Initiative aims to help understand, monitor Earth

MIT has launched a major environmental initiative to forge a better understanding of how the Earth functions from the molecular to the global scale. Data from the Earth System Initiative (ESI) will ultimately help monitor the planet's "vital signs," predict the effects of future human activities and otherwise contribute to the responsible stewardship of the planet, say its co-directors.

"ESI will apply MIT's strengths in science and engineering toward understanding the design of the Earth system, so we can make better decisions about how to manage the planet for future generations," said co-director Penny Chisholm, a professor with appointments in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Department of Biology.

"It's hard to know how to practice responsible stewardship of the planet if we do not fully understand how the system works," said co-director Kip Hodges, a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. "To me, success will come only if we can develop a firm grasp on Earth history, evaluate the current state of the planet, and learn to predict how deliberate and unintentional human activities affect its future."

ESI brings together scientists and engineers from diverse disciplines, an approach used by the medical community to develop modern medicine. "The same ingenuity must be applied to understanding the 'anatomy' and 'metabolism' of our planet," say Chisholm, Hodges, and colleagues in the ESI brochure. In addition to the co-directors, 30 other MIT faculty from a variety of departments are also affiliated with ESI. That list continues to grow as more researchers learn of the initiative.

ESI will include both theoretical and experimental research components. "The challenges include the development and deployment of technologies to monitor Earth's 'vital signs,' as well as the development of models and theories that will enable a predictive understanding of the biosphere,"said Chisholm, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies.

"Imagine a world in which scientists have real-time access to high-resolution data on climate, water quality, biodiversity and the like on a truly global scale," said Hodges. "I can foresee the collection of such data being a collaborative process that involves both scientists and non-scientists. Can you think of a better way to engage people in science than to show them how data collected in their backyards can have an impact on the way we solve a scientific problem of global importance?"

The initiative places a premium on education. "We are embarking on a program with enormous implications for future generations. Therefore, a key objective is the initiation of educational programs that will spawn the future leaders of this new integrative discipline," say ESI researchers in the brochure.


The first educational program launched by ESI is Terrascope, an alternative to the standard freshman core program at MIT. Predicated on the notion that the Earth system provides a valuable context for the physics, mathematics, chemistry and biology subjects traditionally taught as part of the Science Core at MIT, Terrascope is designed to bring cohesion to the freshman educational experience.

This fall, students enrolled in 12.000 (Solving Complex Problems) are developing ways to characterize and monitor the well-being of the Amazon Basin rainforest and devise a set of practical strategies to ensure its preservation. In the spring, students enrolled in 1.016 (Introduction to Earth System Science and Engineering) will actually build and test apparati that were conceived and designed in 12.000.

Pending the development of funding resources, ESI hopes to provide graduates of the Terrascope program with the option to travel to the Amazon next spring to deploy some of these devices and experience research in a rainforest environment.

Research projects currently under the auspices of ESI include:

  • A search for common processes or laws that govern the co-evolution of biodiversity and the environment over geological time scales. The researchers, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, hope to determine the extent to which intrinsic and extrinsic factors mediate local diversity changes.
  • A joint program with Harvard Medical School funded by the Department of Energy to study several microorganisms - for which the complete genome sequence is known - from the genome to ecosystem level (see MIT Tech Talk, Aug. 14, 2002 ). The goal is to characterize gene regulatory networks of the cells, and how they modify and are shaped by the complex microbial communities within which they are embedded. MIT studies will focus on Prochlorococcus, a marine microbe that is responsible for a major fraction of the Earth's microbial carbon fixation.
  • An Earth-observing satellite mission proposal for possible flight in 2006, designed to make the first global mapping measurements of surface soil moisture and its freeze/thaw state.

Concluded Chisholm: "In 50 years we hope to have directed some of the world's best talent to work on problems associated with Earth system science and engineering."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 20, 2002.

Topics: Earth and atmospheric sciences

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