissions of nitrous oxide gas.” More

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    Looking forward to forecast the risks of a changing climate

    On April 11, MIT announced five multiyear flagship projects in the first-ever Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to tackle complex climate problems and deliver breakthrough solutions to the world as quickly as possible. This article is the third in a five-part series highlighting the most promising concepts to emerge from the competition, and the interdisciplinary research teams behind them.

    Extreme weather events that were once considered rare have become noticeably less so, from intensifying hurricane activity in the North Atlantic to wildfires generating massive clouds of ozone-damaging smoke. But current climate models are unprepared when it comes to estimating the risk that these increasingly extreme events pose — and without adequate modeling, governments are left unable to take necessary precautions to protect their communities.

    MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science (EAPS) Professor Paul O’Gorman researches this trend by studying how climate affects the atmosphere and incorporating what he learns into climate models to improve their accuracy. One particular focus for O’Gorman has been changes in extreme precipitation and midlatitude storms that hit areas like New England.

    “These extreme events are having a lot of impact, but they’re also difficult to model or study,” he says. Seeing the pressing need for better climate models that can be used to develop preparedness plans and climate change mitigation strategies, O’Gorman and collaborators Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science in EAPS, and Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor in MIT’s Department of Architecture, are leading an interdisciplinary group of scientists, engineers, and designers to tackle this problem with their MIT Climate Grand Challenges flagship project, “Preparing for a new world of weather and climate extremes.”

    “We know already from observations and from climate model predictions that weather and climate extremes are changing and will change more,” O’Gorman says. “The grand challenge is preparing for those changing extremes.”

    Their proposal is one of five flagship projects recently announced by the MIT Climate Grand Challenges initiative — an Institute-wide effort catalyzing novel research and engineering innovations to address the climate crisis. Selected from a field of almost 100 submissions, the team will receive additional funding and exposure to help accelerate and scale their project goals. Other MIT collaborators on the proposal include researchers from the School of Engineering, the School of Architecture and Planning, the Office of Sustainability, the Center for Global Change Science, and the Institute for Data, Systems and Society.

    Weather risk modeling

    Fifteen years ago, Kerry Emanuel developed a simple hurricane model. It was based on physics equations, rather than statistics, and could run in real time, making it useful for modeling risk assessment. Emanuel wondered if similar models could be used for long-term risk assessment of other things, such as changes in extreme weather because of climate change.

    “I discovered, somewhat to my surprise and dismay, that almost all extant estimates of long-term weather risks in the United States are based not on physical models, but on historical statistics of the hazards,” says Emanuel. “The problem with relying on historical records is that they’re too short; while they can help estimate common events, they don’t contain enough information to make predictions for more rare events.”

    Another limitation of weather risk models which rely heavily on statistics: They have a built-in assumption that the climate is static.

    “Historical records rely on the climate at the time they were recorded; they can’t say anything about how hurricanes grow in a warmer climate,” says Emanuel. The models rely on fixed relationships between events; they assume that hurricane activity will stay the same, even while science is showing that warmer temperatures will most likely push typical hurricane activity beyond the tropics and into a much wider band of latitudes.

    As a flagship project, the goal is to eliminate this reliance on the historical record by emphasizing physical principles (e.g., the laws of thermodynamics and fluid mechanics) in next-generation models. The downside to this is that there are many variables that have to be included. Not only are there planetary-scale systems to consider, such as the global circulation of the atmosphere, but there are also small-scale, extremely localized events, like thunderstorms, that influence predictive outcomes.

    Trying to compute all of these at once is costly and time-consuming — and the results often can’t tell you the risk in a specific location. But there is a way to correct for this: “What’s done is to use a global model, and then use a method called downscaling, which tries to infer what would happen on very small scales that aren’t properly resolved by the global model,” explains O’Gorman. The team hopes to improve downscaling techniques so that they can be used to calculate the risk of very rare but impactful weather events.

    Global climate models, or general circulation models (GCMs), Emanuel explains, are constructed a bit like a jungle gym. Like the playground bars, the Earth is sectioned in an interconnected three-dimensional framework — only it’s divided 100 to 200 square kilometers at a time. Each node comprises a set of computations for characteristics like wind, rainfall, atmospheric pressure, and temperature within its bounds; the outputs of each node are connected to its neighbor. This framework is useful for creating a big picture idea of Earth’s climate system, but if you tried to zoom in on a specific location — like, say, to see what’s happening in Miami or Mumbai — the connecting nodes are too far apart to make predictions on anything specific to those areas.

    Scientists work around this problem by using downscaling. They use the same blueprint of the jungle gym, but within the nodes they weave a mesh of smaller features, incorporating equations for things like topography and vegetation or regional meteorological models to fill in the blanks. By creating a finer mesh over smaller areas they can predict local effects without needing to run the entire global model.

    Of course, even this finer-resolution solution has its trade-offs. While we might be able to gain a clearer picture of what’s happening in a specific region by nesting models within models, it can still make for a computing challenge to crunch all that data at once, with the trade-off being expense and time, or predictions that are limited to shorter windows of duration — where GCMs can be run considering decades or centuries, a particularly complex local model may be restricted to predictions on timescales of just a few years at a time.

    “I’m afraid that most of the downscaling at present is brute force, but I think there’s room to do it in better ways,” says Emanuel, who sees the problem of finding new and novel methods of achieving this goal as an intellectual challenge. “I hope that through the Grand Challenges project we might be able to get students, postdocs, and others interested in doing this in a very creative way.”

    Adapting to weather extremes for cities and renewable energy

    Improving climate modeling is more than a scientific exercise in creativity, however. There’s a very real application for models that can accurately forecast risk in localized regions.

    Another problem is that progress in climate modeling has not kept up with the need for climate mitigation plans, especially in some of the most vulnerable communities around the globe.

    “It is critical for stakeholders to have access to this data for their own decision-making process. Every community is composed of a diverse population with diverse needs, and each locality is affected by extreme weather events in unique ways,” says Mazereeuw, the director of the MIT Urban Risk Lab. 

    A key piece of the team’s project is building on partnerships the Urban Risk Lab has developed with several cities to test their models once they have a usable product up and running. The cities were selected based on their vulnerability to increasing extreme weather events, such as tropical cyclones in Broward County, Florida, and Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, and extratropical storms in Boston, Massachusetts, and Cape Town, South Africa.

    In their proposal, the team outlines a variety of deliverables that the cities can ultimately use in their climate change preparations, with ideas such as online interactive platforms and workshops with stakeholders — such as local governments, developers, nonprofits, and residents — to learn directly what specific tools they need for their local communities. By doing so, they can craft plans addressing different scenarios in their region, involving events such as sea-level rise or heat waves, while also providing information and means of developing adaptation strategies for infrastructure under these conditions that will be the most effective and efficient for them.

    “We are acutely aware of the inequity of resources both in mitigating impacts and recovering from disasters. Working with diverse communities through workshops allows us to engage a lot of people, listen, discuss, and collaboratively design solutions,” says Mazereeuw.

    By the end of five years, the team is hoping that they’ll have better risk assessment and preparedness tool kits, not just for the cities that they’re partnering with, but for others as well.

    “MIT is well-positioned to make progress in this area,” says O’Gorman, “and I think it’s an important problem where we can make a difference.” More

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    Developing electricity-powered, low-emissions alternatives to carbon-intensive industrial processes

    On April 11, 2022, MIT announced five multiyear flagship projects in the first-ever Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to tackle complex climate problems and deliver breakthrough solutions to the world as quickly as possible. This is the second article in a five-part series highlighting the most promising concepts to emerge from the competition, and the interdisciplinary research teams behind them.

    One of the biggest leaps that humankind could take to drastically lower greenhouse gas emissions globally would be the complete decarbonization of industry. But without finding low-cost, environmentally friendly substitutes for industrial materials, the traditional production of steel, cement, ammonia, and ethylene will continue pumping out billions of tons of carbon annually; these sectors alone are responsible for at least one third of society’s global greenhouse gas emissions. 

    A major problem is that industrial manufacturers, whose success depends on reliable, cost-efficient, and large-scale production methods, are too heavily invested in processes that have historically been powered by fossil fuels to quickly switch to new alternatives. It’s a machine that kicked on more than 100 years ago, and which MIT electrochemical engineer Yet-Ming Chiang says we can’t shut off without major disruptions to the world’s massive supply chain of these materials. What’s needed, Chiang says, is a broader, collaborative clean energy effort that takes “targeted fundamental research, all the way through to pilot demonstrations that greatly lowers the risk for adoption of new technology by industry.”

    This would be a new approach to decarbonization of industrial materials production that relies on largely unexplored but cleaner electrochemical processes. New production methods could be optimized and integrated into the industrial machine to make it run on low-cost, renewable electricity in place of fossil fuels. 

    Recognizing this, Chiang, the Kyocera Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, teamed with research collaborator Bilge Yildiz, the Breene M. Kerr Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering and professor of materials science and engineering, with key input from Karthish Manthiram, visiting professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, to submit a project proposal to the MIT Climate Grand Challenges. Their plan: to create an innovation hub on campus that would bring together MIT researchers individually investigating decarbonization of steel, cement, ammonia, and ethylene under one roof, combining research equipment and directly collaborating on new methods to produce these four key materials.

    Many researchers across MIT have already signed on to join the effort, including Antoine Allanore, associate professor of metallurgy, who specializes in the development of sustainable materials and manufacturing processes, and Elsa Olivetti, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, who is an expert in materials economics and sustainability. Other MIT faculty currently involved include Fikile Brushett, Betar Gallant, Ahmed Ghoniem, William Green, Jeffrey Grossman, Ju Li, Yuriy Román-Leshkov, Yang Shao-Horn, Robert Stoner, Yogesh Surendranath, Timothy Swager, and Kripa Varanasi.

    “The team we brought together has the expertise needed to tackle these challenges, including electrochemistry — using electricity to decarbonize these chemical processes — and materials science and engineering, process design and scale-up technoeconomic analysis, and system integration, which is all needed for this to go out from our labs to the field,” says Yildiz.

    Selected from a field of more than 100 proposals, their Center for Electrification and Decarbonization of Industry (CEDI) will be the first such institute worldwide dedicated to testing and scaling the most innovative and promising technologies in sustainable chemicals and materials. CEDI will work to facilitate rapid translation of lab discoveries into affordable, scalable industry solutions, with potential to offset as much as 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. The team estimates that some CEDI projects already underway could be commercialized within three years.

    “The real timeline is as soon as possible,” says Chiang.

    To achieve CEDI’s ambitious goals, a physical location is key, staffed with permanent faculty, as well as undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs. Yildiz says the center’s success will depend on engaging student researchers to carry forward with research addressing the biggest ongoing challenges to decarbonization of industry.

    “We are training young scientists, students, on the learned urgency of the problem,” says Yildiz. “We empower them with the skills needed, and even if an individual project does not find the implementation in the field right away, at least, we would have trained the next generation that will continue to go after them in the field.”

    Chiang’s background in electrochemistry showed him how the efficiency of cement production could benefit from adopting clean electricity sources, and Yildiz’s work on ethylene, the source of plastic and one of industry’s most valued chemicals, has revealed overlooked cost benefits to switching to electrochemical processes with less expensive starting materials. With industry partners, they hope to continue these lines of fundamental research along with Allanore, who is focused on electrifying steel production, and Manthiram, who is developing new processes for ammonia. Olivetti will focus on understanding risks and barriers to implementation. This multilateral approach aims to speed up the timeline to industry adoption of new technologies at the scale needed for global impact.

    “One of the points of emphasis in this whole center is going to be applying technoeconomic analysis of what it takes to be successful at a technical and economic level, as early in the process as possible,” says Chiang.

    The impact of large-scale industry adoption of clean energy sources in these four key areas that CEDI plans to target first would be profound, as these sectors are currently responsible for 7.5 billion tons of emissions annually. There is the potential for even greater impact on emissions as new knowledge is applied to other industrial products beyond the initial four targets of steel, cement, ammonia, and ethylene. Meanwhile, the center will stand as a hub to attract new industry, government stakeholders, and research partners to collaborate on urgently needed solutions, both newly arising and long overdue.

    When Chiang and Yildiz first met to discuss ideas for MIT Climate Grand Challenges, they decided they wanted to build a climate research center that functioned unlike any other to help pivot large industry toward decarbonization. Beyond considering how new solutions will impact industry’s bottom line, CEDI will also investigate unique synergies that could arise from the electrification of industry, like processes that would create new byproducts that could be the feedstock to other industry processes, reducing waste and increasing efficiencies in the larger system. And because industry is so good at scaling, those added benefits would be widespread, finally replacing century-old technologies with critical updates designed to improve production and markedly reduce industry’s carbon footprint sooner rather than later.

    “Everything we do, we’re going to try to do with urgency,” Chiang says. “The fundamental research will be done with urgency, and the transition to commercialization, we’re going to do with urgency.” More

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    Computing our climate future

    On Monday, MIT announced five multiyear flagship projects in the first-ever Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to tackle complex climate problems and deliver breakthrough solutions to the world as quickly as possible. This article is the first in a five-part series highlighting the most promising concepts to emerge from the competition, and the interdisciplinary research teams behind them.

    With improvements to computer processing power and an increased understanding of the physical equations governing the Earth’s climate, scientists are continually working to refine climate models and improve their predictive power. But the tools they’re refining were originally conceived decades ago with only scientists in mind. When it comes to developing tangible climate action plans, these models remain inscrutable to the policymakers, public safety officials, civil engineers, and community organizers who need their predictive insight most.

    “What you end up having is a gap between what’s typically used in practice, and the real cutting-edge science,” says Noelle Selin, a professor in the Institute for Data, Systems and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), and co-lead with Professor Raffaele Ferrari on the MIT Climate Grand Challenges flagship project “Bringing Computation to the Climate Crisis.” “How can we use new computational techniques, new understandings, new ways of thinking about modeling, to really bridge that gap between state-of-the-art scientific advances and modeling, and people who are actually needing to use these models?”

    Using this as a driving question, the team won’t just be trying to refine current climate models, they’re building a new one from the ground up.

    This kind of game-changing advancement is exactly what the MIT Climate Grand Challenges is looking for, which is why the proposal has been named one of the five flagship projects in the ambitious Institute-wide program aimed at tackling the climate crisis. The proposal, which was selected from 100 submissions and was among 27 finalists, will receive additional funding and support to further their goal of reimagining the climate modeling system. It also brings together contributors from across the Institute, including the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, the School of Engineering, and the Sloan School of Management.

    When it comes to pursuing high-impact climate solutions that communities around the world can use, “it’s great to do it at MIT,” says Ferrari, EAPS Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography. “You’re not going to find many places in the world where you have the cutting-edge climate science, the cutting-edge computer science, and the cutting-edge policy science experts that we need to work together.”

    The climate model of the future

    The proposal builds on work that Ferrari began three years ago as part of a joint project with Caltech, the Naval Postgraduate School, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Called the Climate Modeling Alliance (CliMA), the consortium of scientists, engineers, and applied mathematicians is constructing a climate model capable of more accurately projecting future changes in critical variables, such as clouds in the atmosphere and turbulence in the ocean, with uncertainties at least half the size of those in existing models.

    To do this, however, requires a new approach. For one thing, current models are too coarse in resolution — at the 100-to-200-kilometer scale — to resolve small-scale processes like cloud cover, rainfall, and sea ice extent. But also, explains Ferrari, part of this limitation in resolution is due to the fundamental architecture of the models themselves. The languages most global climate models are coded in were first created back in the 1960s and ’70s, largely by scientists for scientists. Since then, advances in computing driven by the corporate world and computer gaming have given rise to dynamic new computer languages, powerful graphics processing units, and machine learning.

    For climate models to take full advantage of these advancements, there’s only one option: starting over with a modern, more flexible language. Written in Julia, a part of Julialab’s Scientific Machine Learning technology, and spearheaded by Alan Edelman, a professor of applied mathematics in MIT’s Department of Mathematics, CliMA will be able to harness far more data than the current models can handle.

    “It’s been real fun finally working with people in computer science here at MIT,” Ferrari says. “Before it was impossible, because traditional climate models are in a language their students can’t even read.”

    The result is what’s being called the “Earth digital twin,” a climate model that can simulate global conditions on a large scale. This on its own is an impressive feat, but the team wants to take this a step further with their proposal.

    “We want to take this large-scale model and create what we call an ‘emulator’ that is only predicting a set of variables of interest, but it’s been trained on the large-scale model,” Ferrari explains. Emulators are not new technology, but what is new is that these emulators, being referred to as the “Earth digital cousins,” will take advantage of machine learning.

    “Now we know how to train a model if we have enough data to train them on,” says Ferrari. Machine learning for projects like this has only become possible in recent years as more observational data become available, along with improved computer processing power. The goal is to create smaller, more localized models by training them using the Earth digital twin. Doing so will save time and money, which is key if the digital cousins are going to be usable for stakeholders, like local governments and private-sector developers.

    Adaptable predictions for average stakeholders

    When it comes to setting climate-informed policy, stakeholders need to understand the probability of an outcome within their own regions — in the same way that you would prepare for a hike differently if there’s a 10 percent chance of rain versus a 90 percent chance. The smaller Earth digital cousin models will be able to do things the larger model can’t do, like simulate local regions in real time and provide a wider range of probabilistic scenarios.

    “Right now, if you wanted to use output from a global climate model, you usually would have to use output that’s designed for general use,” says Selin, who is also the director of the MIT Technology and Policy Program. With the project, the team can take end-user needs into account from the very beginning while also incorporating their feedback and suggestions into the models, helping to “democratize the idea of running these climate models,” as she puts it. Doing so means building an interactive interface that eventually will give users the ability to change input values and run the new simulations in real time. The team hopes that, eventually, the Earth digital cousins could run on something as ubiquitous as a smartphone, although developments like that are currently beyond the scope of the project.

    The next thing the team will work on is building connections with stakeholders. Through participation of other MIT groups, such as the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and the Climate and Sustainability Consortium, they hope to work closely with policymakers, public safety officials, and urban planners to give them predictive tools tailored to their needs that can provide actionable outputs important for planning. Faced with rising sea levels, for example, coastal cities could better visualize the threat and make informed decisions about infrastructure development and disaster preparedness; communities in drought-prone regions could develop long-term civil planning with an emphasis on water conservation and wildfire resistance.

    “We want to make the modeling and analysis process faster so people can get more direct and useful feedback for near-term decisions,” she says.

    The final piece of the challenge is to incentivize students now so that they can join the project and make a difference. Ferrari has already had luck garnering student interest after co-teaching a class with Edelman and seeing the enthusiasm students have about computer science and climate solutions.

    “We’re intending in this project to build a climate model of the future,” says Selin. “So it seems really appropriate that we would also train the builders of that climate model.” More

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    Q&A: Climate Grand Challenges finalists on using data and science to forecast climate-related risk

    Note: This is the final article in a four-part interview series featuring the work of the 27 MIT Climate Grand Challenges finalist teams, which received a total of $2.7 million in startup funding to advance their projects. This month, the Institute will name a subset of the finalists as multiyear flagship projects.

    Advances in computation, artificial intelligence, robotics, and data science are enabling a new generation of observational tools and scientific modeling with the potential to produce timely, reliable, and quantitative analysis of future climate risks at a local scale. These projections can increase the accuracy and efficacy of early warning systems, improve emergency planning, and provide actionable information for climate mitigation and adaptation efforts, as human actions continue to change planetary conditions.

    In conversations prepared for MIT News, faculty from four Climate Grand Challenges teams with projects in the competition’s “Using data and science to forecast climate-related risk” category describe the promising new technologies that can help scientists understand the Earth’s climate system on a finer scale than ever before. (The other Climate Grand Challenges research themes include building equity and fairness into climate solutions, removing, managing, and storing greenhouse gases, and decarbonizing complex industries and processes.) The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.

    An observational system that can initiate a climate risk forecasting revolution

    Despite recent technological advances and massive volumes of data, climate forecasts remain highly uncertain. Gaps in observational capabilities create substantial challenges to predicting extreme weather events and establishing effective mitigation and adaptation strategies. R. John Hansman, the T. Wilson Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and director of the MIT International Center for Air Transportation, discusses the Stratospheric Airborne Climate Observatory System (SACOS) being developed together with Brent Minchew, the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), and a team that includes researchers from MIT Lincoln Laboratory and Harvard University.

    Q: How does SACOS reduce uncertainty in climate risk forecasting?

    A: There is a critical need for higher spatial and temporal resolution observations of the climate system than are currently available through remote (satellite or airborne) and surface (in-situ) sensing. We are developing an ensemble of high-endurance, solar-powered aircraft with instrument systems capable of performing months-long climate observing missions that satellites or aircraft alone cannot fulfill. Summer months are ideal for SACOS operations, as many key climate phenomena are active and short night periods reduce the battery mass, vehicle size, and technical risks. These observations hold the potential to inform and predict, allowing emergency planners, policymakers, and the rest of society to better prepare for the changes to come.

    Q: Describe the types of observing missions where SACOS could provide critical improvements.

    A: The demise of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is leading to rising sea levels around the world and threatening the displacement of millions of people, is one example. Current sea level forecasts struggle to account for giant fissures that create massive icebergs and cause the Antarctic Ice Sheet to flow more rapidly into the ocean. SACOS can track these fissures to accurately forecast ice slippage and give impacted populations enough time to prepare or evacuate. Elsewhere, widespread droughts cause rampant wildfires and water shortages. SACOS has the ability to monitor soil moisture and humidity in critically dry regions to identify where and when wildfires and droughts are imminent. SACOS also offers the most effective method to measure, track, and predict local ozone depletion over North America, which has resulted in increasingly severe summer thunderstorms.

    Quantifying and managing the risks of sea-level rise

    Prevailing estimates of sea-level rise range from approximately 20 centimeters to 2 meters by the end of the century, with the associated costs on the order of trillions of dollars. The instability of certain portions of the world’s ice sheets creates vast uncertainties, complicating how the world prepares for and responds to these potential changes. EAPS Professor Brent Minchew is leading another Climate Grand Challenges finalist team working on an integrated, multidisciplinary effort to improve the scientific understanding of sea-level rise and provide actionable information and tools to manage the risks it poses.

    Q: What have been the most significant challenges to understanding the potential rates of sea-level rise?

    A: West Antarctica is one of the most remote, inaccessible, and hostile places on Earth — to people and equipment. Thus, opportunities to observe the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by about 3 meters, are limited and current observations crudely resolved. It is essential that we understand how the floating edge of the ice sheets, often called ice shelves, fracture and collapse because they provide critical forces that govern the rate of ice mass loss and can stabilize the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

    Q: How will your project advance what is currently known about sea-level rise?

    A: We aim to advance global-scale projections of sea-level rise through novel observational technologies and computational models of ice sheet change and to link those predictions to region- to neighborhood-scale estimates of costs and adaptation strategies. To do this, we propose two novel instruments: a first-of-its-kind drone that can fly for months at a time over Antarctica making continuous observations of critical areas and an airdropped seismometer and GPS bundle that can be deployed to vulnerable and hard-to-reach areas of the ice sheet. This technology will provide greater data quality and density and will observe the ice sheet at frequencies that are currently inaccessible — elements that are essential for understanding the physics governing the evolution of the ice sheet and sea-level rise.

    Changing flood risk for coastal communities in the developing world

    Globally, more than 600 million people live in low-elevation coastal areas that face an increasing risk of flooding from sea-level rise. This includes two-thirds of cities with populations of more than 5 million and regions that conduct the vast majority of global trade. Dara Entekhabi, the Bacardi and Stockholm Water Foundations Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, outlines an interdisciplinary partnership that leverages data and technology to guide short-term and chart long-term adaptation pathways with Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism and director of the Urban Risk Lab in the School of Architecture and Planning, and Danielle Wood, assistant professor in the Program in Media Arts and Sciences and the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

    Q: What is the key problem this program seeks to address?

    A: The accumulated heating of the Earth system due to fossil burning is largely absorbed by the oceans, and the stored heat expands the ocean volume leading to increased base height for tides. When the high tides inundate a city, the condition is referred to as “sunny day” flooding, but the saline waters corrode infrastructure and wreak havoc on daily routines. The danger ahead for many coastal cities in the developing world is the combination of increasing high tide intrusions, coupled with heavy precipitation storm events.

    Q: How will your proposed solutions impact flood risk management?

    A: We are producing detailed risk maps for coastal cities in developing countries using newly available, very high-resolution remote-sensing data from space-borne instruments, as well as historical tides records and regional storm characteristics. Using these datasets, we aim to produce street-by-street risk maps that provide local decision-makers and stakeholders with a way to estimate present and future flood risks. With the model of future tides and probabilistic precipitation events, we can forecast future inundation by a flooding event, decadal changes with various climate-change and sea-level rise projections, and an increase in the likelihood of sunny-day flooding. Working closely with local partners, we will develop toolkits to explore short-term emergency response, as well as long-term mitigation and adaptation techniques in six pilot locations in South and Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America.

    Ocean vital signs

    On average, every person on Earth generates fossil fuel emissions equivalent to an 8-pound bag of carbon, every day. Much of this is absorbed by the ocean, but there is wide variability in the estimates of oceanic absorption, which translates into differences of trillions of dollars in the required cost of mitigation. In the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Christopher Hill, a principal research engineer specializing in Earth and planetary computational science, works with Ryan Woosley, a principal research scientist focusing on the carbon cycle and ocean acidification. Hill explains that they hope to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to help resolve this uncertainty.

    Q: What is the current state of knowledge on air-sea interactions?

    A: Obtaining specific, accurate field measurements of critical physical, chemical, and biological exchanges between the ocean and the planet have historically entailed expensive science missions with large ship-based infrastructure that leave gaps in real-time data about significant ocean climate processes. Recent advances in highly scalable in-situ autonomous observing and navigation combined with airborne, remote sensing, and machine learning innovations have the potential to transform data gathering, provide more accurate information, and address fundamental scientific questions around air-sea interaction.

    Q: How will your approach accelerate real-time, autonomous surface ocean observing from an experimental research endeavor to a permanent and impactful solution?

    A: Our project seeks to demonstrate how a scalable surface ocean observing network can be launched and operated, and to illustrate how this can reduce uncertainties in estimates of air-sea carbon dioxide exchange. With an initial high-impact goal of substantially eliminating the vast uncertainties that plague our understanding of ocean uptake of carbon dioxide, we will gather critical measurements for improving extended weather and climate forecast models and reducing climate impact uncertainty. The results have the potential to more accurately identify trillions of dollars worth of economic activity. More

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    Ocean vital signs

    Without the ocean, the climate crisis would be even worse than it is. Each year, the ocean absorbs billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere, preventing warming that greenhouse gas would otherwise cause. Scientists estimate about 25 to 30 percent of all carbon released into the atmosphere by both human and natural sources is absorbed by the ocean.

    “But there’s a lot of uncertainty in that number,” says Ryan Woosley, a marine chemist and a principal research scientist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) at MIT. Different parts of the ocean take in different amounts of carbon depending on many factors, such as the season and the amount of mixing from storms. Current models of the carbon cycle don’t adequately capture this variation.

    To close the gap, Woosley and a team of other MIT scientists developed a research proposal for the MIT Climate Grand Challenges competition — an Institute-wide campaign to catalyze and fund innovative research addressing the climate crisis. The team’s proposal, “Ocean Vital Signs,” involves sending a fleet of sailing drones to cruise the oceans taking detailed measurements of how much carbon the ocean is really absorbing. Those data would be used to improve the precision of global carbon cycle models and improve researchers’ ability to verify emissions reductions claimed by countries.

    “If we start to enact mitigation strategies—either through removing CO2 from the atmosphere or reducing emissions — we need to know where CO2 is going in order to know how effective they are,” says Woosley. Without more precise models there’s no way to confirm whether observed carbon reductions were thanks to policy and people, or thanks to the ocean.

    “So that’s the trillion-dollar question,” says Woosley. “If countries are spending all this money to reduce emissions, is it enough to matter?”

    In February, the team’s Climate Grand Challenges proposal was named one of 27 finalists out of the almost 100 entries submitted. From among this list of finalists, MIT will announce in April the selection of five flagship projects to receive further funding and support.

    Woosley is leading the team along with Christopher Hill, a principal research engineer in EAPS. The team includes physical and chemical oceanographers, marine microbiologists, biogeochemists, and experts in computational modeling from across the department, in addition to collaborators from the Media Lab and the departments of Mathematics, Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

    Today, data on the flux of carbon dioxide between the air and the oceans are collected in a piecemeal way. Research ships intermittently cruise out to gather data. Some commercial ships are also fitted with sensors. But these present a limited view of the entire ocean, and include biases. For instance, commercial ships usually avoid storms, which can increase the turnover of water exposed to the atmosphere and cause a substantial increase in the amount of carbon absorbed by the ocean.

    “It’s very difficult for us to get to it and measure that,” says Woosley. “But these drones can.”

    If funded, the team’s project would begin by deploying a few drones in a small area to test the technology. The wind-powered drones — made by a California-based company called Saildrone — would autonomously navigate through an area, collecting data on air-sea carbon dioxide flux continuously with solar-powered sensors. This would then scale up to more than 5,000 drone-days’ worth of observations, spread over five years, and in all five ocean basins.

    Those data would be used to feed neural networks to create more precise maps of how much carbon is absorbed by the oceans, shrinking the uncertainties involved in the models. These models would continue to be verified and improved by new data. “The better the models are, the more we can rely on them,” says Woosley. “But we will always need measurements to verify the models.”

    Improved carbon cycle models are relevant beyond climate warming as well. “CO2 is involved in so much of how the world works,” says Woosley. “We’re made of carbon, and all the other organisms and ecosystems are as well. What does the perturbation to the carbon cycle do to these ecosystems?”

    One of the best understood impacts is ocean acidification. Carbon absorbed by the ocean reacts to form an acid. A more acidic ocean can have dire impacts on marine organisms like coral and oysters, whose calcium carbonate shells and skeletons can dissolve in the lower pH. Since the Industrial Revolution, the ocean has become about 30 percent more acidic on average.

    “So while it’s great for us that the oceans have been taking up the CO2, it’s not great for the oceans,” says Woosley. “Knowing how this uptake affects the health of the ocean is important as well.” More

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    Improving predictions of sea level rise for the next century

    When we think of climate change, one of the most dramatic images that comes to mind is the loss of glacial ice. As the Earth warms, these enormous rivers of ice become a casualty of the rising temperatures. But, as ice sheets retreat, they also become an important contributor to one the more dangerous outcomes of climate change: sea-level rise. At MIT, an interdisciplinary team of scientists is determined to improve sea level rise predictions for the next century, in part by taking a closer look at the physics of ice sheets.

    Last month, two research proposals on the topic, led by Brent Minchew, the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), were announced as finalists in the MIT Climate Grand Challenges initiative. Launched in July 2020, Climate Grand Challenges fielded almost 100 project proposals from collaborators across the Institute who heeded the bold charge: to develop research and innovations that will deliver game-changing advances in the world’s efforts to address the climate challenge.

    As finalists, Minchew and his collaborators from the departments of Urban Studies and Planning, Economics, Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Haystack Observatory, and external partners, received $100,000 to develop their research plans. A subset of the 27 proposals tapped as finalists will be announced next month, making up a portfolio of multiyear “flagship” projects receiving additional funding and support.

    One goal of both Minchew proposals is to more fully understand the most fundamental processes that govern rapid changes in glacial ice, and to use that understanding to build next-generation models that are more predictive of ice sheet behavior as they respond to, and influence, climate change.

    “We need to develop more accurate and computationally efficient models that provide testable projections of sea-level rise over the coming decades. To do so quickly, we want to make better and more frequent observations and learn the physics of ice sheets from these data,” says Minchew. “For example, how much stress do you have to apply to ice before it breaks?”

    Currently, Minchew’s Glacier Dynamics and Remote Sensing group uses satellites to observe the ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica primarily with interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR). But the data are often collected over long intervals of time, which only gives them “before and after” snapshots of big events. By taking more frequent measurements on shorter time scales, such as hours or days, they can get a more detailed picture of what is happening in the ice.

    “Many of the key unknowns in our projections of what ice sheets are going to look like in the future, and how they’re going to evolve, involve the dynamics of glaciers, or our understanding of how the flow speed and the resistances to flow are related,” says Minchew.

    At the heart of the two proposals is the creation of SACOS, the Stratospheric Airborne Climate Observatory System. The group envisions developing solar-powered drones that can fly in the stratosphere for months at a time, taking more frequent measurements using a new lightweight, low-power radar and other high-resolution instrumentation. They also propose air-dropping sensors directly onto the ice, equipped with seismometers and GPS trackers to measure high-frequency vibrations in the ice and pinpoint the motions of its flow.

    How glaciers contribute to sea level rise

    Current climate models predict an increase in sea levels over the next century, but by just how much is still unclear. Estimates are anywhere from 20 centimeters to two meters, which is a large difference when it comes to enacting policy or mitigation. Minchew points out that response measures will be different, depending on which end of the scale it falls toward. If it’s closer to 20 centimeters, coastal barriers can be built to protect low-level areas. But with higher surges, such measures become too expensive and inefficient to be viable, as entire portions of cities and millions of people would have to be relocated.

    “If we’re looking at a future where we could get more than a meter of sea level rise by the end of the century, then we need to know about that sooner rather than later so that we can start to plan and to do our best to prepare for that scenario,” he says.

    There are two ways glaciers and ice sheets contribute to rising sea levels: direct melting of the ice and accelerated transport of ice to the oceans. In Antarctica, warming waters melt the margins of the ice sheets, which tends to reduce the resistive stresses and allow ice to flow more quickly to the ocean. This thinning can also cause the ice shelves to be more prone to fracture, facilitating the calving of icebergs — events which sometimes cause even further acceleration of ice flow.

    Using data collected by SACOS, Minchew and his group can better understand what material properties in the ice allow for fracturing and calving of icebergs, and build a more complete picture of how ice sheets respond to climate forces. 

    “What I want is to reduce and quantify the uncertainties in projections of sea level rise out to the year 2100,” he says.

    From that more complete picture, the team — which also includes economists, engineers, and urban planning specialists — can work on developing predictive models and methods to help communities and governments estimate the costs associated with sea level rise, develop sound infrastructure strategies, and spur engineering innovation.

    Understanding glacier dynamics

    More frequent radar measurements and the collection of higher-resolution seismic and GPS data will allow Minchew and the team to develop a better understanding of the broad category of glacier dynamics — including calving, an important process in setting the rate of sea level rise which is currently not well understood.  

    “Some of what we’re doing is quite similar to what seismologists do,” he says. “They measure seismic waves following an earthquake, or a volcanic eruption, or things of this nature and use those observations to better understand the mechanisms that govern these phenomena.”

    Air-droppable sensors will help them collect information about ice sheet movement, but this method comes with drawbacks — like installation and maintenance, which is difficult to do out on a massive ice sheet that is moving and melting. Also, the instruments can each only take measurements at a single location. Minchew equates it to a bobber in water: All it can tell you is how the bobber moves as the waves disturb it.

    But by also taking continuous radar measurements from the air, Minchew’s team can collect observations both in space and in time. Instead of just watching the bobber in the water, they can effectively make a movie of the waves propagating out, as well as visualize processes like iceberg calving happening in multiple dimensions.

    Once the bobbers are in place and the movies recorded, the next step is developing machine learning algorithms to help analyze all the new data being collected. While this data-driven kind of discovery has been a hot topic in other fields, this is the first time it has been applied to glacier research.

    “We’ve developed this new methodology to ingest this huge amount of data,” he says, “and from that create an entirely new way of analyzing the system to answer these fundamental and critically important questions.”  More

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    New maps show airplane contrails over the U.S. dropped steeply in 2020

    As Covid-19’s initial wave crested around the world, travel restrictions and a drop in passengers led to a record number of grounded flights in 2020. The air travel reduction cleared the skies of not just jets but also the fluffy white contrails they produce high in the atmosphere.

    MIT engineers have mapped the contrails that were generated over the United States in 2020, and compared the results to prepandemic years. They found that on any given day in 2018, and again in 2019, contrails covered a total area equal to Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. In 2020, this contrail coverage shrank by about 20 percent, mirroring a similar drop in U.S. flights.  

    While 2020’s contrail dip may not be surprising, the findings are proof that the team’s mapping technique works. Their study marks the first time researchers have captured the fine and ephemeral details of contrails over a large continental scale.

    Now, the researchers are applying the technique to predict where in the atmosphere contrails are likely to form. The cloud-like formations are known to play a significant role in aviation-related global warming. The team is working with major airlines to forecast regions in the atmosphere where contrails may form, and to reroute planes around these regions to minimize contrail production.

    “This kind of technology can help divert planes to prevent contrails, in real time,” says Steven Barrett, professor and associate head of MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “There’s an unusual opportunity to halve aviation’s climate impact by eliminating most of the contrails produced today.”

    Barrett and his colleagues have published their results today in the journal Environmental Research Letters. His co-authors at MIT include graduate student Vincent Meijer, former graduate student Luke Kulik, research scientists Sebastian Eastham, Florian Allroggen, and Raymond Speth, and LIDS Director and professor Sertac Karaman.

    Trail training

    About half of the aviation industry’s contribution to global warming comes directly from planes’ carbon dioxide emissions. The other half is thought to be a consequence of their contrails. The signature white tails are produced when a plane’s hot, humid exhaust mixes with cool humid air high in the atmosphere. Emitted in thin lines, contrails quickly spread out and can act as blankets that trap the Earth’s outgoing heat.

    While a single contrail may not have much of a warming effect, taken together contrails have a significant impact. But the estimates of this effect are uncertain and based on computer modeling as well as limited satellite data. What’s more, traditional computer vision algorithms that analyze contrail data have a hard time discerning the wispy tails from natural clouds.

    To precisely pick out and track contrails over a large scale, the MIT team looked to images taken by NASA’s GOES-16, a geostationary satellite that hovers over the same swath of the Earth, including the United States, taking continuous, high-resolution images.

    The team first obtained about 100 images taken by the satellite, and trained a set of people to interpret remote sensing data and label each image’s pixel as either part of a contrail or not. They used this labeled dataset to train a computer-vision algorithm to discern a contrail from a cloud or other image feature.

    The researchers then ran the algorithm on about 100,000 satellite images, amounting to nearly 6 trillion pixels, each pixel representing an area of about 2 square kilometers. The images covered the contiguous U.S., along with parts of Canada and Mexico, and were taken about every 15 minutes, between Jan. 1, 2018, and Dec. 31, 2020.

    The algorithm automatically classified each pixel as either a contrail or not a contrail, and generated daily maps of contrails over the United States. These maps mirrored the major flight paths of most U.S. airlines, with some notable differences. For instance, contrail “holes” appeared around major airports, which reflects the fact that planes landing and taking off around airports are generally not high enough in the atmosphere for contrails to form.

    “The algorithm knows nothing about where planes fly, and yet when processing the satellite imagery, it resulted in recognizable flight routes,” Barrett says. “That’s one piece of evidence that says this method really does capture contrails over a large scale.”

    Cloudy patterns

    Based on the algorithm’s maps, the researchers calculated the total area covered each day by contrails in the US. On an average day in 2018 and in 2019, U.S. contrails took up about 43,000 square kilometers. This coverage dropped by 20 percent in March of 2020 as the pandemic set in. From then on, contrails slowly reappeared as air travel resumed through the year.

    The team also observed daily and seasonal patterns. In general, contrails appeared to peak in the morning and decline in the afternoon. This may be a training artifact: As natural cirrus clouds are more likely to form in the afternoon, the algorithm may have trouble discerning contrails amid the clouds later in the day. But it might also be an important indication about when contrails form most. Contrails also peaked in late winter and early spring, when more of the air is naturally colder and more conducive for contrail formation.

    The team has now adapted the technique to predict where contrails are likely to form in real time. Avoiding these regions, Barrett says, could take a significant, almost immediate chunk out of aviation’s global warming contribution.  

    “Most measures to make aviation sustainable take a long time,” Barrett says. “(Contrail avoidance) could be accomplished in a few years, because it requires small changes to how aircraft are flown, with existing airplanes and observational technology. It’s a near-term way of reducing aviation’s warming by about half.”

    The team is now working towards this objective of large-scale contrail avoidance using realtime satellite observations.

    This research was supported in part by NASA and the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative. More