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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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    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

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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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    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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    MIT Center for Real Estate launches the Asia Real Estate Initiative

    To appreciate the explosive urbanization taking place in Asia, consider this analogy: Every 40 days, a city the equivalent size of Boston is built in Asia. Of the $24.7 trillion real estate investment opportunities predicted by 2030 in emerging cities, $17.8 trillion (72 percent) will be in Asia. While this growth is exciting to the real estate industry, it brings with it the attendant social and environmental issues.

    To promote a sustainable and innovative approach to this growth, leadership at the MIT Center for Real Estate (MIT CRE) recently established the Asia Real Estate Initiative (AREI), which aims to become a platform for industry leaders, entrepreneurs, and the academic community to find solutions to the practical concerns of real estate development across these countries.

    “Behind the creation of this initiative is the understanding that Asia is a living lab for the study of future global urban development,” says Hashim Sarkis, dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning.

    An investment in cities of the future

    One of the areas in AREI’s scope of focus is connecting sustainability and technology in real estate.

    “We believe the real estate sector should work cooperatively with the energy, science, and technology sectors to solve the climate challenges,” says Richard Lester, the Institute’s associate provost for international activities. “AREI will engage academics and industry leaders, nongovernment organizations, and civic leaders globally and in Asia, to advance sharing knowledge and research.”

    In its effort to understand how trends and new technologies will impact the future of real estate, AREI has received initial support from a prominent alumnus of MIT CRE who wishes to remain anonymous. The gift will support a cohort of researchers working on innovative technologies applicable to advancing real estate sustainability goals, with a special focus on the global and Asia markets. The call for applications is already under way, with AREI seeking to collaborate with scholars who have backgrounds in economics, finance, urban planning, technology, engineering, and other disciplines.

    “The research on real estate sustainability and technology could transform this industry and help invent global real estate of the future,” says Professor Siqi Zheng, faculty director of MIT CRE and AREI faculty chair. “The pairing of real estate and technology often leads to innovative and differential real estate development strategies such as buildings that are green, smart, and healthy.”

    The initiative arrives at a key time to make a significant impact and cement a leadership role in real estate development across Asia. MIT CRE is positioned to help the industry increase its efficiency and social responsibility, with nearly 40 years of pioneering research in the field. Zheng, an established scholar with expertise on urban growth in fast-urbanizing regions, is the former president of the Asia Real Estate Society and sits on the Board of American Real Estate and Urban Economics Association. Her research has been supported by international institutions including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

    “The researchers in AREI are now working on three interrelated themes: the future of real estate and live-work-play dynamics; connecting sustainability and technology in real estate; and innovations in real estate finance and business,” says Zheng.

    The first theme has already yielded a book — “Toward Urban Economic Vibrancy: Patterns and Practices in Asia’s New Cities” — recently published by SA+P Press.

    Engaging thought leaders and global stakeholders

    AREI also plans to collaborate with counterparts in Asia to contribute to research, education, and industry dialogue to meet the challenges of sustainable city-making across the continent and identify areas for innovation. Traditionally, real estate has been a very local business with a lengthy value chain, according to Zhengzhen Tan, director of AREI. Most developers focused their career on one particular product type in one particular regional market. AREI is working to change that dynamic.

    “We want to create a cross-border dialogue within Asia and among Asia, North America, and European leaders to exchange knowledge and practices,” says Tan. “The real estate industry’s learning costs are very high compared to other sectors. Collective learning will reduce the cost of failure and have a significant impact on these global issues.”

    The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow shed additional light on environmental commitments being made by governments in Asia. With real estate representing 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the Asian real estate market is undergoing an urgent transformation to deliver on this commitment.

    “One of the most pressing calls is to get to net-zero emissions for real estate development and operation,” says Tan. “Real estate investors and developers are making short- and long-term choices that are locking in environmental footprints for the ‘decisive decade.’ We hope to inspire developers and investors to think differently and get out of their comfort zone.” More

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    Q&A: Climate Grand Challenges finalists on building equity and fairness into climate solutions

    Note: This is the first in a four-part interview series that will highlight the work of the Climate Grand Challenges finalists, ahead of the April announcement of several multiyear, flagship projects.

    The finalists in MIT’s first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition each received $100,000 to develop bold, interdisciplinary research and innovation plans designed to attack some of the world’s most difficult and unresolved climate problems. The 27 teams are addressing four Grand Challenge problem areas: building equity and fairness into climate solutions; decarbonizing complex industries and processes; removing, managing, and storing greenhouse gases; and using data and science for improved climate risk forecasting.  

    In a conversation prepared for MIT News, faculty from three of the teams in the competition’s “Building equity and fairness into climate solutions” category share their thoughts on the need for inclusive solutions that prioritize disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, and discuss how they are working to accelerate their research to achieve the greatest impact. The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.

    The Equitable Resilience Framework

    Any effort to solve the most complex global climate problems must recognize the unequal burdens borne by different groups, communities, and societies — and should be equitable as well as effective. Janelle Knox-Hayes, associate professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, leads a team that is developing processes and practices for equitable resilience, starting with a local pilot project in Boston over the next five years and extending to other cities and regions of the country. The Equitable Resilience Framework (ERF) is designed to create long-term economic, social, and environmental transformations by increasing the capacity of interconnected systems and communities to respond to a broad range of climate-related events. 

    Q: What is the problem you are trying to solve?

    A: Inequity is one of the severe impacts of climate change and resonates in both mitigation and adaptation efforts. It is important for climate strategies to address challenges of inequity and, if possible, to design strategies that enhance justice, equity, and inclusion, while also enhancing the efficacy of mitigation and adaptation efforts. Our framework offers a blueprint for how communities, cities, and regions can begin to undertake this work.

    Q: What are the most significant barriers that have impacted progress to date?

    A: There is considerable inertia in policymaking. Climate change requires a rethinking, not only of directives but pathways and techniques of policymaking. This is an obstacle and part of the reason our project was designed to scale up from local pilot projects. Another consideration is that the private sector can be more adaptive and nimble in its adoption of creative techniques. Working with the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium there may be ways in which we could modify the ERF to help companies address similar internal adaptation and resilience challenges.

    Protecting and enhancing natural carbon sinks

    Deforestation and forest degradation of strategic ecosystems in the Amazon, Central Africa, and Southeast Asia continue to reduce capacity to capture and store carbon through natural systems and threaten even the most aggressive decarbonization plans. John Fernandez, professor in the Department of Architecture and director of the Environmental Solutions Initiative, reflects on his work with Daniela Rus, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and Joann de Zegher, assistant professor of Operations Management at MIT Sloan, to protect tropical forests by deploying a three-part solution that integrates targeted technology breakthroughs, deep community engagement, and innovative bioeconomic opportunities. 

    Q: Why is the problem you seek to address a “grand challenge”?

    A: We are trying to bring the latest technology to monitoring, assessing, and protecting tropical forests, as well as other carbon-rich and highly biodiverse ecosystems. This is a grand challenge because natural sinks around the world are threatening to release enormous quantities of stored carbon that could lead to runaway global warming. When combined with deep community engagement, particularly with indigenous and afro-descendant communities, this integrated approach promises to deliver substantially enhanced efficacy in conservation coupled to robust and sustainable local development.

    Q: What is known about this problem and what questions remain unanswered?

    A: Satellites, drones, and other technologies are acquiring more data about natural carbon sinks than ever before. The problem is well-described in certain locations such as the eastern Amazon, which has shifted from a net carbon sink to now a net positive carbon emitter. It is also well-known that indigenous peoples are the most effective stewards of the ecosystems that store the greatest amounts of carbon. One of the key questions that remains to be answered is determining the bioeconomy opportunities inherent within the natural wealth of tropical forests and other important ecosystems that are important to sustained protection and conservation.

    Reducing group-based disparities in climate adaptation

    Race, ethnicity, caste, religion, and nationality are often linked to vulnerability to the adverse effects of climate change, and if left unchecked, threaten to exacerbate long standing inequities. A team led by Evan Lieberman, professor of political science and director of the MIT Global Diversity Lab and MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives, Danielle Wood, assistant professor in the Program in Media Arts and Sciences and the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Siqi Zheng, professor of urban and real estate sustainability in the Center for Real Estate and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, is seeking to  reduce ethnic and racial group-based disparities in the capacity of urban communities to adapt to the changing climate. Working with partners in nine coastal cities, they will measure the distribution of climate-related burdens and resiliency through satellites, a custom mobile app, and natural language processing of social media, to help design and test communication campaigns that provide accurate information about risks and remediation to impacted groups. 

    Q: How has this problem evolved?

    A: Group-based disparities continue to intensify within and across countries, owing in part to some randomness in the location of adverse climate events, as well as deep legacies of unequal human development. In turn, economically and politically privileged groups routinely hoard resources for adaptation. In a few cases — notably the United States, Brazil, and with respect to climate-related migrancy, in South Asia — there has been a great deal of research documenting the extent of such disparities. However, we lack common metrics, and for the most part, such disparities are only understood where key actors have politicized the underlying problems. In much of the world, relatively vulnerable and excluded groups may not even be fully aware of the nature of the challenges they face or the resources they require.

    Q: Who will benefit most from your research? 

    A: The greatest beneficiaries will be members of those vulnerable groups who lack the resources and infrastructure to withstand adverse climate shocks. We believe that it will be important to develop solutions such that relatively privileged groups do not perceive them as punitive or zero-sum, but rather as long-term solutions for collective benefit that are both sound and just. More

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    New power sources

    In the mid-1990s, a few energy activists in Massachusetts had a vision: What if citizens had choice about the energy they consumed? Instead of being force-fed electricity sources selected by a utility company, what if cities, towns, and groups of individuals could purchase power that was cleaner and cheaper?

    The small group of activists — including a journalist, the head of a small nonprofit, a local county official, and a legislative aide — drafted model legislation along these lines that reached the state Senate in 1995. The measure stalled out. In 1997, they tried again. Massachusetts legislators were busy passing a bill to reform the state power industry in other ways, and this time the activists got their low-profile policy idea included in it — as a provision so marginal it only got a brief mention in The Boston Globe’s coverage of the bill.

    Today, this idea, often known as Community Choice Aggregation (CCA), is used by roughly 36 million people in the U.S., or 11 percent of the population. Local residents, as a bloc, purchase energy with certain specifications attached, and over 1,800 communities have adopted CCA in six states, with others testing CCA pilot programs. From such modest beginnings, CCA has become a big deal.

    “It started small, then had a profound impact,” says David Hsu, an associate professor at MIT who studies energy policy issues. Indeed, the trajectory of CCA is so striking that Hsu has researched its origins, combing through a variety of archival sources and interviewing the principals. He has now written a journal article examining the lessons and implications of this episode.

    Hsu’s paper, “Straight out of Cape Cod: The origin of community choice aggregation and its spread to other states,” appears in advance online form in the journal Energy Research and Social Science, and in the April print edition of the publication.

    “I wanted to show people that a small idea could take off into something big,” Hsu says. “For me that’s a really hopeful democratic story, where people could do something without feeling they had to take on a whole giant system that wouldn’t immediately respond to only one person.”

    Local control

    Aggregating consumers to purchase energy was not a novelty in the 1990s. Companies within many industries have long joined forces to gain purchasing power for energy. And Rhode Island tried a form of CCA slightly earlier than Massachusetts did.

    However, it is the Massachusetts model that has been adopted widely: Cities or towns can require power purchases from, say, renewable sources, while individual citizens can opt out of those agreements. More state funding (for things like efficiency improvements) is redirected to cities and towns as well.

    In both ways, CCA policies provide more local control over energy delivery. They have been adopted in California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio. Meanwhile, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Virginia have recently passed similar legislation (also known as municipal or government aggregation, or community choice energy).

    For cities and towns, Hsu says, “Maybe you don’t own outright the whole energy system, but let’s take away one particular function of the utility, which is procurement.”

    That vision motivated a handful of Massachusetts activists and policy experts in the 1990s, including journalist Scott Ridley, who co-wrote a 1986 book, “Power Struggle,” with the University of Massachusetts historian Richard Rudolph and had spent years thinking about ways to reconfigure the energy system; Matt Patrick, chair of a local nonprofit focused on energy efficiency; Rob O’Leary, a local official in Barnstable County, on Cape Cod; and Paul Fenn, a staff aide to the state senator who chaired the legislature’s energy committee.

    “It started with these political activists,” Hsu says.

    Hsu’s research emphasizes several lessons to be learned from the fact the legislation first failed in 1995, before unexpectedly passing in 1997. Ridley remained an author and public figure; Patrick and O’Leary would each eventually be elected to the state legislature, but only after 2000; and Fenn had left his staff position by 1995 and worked with the group long-distance from California (where he became a long-term advocate about the issue). Thus, at the time CCA passed in 1997, none of its main advocates held an insider position in state politics. How did it succeed?

    Lessons of the legislation

    In the first place, Hsu believes, a legislative process resembles what the political theorist John Kingdon has called a “multiple streams framework,” in which “many elements of the policymaking process are separate, meandering, and uncertain.” Legislation isn’t entirely controlled by big donors or other interest groups, and “policy entrepreneurs” can find success in unpredictable windows of opportunity.

    “It’s the most true-to-life theory,” says Hsu.  

    Second, Hsu emphasizes, finding allies is crucial. In the case of CCA, that came about in a few ways. Many towns in Massachusetts have a town-level legislature known as Town Meeting; the activists got those bodies in about 20 towns to pass nonbinding resolutions in favor of community choice. O’Leary helped create a regional county commission in Barnstable County, while Patrick crafted an energy plan for it. High electricity rates were affecting all of Cape Cod at the time, so community choice also served as an economic benefit for Cape Cod’s working-class service-industry employees. The activists also found that adding an opt-out clause to the 1997 version appealed to legislators, who would support CCA if their constituents were not all bound to it.

    “You really have to stick with it, and you have to look for coalition partners,” Hsu says. “It’s fun to hear them [the activists] talk about going to Town Meetings, and how they tried to build grassroots support. If you look for allies, you can get things done. [I hope] the people can see [themselves] in other people’s activism even if they’re not exactly the same as you are.”

    By 1997, the CCA legislation had more geographic support, was understood as both an economic and environmental benefit for voters, and would not force membership upon anyone. The activists, while giving media interviews, and holding conferences, had found additional traction in the principle of citizen choice.

    “It’s interesting to me how the rhetoric of [citizen] choice and the rhetoric of democracy proves to be effective,” Hsu says. “Legislators feel like they have to give everyone some choice. And it expresses a collective desire for a choice that the utilities take away by being monopolies.”

    He adds: “We need to set out principles that shape systems, rather than just taking the system as a given and trying to justify principles that are 150 years old.”

    One last element in CCA passage was good timing. The governor and legislature in Massachusetts were already seeking a “grand bargain” to restructure electricity delivery and loosen the grip of utilities; the CCA fit in as part of this larger reform movement. Still, CCA adoption has been gradual; about one-third of Massachusetts towns with CCA have only adopted it within the last five years.

    CCA’s growth does not mean it’s invulnerable to repeal or utility-funded opposition efforts — “In California there’s been pretty intense pushback,” Hsu notes. Still, Hsu concludes, the fact that a handful of activists could start a national energy-policy movement is a useful reminder that everyone’s actions can make a difference.

    “It wasn’t like they went charging through a barricade, they just found a way around it,” Hsu says. “I want my students to know you can organize and rethink the future. It takes some commitment and work over a long time.” More

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    Courtney Lesoon and Elizabeth Yarina win Fulbright-Hays Scholarships

    Two MIT doctoral students in the MIT School of Architecture and Planning have received the prestigious Fulbright-Hays Scholarship for Doctoral Dissertation Research Award. Courtney Lesoon and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Yarina are the first awardees from MIT in more than a decade.

    The fellowship provides opportunities for doctoral students to engage in full-time dissertation research abroad. The program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, is designed to contribute to the development and improvement of the study of modern foreign languages and area studies. Applicants anticipate pursuing a teaching career in the United States following completion of their dissertation. There were 138 individuals from 47 institutions named scholars for the 2021 cycle.

    Courtney Lesoon

    Lesoon is a doctoral candidate in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, in the History, Theory and Criticism Section of the Department of Architecture. Lesoon earned her BA from College of the Holy Cross and was a 2012-13 Fulbright U.S. Student grantee to the United Arab Emirates, where her research concerned contemporary art and emerging cultural institutions. Her dissertation is titled “Spatializing Ahl al-ʿIlm: Learning and the Rise of the Early Islamic City.” Losoon’s fieldwork will be done in Morocco, Egypt, and Turkey.

    “Courtney’s project presents an innovative idea that has not, to my knowledge, been investigated before,” says Nasser Rabbat, professor and director of the MIT Aga Khan Program. “How did the emergence and evolution of a particularly Islamic learning system affect the development of the city in the early Islamic period? Her work enriches the thinking about premodern urbanism and education everywhere by theorizing the intricate relationship between traveling, learning, and the city.”

    “I’ll be working in different manuscripts collections in Morocco, Egypt, and Turkey to investigate where and how scholars were learning inside of the early Islamic city before the formal institutionalization of higher education,” says Lesoon. “I’m interested in how learning — as a set of social practices — informed urban life. My project speaks to two different fields; Islamic urbanism and Islamic intellectual history. I’m really excited about my time on Fulbright-Hays; it will be a really fruitful time for my research and writing.”

    Before arriving at MIT, Lesoon worked as a research assistant in the Art of the Middle East Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Recently, she was awarded the 2021 Margaret B. Ševčenko Prize for “the best unpublished essay written by a junior scholar” for her paper “The Sphero-conical as Apothecary Vessel: An Argument for Dedicated Use.” Lesoon earned her MA from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where her thesis investigated an 18th-century “Damascus Room” and its acquisition as a collected interior in the United States.

    Lizzie Yarina

    Yarina is a doctoral candidate in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and a research fellow at the MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism. She is presently co-editing a volume on the relationship between climate models and the built environment with a multidisciplinary team of editors and contributors. Yarina was a research scientist at the MIT Urban Risk Lab, where she was part of a team examining alternatives to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s post-disaster housing systems; she also conducted research on disaster preparedness in Japan. Her award supports her doctoral research under the title “Modeling the Mekong: Climate Adaptation Imaginaries in Delta Regions,” which will include fieldwork in Vietnam, the Netherlands, Thailand, and Cambodia.

    “Lizzie’s research brings together three dimensions critical to global well-being and sustainability: adapting to the inevitability of changing ecosystems wrought by the climate crisis; questioning the equity, appropriateness, and relationality of adaptation planning models spanning the global North and the global South; and understanding how to develop durable and just climate futures,” says Christopher Zegras, professor of mobility and urban planning and department head for DUSP. “Her work will be an important contribution toward the long-term health of our planet and of communities working to justly adapt to climate change.”

    Previously, Yarina was awarded a U.S. Scholarship Fulbright to New Zealand to research spatial mapping and policy implications of Pacific Islander migration to New Zealand.

    “My dissertation project looks at climate adaptation planning in delta regions,” she says. “My focus is on Vietnam’s Mekong River Delta, but I’m also looking at how models that are used in delta adaptation planning move between different deltas, including the Netherlands Rhine Delta and the Mississippi Delta.”

    Working on her masters at MIT, Yarina had a teaching fellowship in Singapore, where she conducted research on climate adaptation plans in four major cities in Southeast Asia.

    “Through that process I learned about the role of Dutch experts and Dutch models in shaping how climate adaptation planning was taking place in Southeast Asia,” she says. “This project expands on that work from looking at a single city to examining a regional plan at the scale of a delta.”

    Yarina holds a joint masters in architecture and masters of city planning from MIT, and a BS in architecture from the University of Michigan. More