More stories

  • in

    MIT J-WAFS announces 2022 seed grant recipients

    The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT has awarded eight MIT principal investigators with 2022 J-WAFS seed grants. The grants support innovative MIT research that has the potential to have significant impact on water- and food-related challenges.

    The only program at MIT that is dedicated to water- and food-related research, J-WAFS has offered seed grant funding to MIT principal investigators and their teams for the past eight years. The grants provide up to $75,000 per year, overhead-free, for two years to support new, early-stage research in areas such as water and food security, safety, supply, and sustainability. Past projects have spanned many diverse disciplines, including engineering, science, technology, and business innovation, as well as social science and economics, architecture, and urban planning. 

    Seven new projects led by eight researchers will be supported this year. With funding going to four different MIT departments, the projects address a range of challenges by employing advanced materials, technology innovations, and new approaches to resource management. The new projects aim to remove harmful chemicals from water sources, develop drought monitoring systems for farmers, improve management of the shellfish industry, optimize water purification materials, and more.

    “Climate change, the pandemic, and most recently the war in Ukraine have exacerbated and put a spotlight on the serious challenges facing global water and food systems,” says J-WAFS director John H. Lienhard. He adds, “The proposals chosen this year have the potential to create measurable, real-world impacts in both the water and food sectors.”  

    The 2022 J-WAFS seed grant researchers and their projects are:

    Gang Chen, the Carl Richard Soderberg Professor of Power Engineering in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, is using sunlight to desalinate water. The use of solar energy for desalination is not a new idea, particularly solar thermal evaporation methods. However, the solar thermal evaporation process has an overall low efficiency because it relies on breaking hydrogen bonds among individual water molecules, which is very energy-intensive. Chen and his lab recently discovered a photomolecular effect that dramatically lowers the energy required for desalination. 

    The bonds among water molecules inside a water cluster in liquid water are mostly hydrogen bonds. Chen discovered that a photon with energy larger than the bonding energy between the water cluster and the remaining water liquids can cleave off the water cluster at the water-air interface, colliding with air molecules and disintegrating into 60 or even more individual water molecules. This effect has the potential to significantly boost clean water production via new desalination technology that produces a photomolecular evaporation rate that exceeds pure solar thermal evaporation by at least ten-fold. 

    John E. Fernández is the director of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) and a professor in the Department of Architecture, and also affiliated with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Fernández is working with Scott D. Odell, a postdoc in the ESI, to better understand the impacts of mining and climate change in water-stressed regions of Chile.

    The country of Chile is one of the world’s largest exporters of both agricultural and mineral products; however, little research has been done on climate change effects at the intersection of these two sectors. Fernández and Odell will explore how desalination is being deployed by the mining industry to relieve pressure on continental water supplies in Chile, and with what effect. They will also research how climate change and mining intersect to affect Andean glaciers and agricultural communities dependent upon them. The researchers intend for this work to inform policies to reduce social and environmental harms from mining, desalination, and climate change.

    Ariel L. Furst is the Raymond (1921) and Helen St. Laurent Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. Her 2022 J-WAFS seed grant project seeks to effectively remove dangerous and long-lasting chemicals from water supplies and other environmental areas. 

    Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a component of Teflon, is a member of a group of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These human-made chemicals have been extensively used in consumer products like nonstick cooking pans. Exceptionally high levels of PFOA have been measured in water sources near manufacturing sites, which is problematic as these chemicals do not readily degrade in our bodies or the environment. The majority of humans have detectable levels of PFAS in their blood, which can lead to significant health issues including cancer, liver damage, and thyroid effects, as well as developmental effects in infants. Current remediation methods are limited to inefficient capture and are mostly confined to laboratory settings. Furst’s proposed method utilizes low-energy, scaffolded enzyme materials to move beyond simple capture to degrade these hazardous pollutants.

    Heather J. Kulik is an associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT who is developing novel computational strategies to identify optimal materials for purifying water. Water treatment requires purification by selectively separating small ions from water. However, human-made, scalable materials for water purification and desalination are often not stable in typical operating conditions and lack precision pores for good separation. 

    Metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) are promising materials for water purification because their pores can be tailored to have precise shapes and chemical makeup for selective ion affinity. Yet few MOFs have been assessed for their properties relevant to water purification. Kulik plans to use virtual high-throughput screening accelerated by machine learning models and molecular simulation to accelerate discovery of MOFs. Specifically, Kulik will be looking for MOFs with ultra-stable structures in water that do not break down at certain temperatures. 

    Gregory C. Rutledge is the Lammot du Pont Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. He is leading a project that will explore how to better separate oils from water. This is an important problem to solve given that industry-generated oil-contaminated water is a major source of pollution to the environment.

    Emulsified oils are particularly challenging to remove from water due to their small droplet sizes and long settling times. Microfiltration is an attractive technology for the removal of emulsified oils, but its major drawback is fouling, or the accumulation of unwanted material on solid surfaces. Rutledge will examine the mechanism of separation behind liquid-infused membranes (LIMs) in which an infused liquid coats the surface and pores of the membrane, preventing fouling. Robustness of the LIM technology for removal of different types of emulsified oils and oil mixtures will be evaluated. César Terrer is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering whose J-WAFS project seeks to answer the question: How can satellite images be used to provide a high-resolution drought monitoring system for farmers? 

    Drought is recognized as one of the world’s most pressing issues, with direct impacts on vegetation that threaten water resources and food production globally. However, assessing and monitoring the impact of droughts on vegetation is extremely challenging as plants’ sensitivity to lack of water varies across species and ecosystems. Terrer will leverage a new generation of remote sensing satellites to provide high-resolution assessments of plant water stress at regional to global scales. The aim is to provide a plant drought monitoring product with farmland-specific services for water and socioeconomic management.

    Michael Triantafyllou is the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Professor in Ocean Science and Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He is developing a web-based system for natural resources management that will deploy geospatial analysis, visualization, and reporting to better manage and facilitate aquaculture data.  By providing value to commercial fisheries’ permit holders who employ significant numbers of people and also to recreational shellfish permit holders who contribute to local economies, the project has attracted support from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries as well as a number of local resource management departments.

    Massachusetts shell fisheries generated roughly $339 million in 2020, accounting for 17 percent of U.S. East Coast production. Managing such a large industry is a time-consuming process, given there are thousands of acres of coastal areas grouped within over 800 classified shellfish growing areas. Extreme climate events present additional challenges. Triantafyllou’s research will help efforts to enforce environmental regulations, support habitat restoration efforts, and prevent shellfish-related food safety issues. More

  • in

    At Climate Grand Challenges showcase event, an exploration of how to accelerate breakthrough solutions

    On the eve of Earth Day, more than 300 faculty, researchers, students, government officials, and industry leaders gathered in the Samberg Conference Center, along with thousands more who tuned in online, to celebrate MIT’s first-ever Climate Grand Challenges and the five most promising concepts to emerge from the two-year competition.

    The event began with a climate policy conversation between MIT President L. Rafael Reif and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, followed by presentations from each of the winning flagship teams, and concluded with an expert panel that explored pathways for moving from ideas to impact at scale as quickly as possible.

    “In 2020, when we launched the Climate Grand Challenges, we wanted to focus the daring creativity and pioneering expertise of the MIT community on the urgent problem of climate change,” said President Reif in kicking off the event. “Together these flagship projects will define a transformative new research agenda at MIT, one that has the potential to make meaningful contributions to the global climate response.”

    Reif and Kerry discussed multiple aspects of the climate crisis, including mitigation, adaptation, and the policies and strategies that can help the world avert the worst consequences of climate change and make the United States a leader again in bringing technology into commercial use. Referring to the accelerated wartime research effort that helped turn the tide in World War II, which included work conducted at MIT, Kerry said, “We need about five Manhattan Projects, frankly.”

    “People are now sensing a much greater urgency to finding solutions — new technology — and taking to scale some of the old technologies,” Kerry said. “There are things that are happening that I think are exciting, but the problem is it’s not happening fast enough.”

    Strategies for taking technology from the lab to the marketplace were the basis for the final portion of the event. The panel was moderated by Alicia Barton, president and CEO of FirstLight Power, and included Manish Bapna, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council; Jack Little, CEO and co-founder of MathWorks; Arati Prabhakar, president of Actuate and former head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; and Katie Rae, president and managing director of The Engine. The discussion touched upon the importance of marshaling the necessary resources and building the cross-sector partnerships required to scale the technologies being developed by the flagship teams and to deliver them to the world in time to make a difference. 

    “MIT doesn’t sit on its hands ever, and innovation is central to its founding,” said Rae. “The students coming out of MIT at every level, along with the professors, have been committed to these challenges for a long time and therefore will have a big impact. These flagships have always been in process, but now we have an extraordinary moment to commercialize these projects.”

    The panelists weighed in on how to change the mindset around finance, policy, business, and community adoption to scale massive shifts in energy generation, transportation, and other major carbon-emitting industries. They stressed the importance of policies that address the economic, equity, and public health impacts of climate change and of reimagining supply chains and manufacturing to grow and distribute these technologies quickly and affordably. 

    “We are embarking on five adventures, but we do not know yet, cannot know yet, where these projects will take us,” said Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. “These are powerful and promising ideas. But each one will require focused effort, creative and interdisciplinary teamwork, and sustained commitment and support if they are to become part of the climate and energy revolution that the world urgently needs. This work begins now.” 

    Zuber called for investment from philanthropists and financiers, and urged companies, governments, and others to join this all-of-humanity effort. Associate Provost for International Activities Richard Lester echoed this message in closing the event. 

    “Every one of us needs to put our shoulder to the wheel at the points where our leverage is maximized — where we can do what we’re best at,” Lester said. “For MIT, Climate Grand Challenges is one of those maximum leverage points.” More

  • in

    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

  • in

    MIT announces five flagship projects in first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition

    MIT today announced the five flagship projects selected in its first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition. These multiyear projects will define a dynamic research agenda focused on unraveling some of the toughest unsolved climate problems and bringing high-impact, science-based solutions to the world on an accelerated basis.

    Representing the most promising concepts to emerge from the two-year competition, the five flagship projects will receive additional funding and resources from MIT and others to develop their ideas and swiftly transform them into practical solutions at scale.

    “Climate Grand Challenges represents a whole-of-MIT drive to develop game-changing advances to confront the escalating climate crisis, in time to make a difference,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “We are inspired by the creativity and boldness of the flagship ideas and by their potential to make a significant contribution to the global climate response. But given the planet-wide scale of the challenge, success depends on partnership. We are eager to work with visionary leaders in every sector to accelerate this impact-oriented research, implement serious solutions at scale, and inspire others to join us in confronting this urgent challenge for humankind.”

    Brief descriptions of the five Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects are provided below.

    Bringing Computation to the Climate Challenge

    This project leverages advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data sciences to improve the accuracy of climate models and make them more useful to a variety of stakeholders — from communities to industry. The team is developing a digital twin of the Earth that harnesses more data than ever before to reduce and quantify uncertainties in climate projections.

    Research leads: Raffaele Ferrari, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and director of the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate; and Noelle Eckley Selin, director of the Technology and Policy Program and professor with a joint appointment in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    Center for Electrification and Decarbonization of Industry

    This project seeks to reinvent and electrify the processes and materials behind hard-to-decarbonize industries like steel, cement, ammonia, and ethylene production. A new innovation hub will perform targeted fundamental research and engineering with urgency, pushing the technological envelope on electricity-driven chemical transformations.

    Research leads: Yet-Ming Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Bilge Yıldız, the Breene M. Kerr Professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering

    Preparing for a new world of weather and climate extremes

    This project addresses key gaps in knowledge about intensifying extreme events such as floods, hurricanes, and heat waves, and quantifies their long-term risk in a changing climate. The team is developing a scalable climate-change adaptation toolkit to help vulnerable communities and low-carbon energy providers prepare for these extreme weather events.

    Research leads: Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and co-director of the MIT Lorenz Center; Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism in the Department of Architecture and director of the Urban Risk Lab; and Paul O’Gorman, professor in the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    The Climate Resilience Early Warning System

    The CREWSnet project seeks to reinvent climate change adaptation with a novel forecasting system that empowers underserved communities to interpret local climate risk, proactively plan for their futures incorporating resilience strategies, and minimize losses. CREWSnet will initially be demonstrated in southwestern Bangladesh, serving as a model for similarly threatened regions around the world.

    Research leads: John Aldridge, assistant leader of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and Elfatih Eltahir, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor of Hydrology and Climate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

    Revolutionizing agriculture with low-emissions, resilient crops

    This project works to revolutionize the agricultural sector with climate-resilient crops and fertilizers that have the ability to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food production.

    Research lead: Christopher Voigt, the Daniel I.C. Wang Professor in the Department of Biological Engineering

    “As one of the world’s leading institutions of research and innovation, it is incumbent upon MIT to draw on our depth of knowledge, ingenuity, and ambition to tackle the hard climate problems now confronting the world,” says Richard Lester, MIT associate provost for international activities. “Together with collaborators across industry, finance, community, and government, the Climate Grand Challenges teams are looking to develop and implement high-impact, path-breaking climate solutions rapidly and at a grand scale.”

    The initial call for ideas in 2020 yielded nearly 100 letters of interest from almost 400 faculty members and senior researchers, representing 90 percent of MIT departments. After an extensive evaluation, 27 finalist teams received a total of $2.7 million to develop comprehensive research and innovation plans. The projects address four broad research themes:

    To select the winning projects, research plans were reviewed by panels of international experts representing relevant scientific and technical domains as well as experts in processes and policies for innovation and scalability.

    “In response to climate change, the world really needs to do two things quickly: deploy the solutions we already have much more widely, and develop new solutions that are urgently needed to tackle this intensifying threat,” says Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research. “These five flagship projects exemplify MIT’s strong determination to bring its knowledge and expertise to bear in generating new ideas and solutions that will help solve the climate problem.”

    “The Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects set a new standard for inclusive climate solutions that can be adapted and implemented across the globe,” says MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles. “This competition propels the entire MIT research community — faculty, students, postdocs, and staff — to act with urgency around a worsening climate crisis, and I look forward to seeing the difference these projects can make.”

    “MIT’s efforts on climate research amid the climate crisis was a primary reason that I chose to attend MIT, and remains a reason that I view the Institute favorably. MIT has a clear opportunity to be a thought leader in the climate space in our own MIT way, which is why CGC fits in so well,” says senior Megan Xu, who served on the Climate Grand Challenges student committee and is studying ways to make the food system more sustainable.

    The Climate Grand Challenges competition is a key initiative of “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” which the Institute published in May 2021. Fast Forward outlines MIT’s comprehensive plan for helping the world address the climate crisis. It consists of five broad areas of action: sparking innovation, educating future generations, informing and leveraging government action, reducing MIT’s own climate impact, and uniting and coordinating all of MIT’s climate efforts. More

  • in

    Architecture isn’t just for humans anymore

    In a rural valley of northwestern Nevada, home to stretches of wetlands, sagebrush-grassland, and dozens of natural springs, is a 3,800-acre parcel of off-grid land known as Fly Ranch. Owned by Burning Man, the community that yearly transforms the neighboring playa into a colorful free-wheeling temporary city, Fly Ranch is part of a long-term project to extend the festival’s experimental ethos beyond the one-week event. In 2018, the group, in conjunction with The Land Art Generator Initiative, invited proposals for sustainable systems for energy, water, food, shelter, and regenerative waste management on the site. 

    For recent MIT alumni Zhicheng Xu MArch ’22 and Mengqi Moon He SMArchS ’20, Fly Ranch presented a new challenge. Xu and He, who have backgrounds in landscape design, urbanism, and architecture, had been in the process of researching the use of timber as a building material, and thought the competition would be a good opportunity to experiment and showcase some of their initial research. “But because of our MIT education, we approached the problem with a very critical lens,” says Xu, “We were asking ourselves: Who are we designing for? What do we mean by shelter? Sheltering whom?” 

    Architecture for other-than-human worlds

    Their winning proposal, “Lodgers,” selected among 185 entries and currently on view at the Weisner Student Art Gallery, asks how to design a structure that will accommodate not only the land’s human inhabitants, but also the over 100 plant and animal species that call the desert home. In other words, what would an architecture look like that centered not only human needs, but also those of the broader ecosystem? 

    Developing the project during the pandemic lockdowns, Xu and He pored over a long list of hundreds of local plants and animals — from red-tailed hawks to desert rats to bullfrogs — and designed the project with these species in mind. Combining new computational tools with the traditional Western Shoshone and Northern Paiute designs found in brush shelters and woven baskets, the thatched organic structures called “lodgers” feature bee towers, nesting platforms for birds, sugar-glazed logs for breeding beetle larvae, and composting toilets and environmental education classrooms for humans. 

    But it wasn’t until they visited Fly Ranch, in the spring of 2021, that Xu and He’s understanding of the project deepened. For several nights, they camped onsite with other competition finalists, alongside park rangers and longtime Burners, eating community meals together and learning first-hand the complexities of the desert. At one point during the trip, they were caught in a sandstorm while driving a trailer-load of supplies down a dirt road. The experience, they say, was an important lesson in humility, and how such extremes made the landscape what it was. “That’s why we later came to the term ‘coping with the friction’ because it’s always there,” He says, “There’s no solution.” Xu adds, “The different elements from the land — the water, the heat, the sound, the wind — are the elements we have to cope with in the project. Those little moments made us realize we need to reposition ourselves, stay humble, and try to understand the land.” 

    Leave no trace

    While the deserts of the American West have long been vulnerable to human hubris — from large-scale military procedures to mining operations that have left deep scars on the landscape — Xu and He designed the “lodgers” to leave a light footprint. Instead of viewing buildings as permanent solutions, with the environment perceived as an obstacle to be overcome, Xu and He see their project as a “temporary inhabitant.” 

    To reduce carbon emissions, their goal was to adopt low-cost, low-tech, recycled materials that could be used without the need for special training or heavy equipment, so that the construction itself could be open to everyone in the community. In addition to scrap wood collected onsite, the project uses two-by-four lumber, among the most common and cheapest materials in American construction, and thatching for the facades created from the dry reeds and bulrush that grow abundantly in the region. If the structures are shut down, the use of renewable materials allows them to decompose naturally. 

    Fly Ranch at MIT 

    Now, the MIT community has the opportunity to experience part of the Nevada desert — and be part of the process of participatory design. “We are very fortunate to be funded by the Council of the Arts at MIT,” says Xu. “With that funding, we were able to expand the team, so the format of the exhibition was more democratic than just designing and building.” With the help of their classmates Calvin Zhong ’18 and Wuyahuang Li SMArchS ’21, Xu and He have brought their proposal to life. The ambitious immersive installation includes architectural models, field recordings, projections, and artifacts such as the skeletons of turtles and fish collected at Fly Ranch. Inside the structure is a large communal table, where Xu and He hope to host workshops and conversations to encourage more dialogue and collaboration. Having learned from the design build, Xu and He are now collecting feedback from MIT professors and colleagues to bring the project to the next level. In the fall, they will debut the “lodgers” at the Lisbon Architectural Triennale, and soon hope to build a prototype at Fly Ranch itself. 

    The structures, they hope, will inspire greater reflection on our entanglements with the other-than-human world, and the possibilities of an architecture designed to be impermanent. Humans, after all, are often only “occasional guests” in this landscape, and part of the greater cycles of emergence and decay. “To us, it’s a beautiful expression of how different species are entangled on the land. And us as humans is just another tiny piece in this entanglement,” says Xu. 

    Established as a gift from the MIT Class of 1983, the Wiesner Gallery honors the former president of MIT, Jerome Wiesner, for his support of the arts at the Institute. The gallery was fully renovated in fall 2016, thanks in part to the generosity of Harold ’44 and Arlene Schnitzer and the Council for the Arts at MIT, and now also serves as a central meeting space for MIT Student Arts Programming including the START Studio, Creative Arts Competition, Student Arts Advisory Board, and Arts Scholars. “Lodgers: Friction Between Neighbors” is on view in the Wiesner Student Art Gallery through April 29, and was funded in part by the Council for the Arts at MIT, a group of alumni and friends with a strong commitment to the arts and serving the MIT community. More

  • in

    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

  • in

    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

  • in

    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