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    Computing our climate future

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The climate model of the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Adaptable predictions for average stakeholders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    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 collaborates with Biogen on three-year, $7 million initiative to address climate, health, and equity

    MIT and Biogen have announced that they will collaborate with the goal to accelerate the science and action on climate change to improve human health. This collaboration is supported by a three-year, $7 million commitment from the company and the Biogen Foundation. The biotechnology company, headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Kendall Square, discovers and develops therapies for people living with serious neurological diseases.

    “We have long believed it is imperative for Biogen to make the fight against climate change central to our long-term corporate responsibility commitments. Through this collaboration with MIT, we aim to identify and share innovative climate solutions that will deliver co-benefits for both health and equity,” says Michel Vounatsos, CEO of Biogen. “We are also proud to support the MIT Museum, which promises to make world-class science and education accessible to all, and honor Biogen co-founder Phillip A. Sharp with a dedication inside the museum that recognizes his contributions to its development.”

    Biogen and the Biogen Foundation are supporting research and programs across a range of areas at MIT.

    Advancing climate, health, and equity

    The first such effort involves new work within the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change to establish a state-of-the-art integrated model of climate and health aimed at identifying targets that deliver climate and health co-benefits.

    “Evidence suggests that not all climate-related actions deliver equal health benefits, yet policymakers, planners, and stakeholders traditionally lack the tools to consider how decisions in one arena impact the other,” says C. Adam Schlosser, deputy director of the MIT Joint Program. “Biogen’s collaboration with the MIT Joint Program — and its support of a new distinguished Biogen Fellow who will develop the new climate/health model — will accelerate our efforts to provide decision-makers with these tools.”

    Biogen is also supporting the MIT Technology and Policy Program’s Research to Policy Engagement Initiative to infuse human health as a key new consideration in decision-making on the best pathways forward to address the global climate crisis, and bridge the knowledge-to-action gap by connecting policymakers, researchers, and diverse stakeholders. As part of this work, Biogen is underwriting a distinguished Biogen Fellow to advance new research on climate, health, and equity.

    “Our work with Biogen has allowed us to make progress on key questions that matter to human health and well-being under climate change,” says Noelle Eckley Selin, who directs the MIT Technology and Policy Program and is a professor in the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “Further, their support of the Research to Policy Engagement Initiative helps all of our research become more effective in making change.”

    In addition, Biogen has joined 13 other companies in the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC), which is supporting faculty and student research and developing impact pathways that present a range of actionable steps that companies can take — within and across industries — to advance progress toward climate targets.

    “Biogen joining the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium represents our commitment to working with member companies across a diverse range of industries, an approach that aims to drive changes swift and broad enough to match the scale of the climate challenge,” says Jeremy Gregory, executive director of the MCSC. “We are excited to welcome a member from the biotechnology space and look forward to harnessing Biogen’s perspectives as we continue to collaborate and work together with the MIT community in exciting and meaningful ways.”

    Making world-class science and education available to MIT Museum visitors

    Support from Biogen will honor Nobel laureate, MIT Institute professor, and Biogen co-founder Phillip A. Sharp with a named space inside the new Kendall Square location of the MIT Museum, set to open in spring 2022. Biogen also is supporting one of the museum’s opening exhibitions, “Essential MIT,” with a section focused on solving real-world problems such as climate change. It is also providing programmatic support for the museum’s Life Sciences Maker Engagement Program.

    “Phil has provided fantastic support to the MIT Museum for more than a decade as an advisory board member and now as board chair, and he has been deeply involved in plans for the new museum at Kendall Square,” says John Durant, the Mark R. Epstein (Class of 1963) Director of the museum. “Seeing his name on the wall will be a constant reminder of his key role in this development, as well as a mark of our gratitude.”

    Inspiring and empowering the next generation of scientists

    Biogen funding is also being directed to engage the next generation of scientists through support for the Biogen-MIT Biotech in Action: Virtual Lab, a program designed to foster a love of science among diverse and under-served student populations.

    Biogen’s support is part of its Healthy Climate, Healthy Lives initiative, a $250 million, 20-year commitment to eliminate fossil fuels across its operations and collaborate with renowned institutions to advance the science of climate and health and support under-served communities. Additional support is provided by the Biogen Foundation to further its long-standing focus on providing students with equitable access to outstanding science education. More

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    Research collaboration puts climate-resilient crops in sight

    Any houseplant owner knows that changes in the amount of water or sunlight a plant receives can put it under immense stress. A dying plant brings certain disappointment to anyone with a green thumb. 

    But for farmers who make their living by successfully growing plants, and whose crops may nourish hundreds or thousands of people, the devastation of failing flora is that much greater. As climate change is poised to cause increasingly unpredictable weather patterns globally, crops may be subject to more extreme environmental conditions like droughts, fluctuating temperatures, floods, and wildfire. 

    Climate scientists and food systems researchers worry about the stress climate change may put on crops, and on global food security. In an ambitious interdisciplinary project funded by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), David Des Marais, the Gale Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, and Caroline Uhler, an associate professor in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, are investigating how plant genes communicate with one another under stress. Their research results can be used to breed plants more resilient to climate change.

    Crops in trouble

    Governing plants’ responses to environmental stress are gene regulatory networks, or GRNs, which guide the development and behaviors of living things. A GRN may be comprised of thousands of genes and proteins that all communicate with one another. GRNs help a particular cell, tissue, or organism respond to environmental changes by signaling certain genes to turn their expression on or off.

    Even seemingly minor or short-term changes in weather patterns can have large effects on crop yield and food security. An environmental trigger, like a lack of water during a crucial phase of plant development, can turn a gene on or off, and is likely to affect many others in the GRN. For example, without water, a gene enabling photosynthesis may switch off. This can create a domino effect, where the genes that rely on those regulating photosynthesis are silenced, and the cycle continues. As a result, when photosynthesis is halted, the plant may experience other detrimental side effects, like no longer being able to reproduce or defend against pathogens. The chain reaction could even kill a plant before it has the chance to be revived by a big rain.

    Des Marais says he wishes there was a way to stop those genes from completely shutting off in such a situation. To do that, scientists would need to better understand how exactly gene networks respond to different environmental triggers. Bringing light to this molecular process is exactly what he aims to do in this collaborative research effort.

    Solving complex problems across disciplines

    Despite their crucial importance, GRNs are difficult to study because of how complex and interconnected they are. Usually, to understand how a particular gene is affecting others, biologists must silence one gene and see how the others in the network respond. 

    For years, scientists have aspired to an algorithm that could synthesize the massive amount of information contained in GRNs to “identify correct regulatory relationships among genes,” according to a 2019 article in the Encyclopedia of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology. 

    “A GRN can be seen as a large causal network, and understanding the effects that silencing one gene has on all other genes requires understanding the causal relationships among the genes,” says Uhler. “These are exactly the kinds of algorithms my group develops.”

    Des Marais and Uhler’s project aims to unravel these complex communication networks and discover how to breed crops that are more resilient to the increased droughts, flooding, and erratic weather patterns that climate change is already causing globally.

    In addition to climate change, by 2050, the world will demand 70 percent more food to feed a booming population. “Food systems challenges cannot be addressed individually in disciplinary or topic area silos,” says Greg Sixt, J-WAFS’ research manager for climate and food systems. “They must be addressed in a systems context that reflects the interconnected nature of the food system.”

    Des Marais’ background is in biology, and Uhler’s in statistics. “Dave’s project with Caroline was essentially experimental,” says Renee J. Robins, J-WAFS’ executive director. “This kind of exploratory research is exactly what the J-WAFS seed grant program is for.”

    Getting inside gene regulatory networks

    Des Marais and Uhler’s work begins in a windowless basement on MIT’s campus, where 300 genetically identical Brachypodium distachyon plants grow in large, temperature-controlled chambers. The plant, which contains more than 30,000 genes, is a good model for studying important cereal crops like wheat, barley, maize, and millet. For three weeks, all plants receive the same temperature, humidity, light, and water. Then, half are slowly tapered off water, simulating drought-like conditions.

    Six days into the forced drought, the plants are clearly suffering. Des Marais’ PhD student Jie Yun takes tissues from 50 hydrated and 50 dry plants, freezes them in liquid nitrogen to immediately halt metabolic activity, grinds them up into a fine powder, and chemically separates the genetic material. The genes from all 100 samples are then sequenced at a lab across the street.

    The team is left with a spreadsheet listing the 30,000 genes found in each of the 100 plants at the moment they were frozen, and how many copies there were. Uhler’s PhD student Anastasiya Belyaeva inputs the massive spreadsheet into the computer program she developed and runs her novel algorithm. Within a few hours, the group can see which genes were most active in one condition over another, how the genes were communicating, and which were causing changes in others. 

    The methodology captures important subtleties that could allow researchers to eventually alter gene pathways and breed more resilient crops. “When you expose a plant to drought stress, it’s not like there’s some canonical response,” Des Marais says. “There’s lots of things going on. It’s turning this physiologic process up, this one down, this one didn’t exist before, and now suddenly is turned on.” 

    In addition to Des Marais and Uhler’s research, J-WAFS has funded projects in food and water from researchers in 29 departments across all five MIT schools as well as the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. J-WAFS seed grants typically fund seven to eight new projects every year.

    “The grants are really aimed at catalyzing new ideas, providing the sort of support [for MIT researchers] to be pushing boundaries, and also bringing in faculty who may have some interesting ideas that they haven’t yet applied to water or food concerns,” Robins says. “It’s an avenue for researchers all over the Institute to apply their ideas to water and food.”

    Alison Gold is a student in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. More