This year the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program will send more than 1,000 students abroad. From conceptualizing electric-bicycle kits in Spain to developing assistive technology devices in Mexico, MISTI students will learn about new cultures and explore techniques for solving the world’s challenges through experiences with partners across the globe. Through their experiences abroad, students gain a firsthand understanding of the international workplace, learn to navigate scientific networks and begin to understand just how far an MIT education can take them.
Here are a few things the more than 600 2017 MISTI summer interns will do:
MISTI is MIT’s pioneering international education program, based in the Center for International Studies in MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS). Founded in 1983 by SHASS faculty, the program is rooted in the "mens-et-manus" ("mind-and-hand") tradition: Faculty in SHASS first prepare MIT students for their internships with courses in the language, history, and culture of their host countries. MISTI then matches students with tailored internship, research, and teaching opportunities abroad — training them for cross-cultural careers and leadership on global teams. MISTI also facilitates international faculty collaborations and develop partnerships with leading companies, research institutes, and universities around the world.
At a time of great societal challenges worldwide, MIT has released a new plan for global engagement, outlining a framework for the Institute’s burgeoning international activites in education, research, innovation, and service.
Published after extensive consultations with members of the Institute community, the report, “A Global Strategy for MIT,” establishes core principles to help guide the Institute’s future international activities, and proposes several new initiatives to promote these activities, both on campus and around the world.
“MIT’s international activities have been growing rapidly, and further growth is likely,” the report states. “The plan is designed to create a more robust and durable platform to support the international initiatives of individual faculty, while also establishing a principled framework for selecting and undertaking larger-scale activities to increase MIT’s impact in the world.”
Among its recommendations, the report calls for new efforts to cultivate and coordinate faculty- and Institute-level collaborations in different regions of the world. While MIT will likely increase its engagement in many countries, the plan specifically calls for an increased focus on China, Latin America, and Africa — places that “have been underrepresented in the MIT portfolio of activities previously and that have high potential for impactful engagement.”
Additional recommendations are designed to continue building out MIT’s distinctive “global classroom,” which already provides many opportunities for students to learn about the world through hands-on projects that solve practical problems. Another recommendation calls for a more steamlined approach to helping build new institutions and capabilities in other countries. The plan also calls for a review of the cap on international undergraduate admissions.
“Working internationally and achieving international impact are essential to achieving MIT’s mission of service to the nation and the world,” says Richard K. Lester, the associate provost of MIT who oversees international activities, and who authored the report. “Engaging internationally also strengthens our own campus in many ways,” adds Lester, who is also the Japan Steel Industry Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering.
Partners in progress
MIT already has a global character; its campus community of more than 20,000 includes about 6,500 faculty, academic staff, and students from about 150 foreign countries. About 43 percent of faculty, 43 percent of graduate students, and 65 percent of postdocs are from outside the U.S.
These figures have risen significantly within the last two decades: International students accounted for 75 percent of the increase in MIT’s graduate student population since 1998, and 80 percent of the growth in the Institute’s postdoctoral population since 2006. International sponsorship of research and other campus activities has grown threefold over the last decade, and accounted for 18 percent of all such activity at MIT in 2016.
Meanwhile, MIT faculty and students are engaged in research, education, and service projects in 75 countries. Half of graduating MIT seniors in 2016 reported having at least one international educational experience, up from 23 percent in 2006.
MIT’s orientation toward innovative solutions, exemplified by its current “Campaign for a Better World,” will continue to encourage projects in other countries, in areas including health, energy, the environment, education, and water access.
The new plan’s recommendation to strengthen MIT’s regional outreach — “MIT Partnerships for a Better World,” as the plan calls them — includes three elements.
First, the report calls for faculty working groups, organized by geographic region, to provide strategic advice and create regional action plans. Second, the plan suggests that periodic MIT summit meetings in targeted regions will help establish new programs and connections. And third, the plan calls for an expansion of international seed funds to support collaborative research and educational programs with faculty and institutions in these regions.
MIT is already a participant in high-level summits with leaders around the world. This week, MIT President L. Rafael Reif will be speaking at a forum in Saudi Arabia hosted by Khalid Al-Falih, head of the country’s Ministry of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources.
(Al-Falih also spoke at MIT in June 2016, at a meeting of university and business leaders from Massachusetts. At that event, he discussed Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” project, a new policy agenda aiming to diversify the country’s economy beyond oil, to other technologies as well as services, logistics, and tourism.)
As the new report outlines, MIT’s existing programs will continue to play a central role in its global strategy. For example, the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) arranged almost 1,000 student internships in 30 countries in 2016 — representing a fourfold increase over the last decade. MIT’s OpenCourseWare website has received nearly 200 million visits from around the world since its launch in 2003, while 3.5 million learners, 75 percent of whom are from outside the U.S., have signed up for MITx courses since the launch of the edX platform in 2012. MIT is also continuing to develop a MicroMasters credential available to global learners in multiple fields.
Still room for MIT-style “bottom-up” enterprise
Lester emphasizes the importance of “bottom up” activities, driven by enterprising faculty and students, to the new global strategy.
“We must support and encourage and help those efforts grow,” Lester says. “But in addition, MIT sometimes seeks to act on a larger scale, in order to increase its impact. We can’t do everything and be everywhere in the world, and the new plan will help us think systematically about what we want to do, where we want to do it, and who we want to do it with.”
Finally, as the plan notes, MIT’s international activities are subject to geopolitical shifts and the possibility of “disruptive developments” around the world. Given the pace of global change, the plan states, another comprehensive stragetic review should be undertaken in five years or less. But for now, Lester says, MIT’s commitment to global engagement is strengthening.
“Now is not the time to change course,” Lester says. “On the contrary, this is the time to affirm our commitment to working with others, across national borders, on the world’s most challenging problems. In a very fundamental sense, that is who we are.”
The race to cure poverty has turned into a vast multi-billion dollar industry, but there’s not a silver-bullet solution that’s going to end impoverishment, says MIT grad student Mark Weber, co-producer of the 2015 documentary film “Poverty, Inc.”
Most people give to charity with the best of intentions, and although foreign aid is vital following a disaster, fueling a country with aid dollars can foster unintended bad consequences, such as when it prevents local entrepreneurs from getting their own businesses off the ground.
The 91-minute movie, which looks at global charity — from disaster relief to social entrepreneurship — has earned more than 50 international film festival honors. In a recent interview, Weber explained why charity has sometimes failed and what individuals can do to help.
Q: "Poverty, Inc." argues that we’ve been doing charity wrong for many years. Why is that?
A: It’s not that simple. I think one of the things that we try to emphasize in the film is that it’s not just foreign aid. Foreign aid is symptomatic of the deeper problem. The problem … at its philosophical core is about our tendency to objectify the poor. We have turned them into objects of our pity and our charity, and we make ourselves the protagonists of this development story.
This film is more about embracing complexity and understanding that there are broken models, more than saying ‘Oh, here’s a new silver bullet that everybody should follow.’ It’s more about learning how to think deeply and algorithmically in terms of principles and functions.
Q: What if there is a famine in Africa and I do want to help?
A: If a person is in crisis, you don’t wax poetic to them about the entrepreneurial ecosystem and the rule of law; you help them. But how do we then transition from crisis mode to development? This is where the safety net often becomes a spider’s web.
If we take a long-term approach to food security, not just a reactionary crisis approach, we should be reconsidering American and European domestic industrial agricultural subsidies and food aid programs, which undermine the agrarian economies of many developing nations. This is well documented and highlighted with the example of Haitian rice in the film.
Q: The movie talks about volunteering with orphanages abroad. Why is that destructive?
A: Virtually every kid [in an orphanage] is struggling or will struggle with an attachment disorder. What we do is, we come in and … hug them, and play with them, and take pictures with them, and sometimes we make promises that we can’t keep, and then we are gone forever. We think that these kids are without [love], but in reality, a lot of people — even their own parents — are visiting them throughout the year. And so that love is coming and going. So, we actually exacerbate the attachment disorders that these kids struggle with, and it can be incredibly damaging to them.
Q: Is the situation with the orphanages one where nothing can be done?
A: First, do no harm. I see this as connected to the sponsor-a-child issue, which I think is also problematic because a lot of these kids have parents. And by making orphanages more robust in terms of their educational and daycare services, we actually incentivize parents to give up their kids and we break families apart, which is a much bigger problem in the long run.
I think there are many ways we can support children, and two are featured in the film with the story of the Haitian solar panel company Enersa and the Apparent Project. By creating employment in those communities, hundreds of children are being fed, clothed, and put through school by their own parents.
Q: So, what can we do if we want to aid other countries?
A: It depends on who you are individually, and your unique qualities, and perspective. We need good people working for good governance. Rule of law, property rights, and basic freedoms are critically important, as is creating cultures of trust.
We also need to be conscious consumers and harness the democratic function of the market economy to signal demand for vertically integrated ethics in the economy. If I’m willing to donate a couple of thousand dollars a year to charity, then why am I not willing to spend an extra $20 here or there to buy something from a company [like Patagonia] that is willing to give me information about its supply chain? There are more and more companies championing intentionality and transparency in their supply chains.
We also need good people working in business. Business is the normative way in which people rise out of poverty.
The Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT has announced its third round of seed grant funding to the MIT community. J‑WAFS, launched in 2014, is MIT’s Institute-wide initiative to promote, coordinate, and lead research related to water and food that will have a measurable and international impact as humankind adapts to a rapidly expanding population on a changing planet.
This year, seven new projects will be funded, led by 10 faculty principal investigatorss across seven MIT departments. The winning projects include fertilizer technologies, technologies for water supply, and policy-oriented research addressing the uptake of irrigation technologies in Africa.
An ever-increasing number of faculty from across the Institute are deeply invested in addressing critical global challenges in water and food security, and this is reflected in this year’s batch of successful proposals. The third J-WAFS call for seed research proposals attracted 38 principal investigators, nearly two-thirds of whom had not submitted proposals to J-WAFS before. Competing for funding were established experts in water and food-related research areas as well as professors who are only recently applying their disciplinary expertise to the world’s water and food challenges. Engineering faculty from four departments were funded, including the departments of Biological Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering. Additional funded principal investigators are from the Department of Chemistry in the School of Science, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning in the School of Architecture and Planning, and the MIT Sloan School of Management.
The seven newly funded projects bring the total number of seed research projects supported by J-WAFS to 24 since 2015. J-WAFS Director John Lienhard argues that “we must continue to advance innovations and creative ideas for delivering safe and secure food and clean and renewable water supplies. Through the innovative technologies and collaborations we are supporting with these new research projects, J-WAFS is working to secure the future of our communities, the sustainability of our cities, and the prosperity of our economies in the face of rising population, greater urbanization, and changing climate.”
Project highlights appear below, followed by a full listing of 2017 J-WAFS Seed Grant-funded projects.
Enhancing crop production with an eye toward sustainability
Enhancing crop production while supporting environmentally sustainable farming practices in developing countries was a theme of several funded projects this year. Two projects are addressing challenges around nitrogen fertilizer. Nitrogen is required for agricultural productivity, and most nitrogen fertilizer is manufactured using fossil fuels, which has a large carbon footprint. In Africa and other parts of the world, nitrogen fertilizer is not accessible to most farmers due to poor infrastructure for distribution, limiting the crop yields they can achieve. However, in North America and elsewhere, excess fertilizer runoff from farms contributes to water pollution.
Karthish Manthiram, the Warren K. Lewis Career Development Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, will develop a solar-powered electrochemical device that can convert nitrogen from air, water, and sunlight into ammonia to be added to soil to promote plant growth. Christopher Voigt, professor of biological engineering, is pursuing an entirely different path, with the objective of engineering cereal grains that can “fix” atmospheric nitrogen the way that legumes do. Once realized, these grains could become self-fertilizing high-yield producers in varied regions across the globe and dramatically reduce the damage to soil health, water supply, and local ecosystems often associated with the use of chemical fertilizer.
Improving methods for culturing microalgae for food and fuel
Another funded project could significantly contribute to our ability to expand a promising future source of protein and oil, and reduce the energy use associated with its production. Mathias Kolle, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, aims to create a new class of multifunctional micro- and nanostructural optical fibers that can more efficiently and effectively transport light and carbon dioxide throughout industrial microalgae cultures.
Microalgae are effective generators of protein-rich biomass that could, if produced on an industrial scale, supplement human nutrition, provide animal feedstock, and serve as biofuel. However, current production methods aren’t economically viable for this scale. Kolle’s microfibers could transform large-scale industrial microalgae production, making microalgae-produced protein and fuel an economically viable, sustainable, and energy efficient option in the future.
Harvesting water from air
Securing clean drinking water in environments that are water-scarce or polluted is a challenge in many regions of the world. Additionally, agriculture and industrial uses deplete — and contaminate — global supply of freshwater, which increases the demand for alternative means of water gathering. Mircea Dinca, associate professor of chemistry, and Evelyn Wang, the Gail E. Kendall Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, are teaming up to develop a new technology that can be used to harvest water in even the most arid regions of the globe. They will create a passive solar device that can extract clean, fresh water from the air at any range of humidity, using a metal-organic framework (MOF), a specialized porous material. J-WAFS seed funding will support the development of MOFs that can be used for providing water to remote areas, with greatly reduced infrastructure costs.
2017 J-WAFS Seed Grant recipients and their projects:
"Affordable Potassium Fertilizer from K Feldspar for Africa." PI: Antoine Allanore, assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering
"Characterizing Extension Policy and Private Irrigation Supply Chain Linkages: Lessons from Senegal." PIs: Stephen Graves, the Abraham J. Siegel Professor of Management Science in the Sloan School of Management; and Bishwapriya Sanyal, professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning
"Distributed Water Harvesting from Air in Water-Stressed and Remote Areas using Metal-Organic Frameworks." PIs: Mircea Dinca, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry; and Evelyn Wang, the Gail E. Kendall Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering
"Electrochemical Nitrogen Fixation for Distributed Fertilizer Production." PI: Karthish Manthiram, the Warren K. Lewis Career Development Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering
"Evaluation of Fully Synthetic Nitrogen Fixation Pathways, Designed for Plant Mitochondria and Plastids." PI: Christopher Voigt, professor in the Department of Biological Engineering
"High-efficiency Chemical-Free Backwash Strategy for Reverse Osmosis Membrane Antifouling." PIs: Xuanhe Zhao, the Noyce Career Development Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; and John H. Lienhard, V, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Food in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and J-WAFS
"Multifunctional Light-Diffusing Fibers for Simultaneous Light Management and Fluid Transport in Microalgae Bioreactors." PI: Mathias Kolle, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering
The MIT community came out in full force Saturday for a spirited festival celebrating the Institute’s diverse cultures.
A stage show at the Johnson Athletics Center drew an audience of more than 1,600, including many families, for 17 student performances showcasing dance, music, poetry, and costumes from around the world.
The program’s hosts, sophomore Bruke Mesfin Kifle, junior Sravya Bhamidipati, and seniors Alberto Hernandez and Pragya Tooteja, kept the packed program running like clockwork, as artists took the stage to perform acrobatic capoeira, a gliding tango, traditional dances of Ethiopia and Eritrea, a tribute to an iconic Scottish poet, and much more.
Later in the evening, approximately 9,000 people comprising MIT students, faculty, staff, and friends got their groove on in four tent dance parties on campus. The dancing, music, and food centered around four themes: A World of Music: Middle East/K-pop/Hip-hop/India; Campus Night Club; Caribbean Rhythms and African Beats; and Country Two-Step to Salsa. Dance teams Mocha Moves and MIT Bhangra made special guest appearances.
The OneWorld @ MIT Multicultural Festival and Dance Parties event was presented by members of the MIT student body and the One World@MIT planning group, which is led by Raul Radovitzky, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics.
MIT is gearing up for an evening of fun and celebration at the OneWorld @ MIT Multicultural Festival and Dance Parties this Saturday, April 29. The event, open to the entire MIT community and their guests, will feature a dizzying array of traditional and contemporary music, costume, dance, and food from around the world. It is presented by members of the MIT student body and the One World@MIT planning group, which is led by Professor Raul Radovitzky.
The evening promises to showcase the community’s diverse and vibrant spirit — and show that MIT “knows how to party!” In an invitation to the community, President L. Rafael Reif said, “Last May, MIT experimented with an evening of community-wide dance parties. The results were so compelling that this spring, we’re doing it again — and the night will start with a spectacular multicultural festival.”
From belly dancing to flamenco to Bollywood fusion to Chinese ribbon dance, MIT students will share the hearts of their cultures and countries at the Festival Stage Show, taking place from 5:30 to 7 p.m. in the Johnson Athletics Center. Seventeen different individuals and groups will perform, showcasing traditional or modern cultural expressions of Argentina, Brazil, China, Cuba and other Caribbean islands, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, India, Korea, Palestine, Scotland, Spain, and the United States.
Upon arrival, attendees will be treated to traditional and new Balinese music and dance by Gamelan Galak Tika, led by Professor Evan Ziporyn. Gamelan means “to hammer,” a term referring to the large percussion orchestras of Java and Bali whose instruments are gongs, metallophones, hand drums, cymbals, bamboo flutes, and spiked fiddles, with vocals.
Rambax MIT, co-directed by master Senegalese drummer Lamine Touré and Professor Patricia Tang, will follow the stage show finale with the electrifying sabar drumming and dance tradition of the Wolof people of Senegal, West Africa.
The festival continues with tent dance parties — including special appearances by Mocha Moves and MIT Bhangra — from 9 p.m. to midnight in four campus locations:
Registration is not required. The festival is free and open to all students, faculty, and staff with an MIT or Lincoln ID. Guests are welcome, and it is a wonderful event for families.
The unpredictable annual flow of the Nile River is legendary, as evidenced by the story of Joseph and the Pharaoh, whose dream foretold seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine in a land whose agriculture was, and still is, utterly dependent on that flow. Now, researchers at MIT have found that climate change may drastically increase the variability in Nile’s annual output.
Being able to predict the amount of flow variability, and even to forecast likely years of reduced flow, will become ever more important as the population of the Nile River basin, primarily in Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, is expected to double by 2050, reaching nearly 1 billion. The new study, based on a variety of global climate models and records of rainfall and flow rates over the last half-century, projects an increase of 50 percent in the amount of flow variation from year to year.
The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, was carried out by professor of civil and environmental engineering Elfatih Eltahir and postdoc Mohamed Siam. They found that as a result of a warming climate, there will be an increase in the intensity and duration of the Pacific Ocean phenomenon known as the El Niño/La Niña cycle, which they had previously shown is strongly connected to annual rainfall variations in the Ethiopian highlands and adjacent eastern Nile basins. These regions are the primary sources of the Nile’s waters, accounting for some 80 percent of the river’s total flow.
The cycle of the Nile’s floods has been “of interest to human civilization for millennia,” says Eltahir, the Breene M. Kerr Professor of Hydrology and Climate. Originally, the correlation he showed between the El Niño/La Niña cycle and Ethiopian rainfall had been aimed at helping with seasonal and short-term predictions of the river’s flow, for planning storage and releases from the river’s many dams and reservoirs. The new analysis is expected to provide useful information for much longer-term strategies for placement and operation of new and existing dams, including Africa’s largest, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, now under construction near the Ethiopia-Sudan border.
While there has been controversy about that dam, and especially about how the filling of its reservoir will be coordinated with downstream nations, Eltahir says this study points to the importance of focusing on the potential impacts of climate change and rapid population growth as the most significant drivers of environmental change in the Nile basin. “We think that climate change is pointing to the need for more storage capacity in the future,” he says. “The real issues facing the Nile are bigger than that one controversy surrounding that dam.”
Using a variety of global circulation models under “business as usual” scenarios, assuming that major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions do not take place, the study finds that the changing rainfall patterns would likely lead to an average increase of the Nile’s annual flow of 10 to 15 percent. That is, it would grow from its present 80 cubic kilometers per year to about 92 or more cubic kilometers per year averaged over the 21st century, compared to the 20th century average.
The findings also suggest that there will be substantially fewer “normal” years, with flows between 70 and 100 cubic kilometers per year. There will also be many more extreme years with flows greater than 100, and more years of drought. (Statistically, the variability is measured as the standard deviation of the annual flow rates, which is the number that is expected to see a 50 percent rise).
The pattern has in fact played out over the last two years — 2015, an intense El Niño year, saw drought conditions in the Nile basin, while the La Niña year of 2016 saw high flooding. “It’s not abstract,” Eltahir says. “This is happening now.”
As with Joseph’s advice to Pharaoh, the knowledge of such likely changes can help planners to be prepared, in this case by storing water in huge reservoirs to be released when it is really needed.
"Too often we focus on how climate change might influence average conditions, to the exclusion of thinking about variability," says Ben Zaitchik, an associate professor of earth and planetary sciences at Johns Hopkins University, who was not involved in this work. "That can be a real problem for a place like the Eastern Nile basin, where average rainfall and streamflow might increase with climate change, suggesting that water will be plentiful. But if variability increases as well, then there could be as frequent or more frequent stress events, and significant planning — in infrastructure or management strategies — might be required to ensure water security."
Already, Eltahir’s earlier work on the El Niño/La Niña correlation with Nile flow is making an impact. “It’s used operationally in the region now in issuing seasonal flood forecasts, with a significant lead time that gives water resources engineers enough time to react. Before, you had no idea,” he says adding that he hopes the new information will enable even better long-term planning. “By this work, we at least reduce some of the uncertainty.”
On April 4, a suspected nerve gas attack killed at least 80 in Khan Sheikhun, in Syria’s Idlib Province. Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and the current UN Security Council president, stated shortly after the incident that members "are hoping to get as much information” as they can about the event.
Jeanne Guillemin, a medical anthropologist and a senior fellow in the MIT Security Studies Program, recently answered a few questions on the attack. Guillemin is an authority on biological weapons and has published four books on the topic. Her latest, "Hidden Atrocities: Japanese Germ Warfare and American Obstruction of Justice at the Tokyo Trial," will be published by Columbia University Press in September.
Q. What do we now know about the attack?
A. The process of investigation will be difficult, given the ongoing war and secrecy on the part of Syria and others. It seems certain that the regime of Syria’s President al-Assad or some element thereof not only violated treaty obligations regarding chemical weapons but could be complicit in a major war crime.
On a technical level, the chemical agent that caused more than 80 deaths and many injuries has been identified by the United Kingdom as sarin, which accords with medical records. The timing of the attack was April 4 at just before 7 a.m. local time, optimal for dispersal. Much less or nothing is reliably known regarding the munition and its source.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the operational arm of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in The Hague, is the lead agency for investigating the nerve gas attack. The OPCW can count on assistance from the United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), created by the Security Council with all permanent members in agreement. OPCW investigations are kept secret until the final reports are released, which can take months, and their mandate does not extend to identifying perpetrators. The mandate of the JIM is broader and does extend to estimating perpetrators, which makes its eventual report important.
Q. Based on your expertise on the historical use of chemical weapons, why would Assad strike now? Is he likely to strike again?
A. The use of chemical weapons in war, starting in April 1915 with the German release of chlorine gas on Allied trenches at Ypres, has invariably been to break an impasse by targeting a defenseless enemy, those lacking protection such as gas masks or antidotes. For Syria, frustration with rebel holdouts in Idlib Province may have provoked the attack; one wonders, though, exactly what authorities reasoned that killing civilians with nerve gas could be carried out without controversy — and without jeopardizing the new potential for cooperation with the Trump administration.
The political furor created by the social media images of the victims make it unlikely that President al-Assad, if he ordered or permitted the attacks, would venture any more. For years, though, Syria has been getting a pass from the international community regarding its less-than-complete compliance with the CWC, to which it acceded in October 2013. In 2014, the belief that Syria’s declaration of its chemical weapons contained gaps and inconsistencies prompted the Director-General of the OPCW to send a special team of technical investigators on 18 trips to Syria to do what proved impossible: to verify that Syria’s declaration was in accordance with the CWC. The UN Security Council was fully advised of OPCW reports, but no action was taken to bring Syria in line.
Currently the Russian government is taking al-Assad's protestations of innocence at face value. At the same time, though, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has spoken strongly in favor of UN investigations and asserted that Syria will be forthcoming about its military activities in the region at the time of the April 4 sarin attack. If evidence points clearly to al-Assad’s forces, which the U.S. government has already publicly blamed, Putin will have to address the difficult problem of regime change in Syria — or risk his own legitimacy by supporting a Syrian president many feel is at best a loose cannon and at worst the murderer of his own people.
Q. What are psychological and physical effects of this kind of attack, and how does one determine who was responsible?
A. Follow-up information from the 1988 chemical attack in Halabja, Iraq, and the 2013 chemical attack in Ghouta, Syria, illustrates the terrifying impact of aerial chemical attacks on defenseless populations already under siege.
In Halabja, the attacks with blistering mustard and with sarin, combined with conventional bombings, were part of Saddam Hussein’s punitive objective to eliminate the Kurds from Iraq.
The unusual strikes on Ghouta and Khan Sheikhun seem more intended to terrify Syrian civilians, that is, to frighten survivors and witnesses (even those watching on the internet) into submission to the enemy aggressor, whose power to rapidly asphyxiate hundreds must seem mythic, especially when done with impunity, without legal repercussions.
Over time, the criminal responsibility for the April 4 sarin attack might be put on Syrian officials, who may well be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The court’s statute contains language banning the use of poisons taken directly from the Geneva Protocol; the prosecution of murderous attacks on defenseless populations is, of course, central to the ICC mission, regardless of means. The broader responsibility for what has happened in Syria and for the extreme vulnerability of its civilian population throughout the war lies with the international community. This week, one hears the Chinese delegate to the United Nations calling for a political solution, rather than a military showdown between the United States and Russia. After this latest barbarism, is it too much to ask for international safe zones and a cease fire?
Amos G. Winter, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Global Engineering and Research Lab (GEAR), has been awarded the 2016-2017 Harold E. Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award, announced today at MIT’s faculty meeting.
The award was established in 1982 as a tribute to Institute Professor Emeritus Harold E. Edgerton, for his active support of younger, untenured faculty members. Each year, a faculty committee presents the award to one or more junior members of the faculty, in recognition of exceptional distinctions in teaching, research, and service.
Winter was honored for being “a leader in global engineering, an emerging sub-discipline that seeks creative solutions to persistent challenges in the developing world.” The committee, chaired by MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Thomas A. Kochan, also noted “his creativity in designing critical but affordable products within the constraints found in emerging markets, and for his approachable style and advocacy on behalf of his students, as well as the infectious energy he imparts to them.”
Winter’s students have thrived under his mentorship. A team he led with one of his graduate students, Natasha Wright, was awarded the USAID Desal Prize in 2015 for their work on affordable and sustainable photovoltaic desalination; Wright and another graduate student in Winter's laboratory, Dan Dorsch, have both been awarded the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, Wright this year and Dorsch in 2016.
In addition, the famed mechanical engineering undergraduate course, 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing I), has been co-taught by Winter for the past few years. The themes of the class’s final robot competition, where students compete against one another, have been drawn from pop culture, ranging from “Back to the Future” to Paul Revere’s ride to this year’s “Star Wars.”
Focused on the marriage of mechanical design theory and user-centered product design, Winter’s research interests include design for emerging markets and developing countries, biomimetic design, fluid/solid/granular mechanics, biomechanics, and the design of ocean systems. Innovations of note include the development of the Leveraged Freedom Chair, an all terrain wheelchair, and the advancement of prosthetic limbs, drip irrigation nozzles, and small-scale desalination plants.
Much of his work is based in a concept dubbed “reverse innovation.” Detailed in an award winning Harvard Business Review paper co-authored with Dartmouth’s Vijay Govindarajan, “reverse innovation” refers to the commercialization of emerging marketing solutions to more developed markets such as the United States.
Winter recently received a 2017 NSF CAREER Award and was also awarded the 2017 Junior Bose Award, given each year to an outstanding contributor to education from among the junior faculty of the School of Engineering. He was also named one of the 35 Innovators Under 35 for 2013 by MIT Technology Review magazine; was a winner of the 2012 ASME/Pi Tau Sigma Gold Medal; and was honored with the 2010 Tufts University Young Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award and the 2010 MIT School of Engineering Graduate Student Extraordinary Teaching and Mentoring Award.
Winter received a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from Tufts University and master of science and PhD degrees in mechanical engineering from MIT. He did postdoctoral research at the SUTD/MIT International Design Center and the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, returning to MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering in July 2012. Winter is also co-founder and chief scientific advisor for the local MIT spinout company, Global Research Innovation and Technology (GRIT).
Many highly populated coastal regions around the globe suffer from severe drought conditions. In an effort to deliver fresh water to these regions, while also considering how to produce the water efficiently using clean-energy resources, a team of researchers from MIT and the University of Hawaii has created a detailed analysis of a symbiotic system that combines a pumped hydropower energy storage system and reverse osmosis desalination plant that can meet both of these needs in one large-scale engineering project.
The researchers, who have shared their findings in a paper published in Sustainable Energy Technologies and Assessments, say this kind of combined system could ultimately lead to cost savings, revenues, and job opportunities.
The basic idea to use a hydropower system to also support a reverse osmosis desalination plant was first proposed two decades ago by Kyoto University’s Masahiro Murakami, a professor of synthetic chemistry and biological chemistry, but was never developed in detail.
"Back then, renewables were too expensive and oil was too cheap," says the paper’s co-author Alexander Slocum, the Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. "There was not the extreme need and sense of urgency that there is now with climate change, increasing populations and waves of refugees fleeing drought and war-torn regions."
Recognizing the potential of the concept now, Slocum and his co-authors — Maha Haji, Sasan Ghaemsaidi, and Marco Ferrara of MIT; and A Zachary Trimble of the University of Hawaii — developed a detailed engineering, geographic, and economic model to explore the size and costs of the system and enable further analysis to evaluate its feasibility at any given site around the world.
Typically, energy and water systems are considered separately, but combining the two has the potential to increase efficiency and reduce capital costs. Termed an "integrated pumped hydro reverse osmosis (IPHRO) system," this approach uses a lined reservoir placed in high mountains near a coastal region to store sea water, which is pumped up using excess power from renewable energy sources or nuclear power stations. When energy is needed by the electric grid, water flows downhill to generate hydroelectric power. With a reservoir elevation greater than 500 meters, the pressure is great enough to also supply a reverse osmosis plant, eliminating the need for separate pumps. An additional benefit is that the amount of water typically used to generate power is about 20 times the amount needed for creating fresh water. That means the brine outflow from the reverse osmosis plant can be greatly diluted by the water flowing through the hydroelectric turbines before it discharges back into the ocean, which reduces reverse osmosis outflow system costs.
As part of their research, Slocum’s team developed an algorithm that calculates a location's distance from the ocean and mountain height to explore areas around the world where IPHRO systems could be installed. Additionally, the team has identified possible IPHRO system locations with potential for providing power and water — based on the U.S. average of generating 50 kilowatt-hours of energy and 500 liters of fresh water per day — to serve 1 million people. In this scenario, a reservoir at 500 meters high would only need to be one square kilometer in size and 30 meters deep.
The team's analysis determined that in Southern California, all power and water needs can actually be met for 28 million people. An IPHRO system could be located in the mountains along the California coast or in Tijuana, Mexico, and would additionally provide long-term construction and renewable energy jobs for tens of thousands of people. Findings show that to build this system, the cost would be between $5,000 and $10,000 per person served. This would cover the cost of all elements of the system — including the renewable energy sources, the hydropower system, and the reverse osmosis system — to provide each person with all necessary renewable electric power and fresh water.
Working with colleagues in Israel and Jordan under the auspices of the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program, the team has studied possible sites in the Middle East in detail, as abundant fresh water and continuous renewable energy could help bring stability to the region. An IPHRO system could potentially form the foundation for stable economic growth, providing local jobs and trade opportunities and, as hypothesized in Slocum’s article, IPHRO systems could possibly help mitigate migration issues as a direct result of these opportunities.
"Considering the cost per refugee in Europe is about 25,000 euros per year and it takes several years for a refugee to be assimilated, an IPHRO system that is built in the Middle East to anchor a new community and trading partner for the European Union might be a very good option for the world to consider," Slocum says. "If we create a sustainable system that provides clean power, water, and jobs for people, then people will create new opportunities for themselves where they actually want to live, and the world can become a much nicer place."
This work is available as an open access article on ScienceDirect, thanks to a grant by the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation through the MIT Energy Initiative, which also supported the class from which this material originated. The class has also been partially supported by MISTI and the cooperative agreement between the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology and MIT.
Calling attention to the slowing of a metric known as total factor productivity growth and an increasing innovation gap in the euro area, thought leaders in academia, government, risk capital, and industry discussed the need for innovation and entrepreneurship to overcome such challenges during a two-day conference on March 13-14 in Frankfurt, Germany.
Organized by the MIT Innovation Initiative’s Lab for Innovation Science and Policy and the European Central Bank (ECB), the joint conference was opened by ECB President Mario Draghi PhD ’77 and MIT Provost Martin A. Schmidt, and featured panels chaired by ECB Vice President Vítor Constâncio and ECB Chief Economist Peter Praet. The conference aimed to highlight the key role technology-based innovation can play in fostering regional growth and to help identify evidence-based solutions.
Draghi noted that, while the topic may be unusual for a central bank conference at first glance, there is only so much monetary policy can do as it principally operates through the demand side of the economy. The key to productivity growth lies not just in the creation of new ideas, but also in their diffusion. Draghi additionally observed that “it is equally important for the euro area to facilitate and encourage the spread of new technology from the frontier to the laggard firms. Simply by diffusing better the technology we already have, we could make sizeable gains in productivity.”
Schmidt took a micro approach, providing his view on the topic from the MIT lens. He pointed to the Institute’s efforts in studying the importance of robust ecosystems to support innovation, as well as its work in creating it in partnership with key stakeholders, as evidenced by the Kendall Square of today. “From our perspective, it is clear that vibrant ecosystems are critical to the process of innovation. It’s equally clear these ecosystems need to dynamically evolve. We believe that they will evolve if all the stakeholders contribute to the commons and participate in this evolution,” said Schmidt.
The structure and content of the conference drew on recent research that is developing the field of innovation science — an evidence-based approach to understanding the innovation process. This emerging area of study, which MIT is helping to build through its Lab for Innovation Science and Policy, highlights novel frameworks for evaluating a region’s innovative and entrepreneurial capacity, tools for identifying areas of comparative advantage, and options for developing ecosystem-level policies and programs for accelerating innovation and entrepreneurship.
Encompassing the larger, more integrated European context, the workshop delved into topics of new measures, ecosystem approaches, and ways to partner and collaborate over four intensive sessions. Augmenting the panels were keynote speeches given by Carlos Moedas, European Commission commissioner in charge of research, science, and innovation, who talked about why fostering innovation is crucial to avert secular stagnation and the reason it is particularly urgent for the euro area; Manuel Trajtenberg, professor of economics at Tel Aviv University, who emphasized demographic trends and missed human potential as the critical issues that innovation and entrepreneurship should be channeled to tackle; and Grete Faremo, under-secretary-general and executive director of the United Nations Office for Project Services, who highlighted the connection and importance of innovation in emerging nations to progress in Europe.
The first session set the stage with a discussion of the future of economic growth with and without total factor productivity growth — an economic term defined as the growth in output that exceeds growth in capital and labor inputs — and raised the main issues and questions for the other panels to address in greater detail.
During a session that considered new measures to better capture the changing nature of innovation and entrepreneurship, Christian Ketels, a member of the Harvard Business School faculty at the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, noted that innovation and entrepreneurship often happens at the intersection of related industries and technology fields within regional clusters of economic activity. Sharing findings from his research, Ketels pointed to data that indicate strong clusters provide more robust environments for turning new ideas into sustainable, growth businesses.
Building on Ketel’s presentation, Scott Stern, the David Sarnoff Professor of Management at MIT Sloan School of Management, gave an overview of his joint research developing new, empirical measures of entrepreneurial quality showing the rate at which high-potential growth startups are founded. He commented that the new measures could be useful in driving policy and acceleration in part because they facilitate “shared understanding as a driver of coordinated activity in a world where innovation and entrepreneurship are not controlled by any one agency or person.”
The conference culminated in extracting policy lessons for the euro area during the final session. Fiona Murray, the Bill Porter Professor of Entrepreneurship, associate dean of innovation at MIT Sloan, and co-director of the MIT Innovation Initiative, advocated for an education experiment. Given the high rates of youth employment in parts of Europe, she argued that deviating from traditional teaching methods would be a test worth undertaking in order to help prepare the next generation. “I believe strongly that we must challenge our universities, our educators, and our students to actually push the system, to experiment, and to demand a different way of being educated rather than have all that be top down,” she said.
Ann Mettler, head of the European Political Strategy Center for the European Commission, brought up the need for better benchmarks, improving the connection between the macro and the micro, and the significance of data as a driver of innovation. She urged all regional policymakers to see their potential for innovation, even in the face of fiscal constraints or limited risk capital. Furthermore, she emphasized the importance of embracing failure as much as success in the innovation process. “Innovation suggests success. Every policymaker wants success, but what they have to learn is to get success, you have many, many failures, way more failures than success. We need to do a much better job of saying innovation requires failure.”
MIT faculty, students, and alumni consistently find creative ways to apply their knowledge to local contexts, collaborating with partners around the globe to make the world a better place. Arguably, no MIT exchange is more fertile than the one the School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) enjoys with Mexico.
Recently, students and scholars from SA+P have worked with local collaborators to plan mixed-use developments around mass transit hubs in Mexico City and to design novel solutions for Baja wineries faced with chronic drought. And here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mexican artist and social activist Pedro Reyes spent a semester in residence at the MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology (CAST), where he explored potential collaborative projects with MIT faculty and taught a course that invited students to consider the human cost of unbridled technology.
The Institute’s synergy with Mexico will be celebrated on March 23 at the MIT Better World campaign event at the Four Seasons Hotel in Mexico City. Part of an ongoing celebration of MIT’s global culture that has already sponsored gatherings in New York, San Francisco, Hong Kong, London, Tel Aviv, and Los Angeles, the Mexico City event will feature economist Pedro Aspe Armella PhD ’78, cellist and author Carlos Prieto ’58, faculty members Miho Mazereeuw and Paulo Lozano SM ’98, PhD ’03, and master’s in city planning candidate Carlos Sainz Caccia, as well as MIT President L. Rafael Reif.
The event will reflect the spirit of the many innovative collaborations between MIT and Mexico, from urban initiatives around housing, transportation, and the environment, to scholarly exchanges on many other topics. Through these engagements, including the recent SA+P activities described below, faculty, students, and alumni are tackling pressing global issues.
Researching transportation in Mexico City
Last spring, P. Christopher Zegras, an associate professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), co-taught a graduate practicum in which students traveled to Mexico City to study the potential of linking real estate development to public transportation networks. Known as transit-oriented development, the development paradigm requires designers to engage with multiple stakeholders — government officials, local businesses, residents, transit authorities, and private developers — to help create sustainable mixed-use communities around mass transit stations.
Zegras’s students integrated their classroom knowledge into the realities of Mexico’s economy, geography, and politics, crafting solutions that made sense — and could be implemented — in that particular time, space, and culture.
“The good news is that there are concrete actions that can be taken,” says Onésimo Flores PhD ’13, who co-taught the course as a visiting lecturer at MIT. Flores is now CEO of Conecta Cuatro, a company that promotes innovative technology ventures to tackle urban and transportation problems in Mexico.
The client and sponsor for the practicum was Grupo Prodi, a private developer and operator of multimodal transit stations in Mexico City. “It’s clear that transit-oriented development can be the key to improving quality of life in urban areas not only in Mexico City, but also in cities like Monterey and Guadalajara,” says José Miguel Bejos, Grupo Prodi CEO.
Designing sustainable agriculture in Baja
Sheila Kennedy, a professor in the Department of Architecture, brought her Architecture Design Core Studio III students to the Valle de Guadeloupe, in Baja — a wine region severely affected by drought and climate change. “I wanted to place the students at the intersection between places of production and the limits of natural resources,” says Kennedy. “The students needed to have a strategy for their designs, their materials, and where those materials were sourced. They couldn’t just rely on standard sustainable solutions like green roofs.”
After a weeklong visit to Baja, with host and sponsor Bodegas F. Rubio Winery, the students returned to campus to develop novel architectural and site designs that could help wineries survive and thrive in a challenging climate. One student suggested using solar chimneys to take advantage of the sharp nightly drops in temperature, storing cool air and releasing it during the day. Another designed a temporary winery that would exist just as long as there was water and could then be dismantled — with its materials repurposed or recycled — when the water ran out.
Second-year master’s student Anne Graziano came to Baja intending to work on dew collection. But after she saw the morning fog roll in each day from the nearby Pacific Ocean, she returned to MIT to design an undulating series of walls made of MIT’s Fog Harvesting Mesh, a finely woven metal textile that can increase fog collection yields fivefold.
“I love the idea that architecture can create something functional but also communicate a sense of place and create shade and shared spaces,” says Graziano. “Because of the landscape and the culture and the community I encountered there, I was able to imagine a winery whose walls provide the water with which the wine will be made.”
Engaging technology through an artist’s perspective
While working and studying in Mexico has stimulated innovation by MIT scholars, the Institute has also inspired others who call Mexico home. “I don’t think there’s any other place in the world that has such a density of creativity” as MIT, says Reyes, the Mexican artist and activist who is the Dasha Zhukova Distinguished Visiting Artist at CAST. “Every person I meet there is inspiring.” Reyes’ ongoing appointment was the first in a series endowed by a $1 million gift to CAST from Russian-American philanthropist, entrepreneur, and art collector Dasha Zhukova.
Last fall, Reyes taught a course with visiting lecturer Carla Fernández, a Mexican fashion designer, titled “The Reverse Engineering of Warfare: Challenging Techno-Optimism and Reimagining the Defense Sector (an Opera for the End of Times).” Reyes encouraged his students to consider the effects of automation on global employment, reexamine the influence of the military sector on U.S. government policies, and imagine retooling the U.S. military complex to combat global climate change.
“My Latin culture leads me to place more importance on human interaction than on technology,” says Reyes. “I’m more interested in replacing robots with humans than in replacing humans with robots. But that doesn’t make me any less of a tech lover. You can see great potential in technology, but also recognize that technology needs to be applied with care. That critical dialectic is a vital part of MIT culture.”
Addressing the 21st century’s great challenges requires the world’s best minds to come together and collaborate on solutions. That is why, reflecting the borderless nature of science and technology, MIT President L. Rafael Reif charges each graduating class with a mission to spread far and wide the lessons they’ve learned while in Cambridge. “Hack the world,” he says, “until you make the world a little more like MIT.”
The Institute comprises a diverse, international community of nearly 23,500 students, postdocs, faculty, and staff. MIT faculty alone hail from 73 countries — including the seven affected by the presidential executive order of Jan. 27.
“All my colleagues are from different countries, different cultures, and I think that’s what makes this whole place an amazing place,” says Nikta Fakhri, an expert on the mechanics of living systems and an assistant professor in the Department of Physics, who hails from Iran.
Dina Katabi, a Syrian-born pioneer in wireless technologies and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, says: “We’re talking about dedicated, smart people who can contribute so much to our nation, but also to making the world a better place.”
Video by: MIT Video Productions | 2 min, 9 sec
Matthew Cavuto, now a senior in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, embarked on his career path partly as a result of a talk he heard in high school by MIT Professor Hugh Herr, a double amputee who works on improving prosthetic devices and systems to allow people with similar disabilities to regain as much control, independence, and capability as possible.
Herr “gave an awesome talk about the work he was doing in his field. … It both piqued my interest in MIT and made me want to tackle similar problems in my studies,” Cavuto recalls.
Now, thanks to a Marshall Scholarship that will provide him with two years of graduate studies in England, Cavuto will be taking that interest to the next level. He plans one year of work at Imperial College London, with one of the world’s leading research teams on providing sensory feedback to users of prosthetic limbs, and then a year at Cambridge University with a leading team developing devices known as exoskeletons, to restore mobility to patients with paralysis.
Cavuto knows a thing or two himself about graceful, highly controlled mobility: He spends his free time in high-level competitive ballroom dancing and varsity fencing, two very different but equally demanding disciplines that are based on precision movement.
Even as an undergraduate, Cavuto has made some significant progress in providing mobility for some amputees in developing countries. Working with MIT’s GEAR (Global Engineering and Research) Lab, under the guidance of Amos Winter, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, Cavuto has developed a patent-pending artificial knee device that allows above-the-knee amputees to cross their legs, something that typical prosthetic legs do not allow. In India, being able to sit cross-legged is an important part of being able to participate fully in society and is even a requirement for some kinds of work, he explains.
That project will be going through a second round of field testing in coming months in India, after initial tests last year of an earlier version. The tests are focused on developing a system that would be affordable to low-income users, durable enough to provide years of service, and simple enough that its users could learn to repair and maintain the device on their own. “The challenge is to design devices that can be made for a much lower cost, but that are still as robust and functional as those in the developed world,” Cavuto says. And such solutions, once successful, “can also apply to the developed world,” where costs still do make a difference, he says.
The prosthetic device he designed, which works with an existing knee joint and is not a knee itself, is intended to be something that could sell for just $10, and consists of just five parts that a user can take apart, clean and maintain, and reassemble. Comparable prosthetic knees in the developed world cost “anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars,” Cavuto says. Part of the savings comes from replacing materials such as titanium with less expensive aluminum or plastic, and from the inexpensive yet durable custom locking mechanism he designed. His work on that project, and the associated fieldwork in India, was made possible by funding through the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program and MIT’s D-Lab.
Cavuto’s mechanical skills — as well as his fencing and dancing skills — go way back. He has enjoyed woodworking since the fourth grade and over the years has made much of the furniture in his family’s home in Skillman, New Jersey. He has won prizes for his woodworking designs, and one of his creations is in the collection of a museum in Pennsylvania.
His interest in fencing started in fifth grade, and in high school he competed in that sport in the Junior Olympics. He has continued his competitive fencing on a team at MIT as a squad leader. In ballroom dancing, he has participated in many national competitions, including the annual MIT Open, which is the largest collegiate ballroom dancing competition in the world, he says. Dancing all 10 categories of standard and Latin dances, he competes with his dance partner at the highest amateur level in the U.S.
Cavuto’s parents are both doctors — in fact, “almost everyone in my family is a doctor,” he says — and he initially considered going into that family business. But he decided that becoming an engineer and designing biomedical devices offered the possibility of impacting many more lives than would be possible by treating one patient at a time.
His tentative goal at this point is, after completing the two master’s programs under his Marshall Scholarship, to pursue a doctorate, perhaps at MIT, and ultimately to become a professor. “Through inspiring and guiding the research of students, as a professor or head of a lab, I could accomplish far more than through pursing my research alone,” he says. Furthermore, based on his experiences working as a teaching assistant in mechanical engineering classes, including the very popular Course 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing) that culminates in a robotic competition, “I’ve also realized my passion for teaching,” he says.
Cavuto is looking forward to the work he will be doing next year on providing sensory feedback for prosthetic limbs. The lack of such feedback “is definitely a big bottleneck” in the development of better prosthetics, he says. Even with a prosthetic hand that provides highly precise control over movement, in order to perform complex tasks — or even simple ones like picking up a delicate object — feedback is important. Without it, users must watch all their movements closely and constantly. “The goal is to be able to pick up a pear without bruising it, or a plastic cup without crushing it,” he says.
MIT is a home to individuals from all parts of the globe. These community members learn, do research, and advance the Institute’s mission of making the world a better place.
One student, a native of Damascus, Syria, looks forward to bringing what he is learning here back home. “Even though I’m thousands of miles away from my friends and family, I’ve gotten the chance to explore new things [and] meet a ton of interesting people,” says Ihssan Tanawi, a junior majoring in electrical engineering and computer science who has also enjoyed courses in economics and history. “Just seeing people with different opinions — that was something that was very new to me.”
In addition to his academic pursuits, Tanawi has tapped into the Institute’s many entrepreneurship and innovation resources. And he relishes participating in the MIT Muslim Students’ Association, which recently won the Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award for community engagement. As a mentor, Tanawi takes pride in helping others who come to MIT from a distant land and helping them learn the ropes as new community members — as he says, “making them feel welcome here.”
Submitted by: School of Engineering | Video by: Lillie Paquette | 1 min, 36 sec
MIT and Conservation International (CI) will participate in a multiyear collaboration to develop and advance nature-based solutions to global climate change, through research, education, and outreach efforts, the organizations announced today.
The collaboration brings together MIT’s technical, scientific, and engineering expertise with Conservation International’s expansive environmental programs, to look for ways that forests, coastal ecosystems, and urban areas can be managed to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change.
The collaboration launches today with a one-day hackathon at MIT that invites participants to team up on ideation and early-state design of nature-based, technologically savvy solutions to climate challenges in developing world communities. The collaboration will involve MIT students in CI’s international fieldwork and will initially include four joint research projects in which scientists will focus directly on climate challenges already having an impact in places such as the Philippines and the Amazon Basin.
The collaboration was established by MIT’s Office of the Vice President for Research and will be managed by MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI). ESI Director John E. Fernández, a professor of building technology in the Department of Architecture, says the collaboration is unique in its focus on “surprising, novel, and untested applications of science and engineering in the field of conservation.” MIT President L. Rafael Reif is also a member of CI’s board of directors
“We feel there is significant potential value in linking different disciplines and perspectives, for example engineering with ecology, while leveraging advances in big-data analysis, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to address the priorities and goals of conservation in ways that may not have been considered before this,” Fernández says.
“CI is thrilled to be part of this pioneering collaboration with the world’s premier scientific and engineering institute for research and learning,” says Daniela Raik, senior vice president and managing director at Conservation International. “Together we can design and implement innovative solutions to real-world challenges around the globe.”
MIT and CI began exploring a potential collaboration last year, with two key workshops held April 25 and July 26 that brought together MIT faculty and staff and the scientific leadership of Conservation International. At the meetings, participants discussed ways to use science and engineering to unlock the full potential of natural systems in storing climate-warming carbon emissions and helping communities adapt to climate change’s impacts, such as flooding and food insecurity.
“Nature plays a critical role in helping society offset the impacts of climate change,” says Raik. “For instance, tropical forests and other ecosystems can provide at least 30 percent of the mitigation needed to achieve the 2 or 1.5 degree [Celsius] targets that were set in the Paris Agreement last year.”
The groups agreed to focus their efforts on the interface between human activity and natural systems, as an important source of solutions to address climate change. CI has worked at this human-nature interface for decades, says Fernández, in multiple field offices that develop conservation plans in the context of local governmental, economic, social, and cultural systems.
“At the core of MIT’s climate action plan is the idea that we can have a much bigger real-world impact if we engage with other organizations, and this collaboration with Conservation International exemplifies that idea,” says Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. “Together, our goal is to move from education and research to the implementation of solutions that harness nature to both mitigate climate change and help communities around the world prepare for its impacts.”
The MIT-CI collaboration will include new educational and outreach activities. For MIT students, that could mean traveling to CI field sites in the Americas, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific Oceanscape to do hands-on work on local environmental projects alongside local stakeholders. A Student Action Corps will provide students with opportunities to engage public audiences on climate issues and solutions through blog posts, op-eds, and other digital and print communications.
Education and outreach activities will also include guest lectures at MIT by CI scientists as well as other shared teaching opportunities; postdoctoral fellowships; workshops for researchers from developing countries; class materials for K-12 students; crowdsourcing contests powered by MIT’s Climate CoLab platform; annual symposia; and a joint, web-based public portal on nature-based solutions to climate mitigation and adaptation.
The first research projects planned for the MIT-CI collaboration will pair ongoing CI field office work with extensions of studies already underway by MIT researchers. In one project, for instance, Heidi M. Nepf, the Donald and Martha Harleman Professor in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, will work with CI scientists to further develop a model of mangrove strength and the effects of wave drag and turbulence on key plants. While mangrove forests could be used as important “green infrastructure” to protect coastal areas, governments and engineers have been slow to adopt their conservation and management without more data on how mangroves could best be deployed to protect communities from severe flooding and erosion.
The Nepf lab will develop and test its model through CI’s field offices in the Visayas region of the central Philippines, the site of severe damage by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. CI is already working with the national and local governments on mangrove forest restoration in the area.
"I am excited to work with Dr. Emily Pidgeon at CI, who is an international leader and advocate in coastal zone conservation for carbon mitigation and natural coastal defense,” Nepf says. “The MIT-CI collaboration will greatly expand the reach of my research with Dr. Maria Maza, facilitating better design of natural defense and more precise evaluation of carbon sequestration for proposed mangrove restoration projects.”
Altogether, planned MIT-CI research projects will involve numerous departments, labs, and programs at MIT, and will explore topics including the use of sensors to monitor natural resources; the social, economic, and environmental impact of climate adaptation efforts in developing countries; and how natural ecosystems provide for urban needs.
The new collaboration also supports MIT’s five-year Plan for Action on Climate Change, especially with regard to the plan’s goal of engaging with other organizations to advance research into solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate change, Fernández says. “We see this collaboration as a way to bring the deep expertise in engineering and other fields at MIT to opportunities for nature-based solutions to climate change that may not have been part of the MIT community’s focus before this.”
As a high school student, Jiwon Park traveled weekly across her hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, to tutor Burmese refugees. They told her stories of escaping through the jungle and waiting in refugee camps.
“Doing that in high school really opened my eyes to the problems of people in my city,” says Park, an MIT senior. “Since then, I’ve been interested in finding a way to be most valuable to people in need around the world.”
A chemistry major, Park balances polymer research while leading social entrepreneurship and public health projects that have taken her to four different countries during her undergraduate years. “MIT has not only provided a very valuable classroom experience, but also given me all these other tools in research, technology innovations, and social entrepreneurship that I can take and [use to] help people in developing countries,” she says.
Globetrotting for good
As she settled in at MIT, Park began looking for concrete ways to help those most in need. One of her first steps was to join the MIT Global Poverty Initiative, a student-led organization that engages the MIT community to fight poverty.
Her first year with GPI found her working on the du’Anyam Project (Indonesian for “Mothers Weaving”), a social entrepreneurship project that seeks to alleviate poor maternal health and high rates of miscarriage in Indonesia. For financial reasons, women on remote islands perform heavy agricultural labor throughout their pregnancies. Park’s team proposed providing women with an alternative revenue by helping them leverage an existing skill — weaving wicker crafts out of pandan leaves.
After winning the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge in 2014 with this proposal, Park travelled to Bali on behalf of du’Anyam to meet with hotel executives to establish a business partnership for selling slippers and ornamental boxes, journeyed to Surabaya to explore manufacturing sources that could put finishing touches on the women’s products, and then flew by tiny propeller plane to the rural community of Flores to meet the 10 pilot participants.
Park has continued to serve as a student assistant and panelist for the IDEAS Global Challenges. “I get to read all the proposals and work with different students who are entering that year,” Park says. “It’s been a fun experience.”
After her freshman year, Park’s interest in public health led her to intern at the LV Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad, India, through MISTI-India. Her research focused on the effect of preoperative conditions on surgery outcomes in the context of clinics outside of major cities. Park observed cataract surgeries, LASIK surgeries, and cornea transplants, while also visiting rural eye clinics throughout the summer.
Before returning to the U.S., Park participated in two hackathons in India — once as a hacker and once as a mentor. At the Engineering the Eye Workshop Park worked with a team to develop a portable keratometer, a device that measures the curvature of eyes in order to detect disease. She then traveled to Nashik to join members of the MIT Media Lab and to mentor a team at the Kumbathon, a hackathon devoted to planning for the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage of 2015.
Last summer, an “eye-opening” internship at the World Bank through the MIT Washington D.C. Summer Internship Program crystallized some of these international experiences for Park, showing how her diverse projects could fit together. “It allowed me to integrate my interests in social entrepreneurship and international development and witness how policies are made at a high level,” she says.
Deep dive into research
Park conducts polymer research through a UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) in the lab of Firmenich Career Development Associate Professor Jeremiah Johnson. Her focus has been on developing a synthesis strategy to introduce metal organic cages into polymers, and devising systems to use brush-arm star polymers for drug delivery — essentially creating a large molecule that delivers several drugs at once.
“If you can imagine a star, each arm has a different drug. We are loading multiple cancer drugs, [and testing] different combinations of different cancer drugs, and then controlling the release of those drugs in the body,” Park explains.
“I think [my work is] all very interconnected. Maybe my polymer research is not directly helping the people in the Philippines that I am working with, but I connect [my research to international projects] because of my mission to bring technology and science to developing countries. At MIT I consider my research a way to deep-dive into the actual science and technology — to be at the forefront of it — and then over the summers and the IAPs [Independent Activities Periods] I have travelled to different countries to witness the impact,” Park says.
Park is also an accomplished pianist. During her first and second years at MIT, she was chosen as an Emerson scholar, which provided an opportunity to take private music lessons with MIT faculty. She won the MIT Symphony Orchestra Concerto Competition her freshman year, and performed the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2 with the symphony in the spring of 2014. Park is also an MIT Arts Scholar. Lately, she has set aside her music studies in order to focus on her international and research endeavors.
Coding mutual understanding
Park continued working with GPI throughout her time at MIT; this year, she is serving as co-president with fellow MIT student Amanda Wu. Her latest project has again brought her overseas, this time to the Philippines. In December of 2015, Park teamed up with her younger brother, Sang Jun Park, a sophomore at Columbia University, to launch a program there called CodePhil.
“The basic idea of CodePhil is to reach out to rural high school students in the Philippines and teach them coding. [We are] using coding as a way to empower these students, and expose them to new types of careers,” Park says.
After winning the U.S. Department of State Laura W. Bush Traveling Fellowship, Park, her brother, and three other students from MIT and Columbia travelled to Northern Samar, one of the most impoverished regions of the Philippines, to pilot their curriculum last summer.
The team spent three weeks teaching 75 high school students in the town of Lavezares how to code in Scratch, a free language and platform developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. Next, students learned to apply their new coding skills by programing tiny, round programmable robots called Spheros.
Park met with mayor of Lavezares; partnered with the Rotary Club of Catarman, a larger, neighboring town; and spoke with a cultural ambassador at the U.S. Embassy in Manilla. She also signed a memorandum of understanding with the chair of the education department at the University of Eastern Philippines. Going forward, CodePhil plans to train college students at the university to teach CodePhil’s curriculum in high schools throughout the year as part of their extension programs, and to expand to more high schools. Park is in the process of making CodePhil a 501(c)(3) organization.
After graduating, Park plans to spend some time working in management consulting before pursuing a medical or MD/PhD degree.
“At MIT I have done so many different things, ranging from polymer research, to working with the government and international development organizations. I really like the diversity in experience, and I want to be able to continue that full time.”
She sees herself someday working at the interface of medicine and research or in the public sector — maybe at the World Bank or the World Health Organization — to influence health care policies with global impacts.
Voicing both concern and confidence, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in an address at MIT on Monday that the effort to limit climate change was a dire “race against time,” but one that could be successful due to the economic promise of renewable energy.
Amid record temperatures and rising sea levels that stem in large part from carbon emissions, Kerry stated, we must act quickly “to avoid the catastrophe we will inevitably see if we allow carbon emissions to go up, and up, and up.” Moreover, he added, “We need to speed it up dramatically because we are in a race against time.”
However, speaking before a capacity audience of about 250 people in MIT’s Samberg Conference Center, Kerry talked at greater length about the upsides of a prospective clean-energy revolution, referencing the falling prices of wind and solar power and observing that by making renewable energy a major growth industry, “we can put millions of people to work.”
The speech constituted one of the last major public statements Kerry is expected to make on climate change as Secretary of State before he leaves office with the change of administration later this month. Climate change efforts have been a key part of Kerry’s portfolio, and he highlighted the State Department’s recent work on the topic.
Kerry called the 2015 Paris Agreement, in which over 190 countries agreed to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and contended that the extensive bilateral U.S.-China climate negotiations, leading to a 2014 announcement of climate cooperation, “changed the whole playing field” by showing how committed the two countries were to an evolving approach on energy.
The Paris Agreement also signaled to entrepreneurs, innovators, and investors that the renewable energy sector would remain a growth industry, Kerry said, and he called on his audience to participate in the transformation of energy.
“Brilliant minds trained at MIT are behind some of the most transformative innovations in history,” Kerry said, suggesting the Institute’s students and entrepreneurs could help mitigate climate change while developing “the greatest economic opportunity the world has ever known.”
Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, introduced Kerry before his speech by noting that environmental protection has been a priority of his throughout his time in the Senate and at the State Department. "Today, it is starkly obvious that society must act quickly and boldly to minimize our emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” Zuber said. "Yet as Secretary Kerry knows well, acting against climate change is not only about avoiding potential catastrophe: It is also an economic imperative, and an incredible opportunity.”
“We know how to do these things”
As Kerry noted in his remarks, 2016 produced the highest average global temperatures ever recorded, while each of the last three decades have been, consecutively, the warmest ever recorded.
He also recounted a recent visit he made to the scientific stations of Antarctica, where he was given a vial of air containing over 401 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Many scientists have stated that limiting the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million is a necessity in order to prevent climate change from having its most drastic potential effects.
“The natural world is changing in obvious and deeply troubling ways,” Kerry said.
Making the climate change problem all the more frustrating, Kerry added, is that we understand what will solve the problem: developing inexpensive, carbon-free sources of energy.
“We know how to do these things,” Kerry observed. As he detailed, the prices of large-scale wind and solar projects have in some places become competitive with coal, which is the least expensive form of fossil fuel energy in many regions. In some recent cases, contracts for large-scale renewables have been signed for prices as low as 3 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Solar energy costs have dropped by 62 percent since 2009, Kerry noted, while the number of solar-industry jobs has grown by over 20 percent in the U.S. in each of the last three years. He cited a World Bank study stating that every $1 million of investment in renewable energy yields as many jobs as the same amount of investment in fossil fuels.
This means that “market-based forces are already beginning to shift” in the direction of clean energy, Kerry said, while adding that as a matter of governance, “very few public policy choices present as much upside.”
Before his speech, Kerry met with MIT President L. Rafael Reif; as Kerry related in his talk, the two discussed MIT initiatives on climate matters. After his speech, Kerry and Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken then met for a roundtable discussion with a group of about 20 MIT faculty and industry and government experts.
The roundtable dialogue, chaired by Zuber, focused on the future of employment in light of ongoing innovation and automation, areas of concern to the State Department given large-scale trends in employment and globalization. The MIT faculty and other business leaders discussed recent developments in artificial intelligence; ways in which employees can benefit from automation and technology rather than being displaced by them; and the prospects for job growth in advanced manufacturing.
Kerry has served as U.S. Secretary of State since early 2013, a time period spanning President Barack Obama’s second term in office. Previously, Kerry served nearly five full terms as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, starting in 1984; he was previously elected as the state’s lieutenant governor, in 1982. In 2004, Kerry was the Democratic Party’s nominee for president.
In his public remarks, Kerry, the son of a diplomat, called the position of Secretary of State “about the best job anybody could imagine” and said he would remain engaged and active as a private citizen on many civic matters, including climate change.
“What we do right now, today, matters,” Kerry told the audience. “We don’t get a second chance on this one.”
Food and water are two necessities for survival, but what happens when a changing climate in key agricultural regions threatens crop production? Or when the quality of milk cannot be ensured as it is exchanged between producer and seller?
Seven MIT graduate students studying food and water security issues presented their research and preliminary findings on issues such as these during the MIT Water and Food Security Student Symposium held on Nov. 21. Hosted by the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) and the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS), the event brought together professors and students to discuss food and water challenges and opportunities to address these through research.
Chandra Madramootoo, CEE visiting professor and J-WAFS visiting scholar, curated the event and spoke briefly of the importance of water and food security. “The withdrawal of water varies in different parts of the world. Much larger amounts of water are withdrawn for agriculture compared to industry and domestic uses in South Asia, Middle East, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and East Asia Pacific. This puts stresses on water resources available for food production and our ability to achieve food security. It also puts stress on a very finite resource amongst the other economic and environmental sectors that are competing for that water supply,” Madramootoo highlighted in his opening remarks.
During the event, each student presenter was tasked with conveying a broad overview of his or her research in a five minute presentation. There was a wide range of topics, but each student sought to solve a problem relating to food or water. Presentations addressed research as varied as understanding the impact of an environmental threat to agriculture to developing improved irrigation technology to help smallholder farmers around the world.
Understanding food and water through an environmental lens
Paige Midstokke, a master’s candidate in CEE and a Tata Fellow in Technology and Policy, kicked off the student component of the symposium. Through her research, Midstokke is seeking to improve the drought planning process by researching water security for the state of Maharashtra in India. Since most water planning and management is done at the district level, Midstokke is conducting a case study, focusing on the Aurangabad district.
For her thesis, Midstokke is developing a “vulnerability-scarcity index” that integrates socioeconomic data, pumping rates from observation wells, and geographic information system data. “If you work with the government of India, they have a ton of data and they are often willing to give it to you; you get to decide how to put it all together,” she said. Her index is intended to improve early indicators of drought and thus improve water scarcity planning at the district and local levels.
Anjuli Jain Figueroa, a PhD candidate in CEE, introduced her research by asking if the question of “sustainable agriculture” is an oxymoron. She noted that historically, increased food production has had negative environmental impacts. Her research, entitled “Sustainable agriculture – quantifying the trade-offs between food security and environmental impacts,” uses case studies from India to describe this trend.
During her presentation, Jain Figueroa provided an example of a trade-off she is studying, wherein profit increased for farmers, but there was an unforeseen negative impact. “We see this in a shift that happened with rice. India is growing a lot of rice but it has come at a cost; the cost was nutritional value. Even though families are making more money, the nutritional value for that household decreased. That’s one of the unintended consequences we’re only realizing now,” Jain Figueroa said. She is now working to solve problems like these in her thesis by using a systems approach to study how farmers could increase crop production to meet 2050 population needs, while limiting the negative environmental impacts.
Luke Schiferl, a PhD candidate in CEE, added a global perspective to food and water security. Schiferl looks at how air quality affects crop productivity on a global scale and how these effects can be quantified. In his research project “Contrasting particulate matter and ozone effects on crop production,” he uses crop production simulations and chemistry models to quantify the offsetting effects of ozone and particulate matter on crop productivity. This research can suggest how crop production losses can be properly mitigated by air quality improvements once the effects are understood.
“We can relate ozone and particulate matter effects with known relationships to crop production and basically plot the different effects,” he said. In the future, Schiferl hopes to apply similar research to simulate the effects water and nutrient restrictions have on these air quality effects and predicting crop productivity.
Creating tools and technology to solve food and water security issues
Four student contributors to the symposium presented on technological solutions to various environmental issues. Many of these innovative tools are already in use and tested, ready to make positive changes for food and water security around the world.
Kevin Patrick Simon, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering, lent the energy perspective to the water and agriculture discussion. Energy is needed to access water sources with pumps, but energy supply from electricity grids and water sources are distributed unequally across India. In rural India, small farmers still use diesel to run their water pumps. Unfortunately, the cost of diesel discourages year-round cultivation in favor of lower-paying jobs during the winter and dry season. Simon is seeking a solution with his research on “High efficiency, low-cost positive displacement pumps for solar irrigation.”
The central question to Simon’s research — “How can we enable people to have better access to water in order to irrigate their land?” — is addressed in part by solar irrigation. He explained the numerous benefits of solar irrigation, including its potential for cost-savings, independence from the electricity grid and environmental sustainability. “It gives small farmers an unprecedented amount of independence and an ability to draw income from their land,” he said.
Pulkit Shamshery, also a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering, is taking a different approach to irrigation by making drip irrigation systems more energy-efficient and more accessible to small farmers. Shamshery noted that 15 percent of India’s food production is dependent on over-exploited water resources; “there is an extreme need for more food with less water, and that’s the motivation for drip irrigation.” Advantages of drip irrigation are increased water savings and higher yields. Additionally, farmers can use less fertilizer by only applying it where it is needed. However, drip irrigation is typically a costly endeavor, which led Shamshery to his project “Low cost, energy-efficient drip irrigation system.”
Along with a research team, Shamshery looked at where the most pressure was being lost in irrigation systems when using them to retrieve water from surface sources, and then figured out how to reduce that pressure loss. The team created an off-grid product to make irrigation more efficient and available at a lower cost. Shamshery’s component is patent-pending and will be licensed, and the pressure loss results in a cut of cost of an off-grid drip system by 50 percent for an acre of land.
“In the United States you can buy milk off the shelf and not worry about any contamination, but that’s not true for developing countries,” said Pranay Jain, Legatum Fellow and PhD candidate in mechanical engineering. Jain highlighted the public health and economic consequences of milk contamination in India, noting that when people don’t trust the quality of milk that is sold to them, the milk industry suffers.
Jain’s research project, “Milk quality analysis for villages in India,” addresses the question: “If milk changes hands so many times before it reaches the consumer, how can these buyers and sellers trust each other?” Jain’s solution was to create an affordable, portable instrument to quickly and accurately determine the quality of milk as it moves through the supply chain from farm to grocery store, and to help improve payment mechanisms. By testing the quality of milk on the spot, “the supply chain simplifies; more farmers opt to sell their milk to processing plants, these plants can get more milk, they will pay the farmer more accurately and both sides benefit.” The device is also powered by mobile phones and collects data; the data collected by the device will be saved in the cloud, allowing for researchers to observe trends and monitor the health of their livestock.
In India, approximately one out of every five crates of produce is lost due to spoilage, but Kendall Nowocin, Legatum Fellow and PhD candidate in electrical engineering and computer science, is tackling that problem with CoolCrop, a storage apparatus for small farmers. The storage unit is about the size of a walk-in closet and extends the freshness of their produce.
CoolCrop is already being piloted through cooperatives involving non-governmental organizations, and their use is augmented with market analytics. Following supply-and-demand, farmers get the most value for their crops if they are in markets with fewer competitors. CoolCrop fills this void by providing market analytics to small farmers, so they know which markets will increase their profit. Explaining their business model, he said that they “can extract an initial profit that pays for the cold storage and increases the value for the farmer.”
CEE Professor Dennis McLaughlin noted in the closing remarks that although most of the research shared at the symposium was centered on India, other developing areas around the world are dealing with similar issues.
The MIT Water and Food Security Student Symposium was the final component of a seminar series hosted by Chandra Madramootoo. Commenting that on the importance of water security, he said “I think it’s important when we think about water in the broader context, to think about the competition that’s placed between agricultural water and other sources of water. It’s this competing pressure for resources that we need to think about.”
Even if there comes a day when the world completely stops emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, coastal regions and island nations will continue to experience rising sea levels for centuries afterward, according to a new study by researchers at MIT and Simon Fraser University.
In a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers report that warming from short-lived compounds — greenhouse gases such as methane, chlorofluorocarbons, or hydrofluorocarbons, that linger in the atmosphere for just a year to a few decades — can cause sea levels to rise for hundreds of years after the pollutants have been cleared from the atmosphere.
“If you think of countries like Tuvalu, which are barely above sea level, the question that is looming is how much we can emit before they are doomed. Are they already slated to go under, even if we stopped emitting everything tomorrow?” says co-author Susan Solomon, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Science at MIT. “It’s all the more reason why it’s important to understand how long climate changes will last, and how much more sea-level rise is already locked in.”
Solomon’s co-authors are lead author Kirsten Zickfeld of Simon Fraser University and Daniel Gilford, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.
Short stay, long rise
Recent studies by many groups, including Solomon’s own, have shown that even if human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide were to stop entirely, their associated atmospheric warming and sea-level rise would continue for more than 1,000 years. These effects — essentially irreversible on human timescales — are due in part to carbon dioxide’s residence time: The greenhouse gas can stay in the atmosphere for centuries after it’s been emitted from smokestacks and tailpipes.
In contrast to carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases such as methane and chlorofluorocarbons have much shorter lifetimes. However, previous studies have not specified what their long-term effects may be on sea-level rise. To answer this question, Solomon and her colleagues explored a number of climate scenarios using an Earth Systems Model of Intermediate Complexity, or EMIC, a computationally efficient climate model that simulates ocean and atmospheric circulation to project climate changes over decades, centuries, and millenia.
With the model, the team calculated both the average global temperature and sea-level rise, in response to anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons, and hydrofluorocarbons.
The researchers’ estimates for carbon dioxide agreed with others’ predictions and showed that, even if the world were to stop emitting carbon dioxide starting in 2050, up to 50 percent of the gas would remain in the atmosphere more than 750 years afterward. Even after carbon dioxide emissions cease, sea-level rise should continue to increase, measuring twice the level of 2050 estimates for 100 years, and four times that value for another 500 years.
The reason, Solomon says, is due to “ocean inertia”: As the world warms due to greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide included — waters heat up and expand, causing sea levels to rise. Removing the extra ocean heat caused by even short-lived gases, and consequently lowering sea levels, is an extremely slow process.
“As the heat goes into the ocean, it goes deeper and deeper, giving you continued thermal expansion,” Solomon explains. “Then it has to get transferred back to the atmosphere and emitted back into space to cool off, and that’s a very slow process of hundreds of years.”
In one particular climate modeling scenario, the team evaluated sea level’s response to various methane emissions scenarios, in which the world would continue to emit the gas at current rates, until emissions end entirely in three different years: 2050, 2100, and 2150.
In all three scenarios, methane gas quickly cleared from the atmosphere, and its associated atmospheric warming decreased at a similar rate. However, methane continued to contribute to sea-level rise for centuries afterward. What’s more, they found that the longer the world waits to reduce methane emissions, the longer seas will stay elevated.
“Amazingly, a gas with a 10-year lifetime can actually cause enduring sea-level changes,” Solomon says. “So you don’t just get to stop emitting and have everything go back to a preindustrial state. You are going to live with this for a very long time.”
The researchers found one silver lining in their analyses: Curious as to whether past regulations on pollutants have had a significant effect on sea-level rise, the team focused on perhaps the most successful global remediation effort to date — the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty ratified by 197 countries in 1989, that effectively curbed emissions of ozone-depleting compounds worldwide.
Encouragingly, the researchers found that the Montreal Protocol, while designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out pollutants such as chlorofluorocarbons — has also helped stem rising seas. If the Montreal Protocol had not been ratified, and countries had continued to emit chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere, the researchers found that by 2050, the world would have experienced up to an additional 6 inches of sea-level rise.
“Half a foot is pretty significant,” Solomon says. “It’s yet another tremendous reason why the Montreal Protocol has been a pretty good thing for the planet.”
In their paper’s conclusion, the researchers point out that efforts to curb global warming should not be expected to reverse high seas quickly, and that longer-term impacts from sea-level rise should be seriously considered: “The primary policy conclusion of this study is that the long-lasting nature of sea-level rise heightens the importance of earlier mitigation actions.”
This research was supported, in part, by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and NASA.