A steward for ocean research and climate health

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The world is continually changing and evolving. But avid hikers and MIT alumni Audrey Buyrn ’58, SM ’63, PhD ’66 her late husband, Alan Phillips ’57, PhD ’61, felt humanity had asked too much from our planet. Anthropogenic activity was pushing the world toward weather and climate extremes, and imperiling the beautiful landscapes and biodiversity they had come to love while experiencing them first-hand on their treks.

“When Alan and I established the Ally of Nature Fund in 2007, it was still possible to be an intelligent skeptic of climate change and to think that catastrophic environmental degradation was far off in space and time. This is no longer possible,” says Buyrn, a sentiment shared with Phillips. “The evidence is in front of our eyes, over and over again from every part of the world.”

Raffaele Ferrari, a Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography, is one of the MIT researchers investigating this anthropogenic influence on climate. His research focuses on the role that the ocean circulation plays in setting the rate at which the ocean takes up heat and carbon from the atmosphere in present and past climates. Ferrari and his group have demonstrated through theory and observations that small-scale turbulent motions play a crucial role in shaping both the rate and the pathways of this uptake; however, these motions are not properly represented in climate models.

To remedy this, the Ferrari group is contributing to the creation of a new-generation climate model that leverages machine learning and data assimilation techniques to better represent these important small-scale turbulent motions, both in the ocean and atmosphere, so as to close the knowledge gaps and increase certainty in climate predictions compared to existing models. The information produced will help inform decisions to ensure sustainability of the Earth and our environment.

For this work, the School of Science selected Ferrari for the 2019 Ally of Nature Fund Award, bestowed annually to support exploratory projects whose purpose is to prevent, reduce, and repair the impacts of humanity on the natural environment. The fund will be used to expand the Ferrari group’s research, supporting students who are developing basic theories for the role of small-scale ocean turbulence on large-scale circulation in simple, idealized problems — a key step to test the fidelity of the new-generation climate model.

“Professor Ferrari’s oceanographic research impacts how we understand nature and our place in it: from the ocean’s phytoplankton that produce most of the oxygen we breathe, to our predictions about the Earth’s rising temperature and its effects on sea-level rise and food security,” says Michael Sipser, the Donner Professor of Mathematics and dean of the MIT School of Science. “I’m pleased to name him a recipient of the Ally of Nature Fund, as his work has wide-reaching implications in our understanding of the physics and biology of the oceans, and ultimately of our changing climate, which affects us all.”

Through their fund, Buyrn and Phillips have supported the research of other Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science (EAPS) professors — including Andrew Babbin, Kristin Bergmann, Tim Cronin, John Marshall, David McGee, and Ron Prinn, in addition to Department of Physics Associate Professor Jeff Gore — on topics ranging from reconstructing and understanding past climates and the evolution of early life on Earth to the physics of our oceans and atmospheres and their impacts on climate.

“Although it is a cliché to say ‘more research is needed’, more research is needed,” to understand the intricacies of our planet and the value of what could be lost to climate change and anthropogenic degradation, says Buyrn. Together, Ferrari and his EAPS geoscience colleagues are piecing together the history of our planet and its interconnected systems.

“It is not only research in geoscience that needs continued support, but research in many other disciplines, such as chemistry, architecture, civil engineering, molecular biology, and computer sciences,” says Buyrn, that will significantly contribute to the tackling of environmental issues, wholesale. “A mammoth cross-disciplinary attack on environmental problems, including but not limited to climate change, is needed, and MIT — excelling in these areas with experience cooperating and working across fields — is one of the few places that can do it!”