The MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design has funded upwards of 100 projects since its inception, and finds itself at a crucial juncture of identifying market opportunities for some of its advanced-stage projects that require further support in order to be turned into profitable social enterprises.
The Tata Center was first established at MIT six years ago by a generous donation provided by one of India’s oldest philanthropic organizations, Tata Trusts. With several advanced-stage projects now in the pipeline, the center’s leadership recognized a need to answer a fundamental question: How can the Tata Center provide further support, and what might that support look like, to research projects that have reached a state of maturity?
The center's recently-concluded fourth annual symposium and workshop, a two-day event hosted at the Samberg Conference Center titled “Translating Research into Impact,” aimed to do just that.
“This is a preoccupation for us. We’re no longer looking for things to do, we’ve found things to do. And we’ve brought technologies to a point at which they’re ready to go out into the world in the form of helpful products and services,” Tata Center Director Rob Stoner said as he welcomed students, industry partners, faculty, non-governmental organization representatives, and government officials from both India and the U.S. to the conference. “So, our focus has become translation — handing off technologies that may have reached the prototype or demonstration stage at MIT to entrepreneurial firms, government agencies, NGOs — anyone who has the vision and commitment to bring them to scale in India. It takes a focused effort to do that successfully.”
Stoner was joined at the conference by Manoj Kumar, head of entrepreneurship and innovations at Tata Trusts and Maurizio Vecchione, the executive vice presdient of Global Good and Research, which is a collaboration between Intellectual Ventures and the Gates Foundation.
In his opening keynote address, The Power of Developing World Technology: Reverse Innovation, Vecchione stressed the importance of investing in technologies for the developing world from a market-driven perspective. Focusing on the health care sector, Vecchione emphasized the need to dramatically increase research and development budgets targeted toward finding solutions for diseases like HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis in the developing world. The world’s population, primarily led by developing countries like China, India, Nigeria, and Mexico, is projected to reach 9 billion by 2040.
The keynote was followed by a panel on scaling social enterprises with Jessica Alderman, the director of communications for Envirofit International; Alex Eaton, CEO of Sistema Biobolsa and Charity; and Manoj Sinha, CEO of Husk Power Systems. One of the core issues that emerged during the panel was the perceived dichotomy of impact versus profit.
“The idea of profit is important. And profit is absolutely tied to impact,” Alderman said. “You will have a short-lived company if you don’t have a solid way of getting to profit.”
Symposium attendees were also introduced to new Tata Center startups and multiple advanced-stage projects working on techologies including:
- urine-based tuberculosis diagnostics;
- affordable silicon-based nanofiltration;
- accessible intraperitoneal chemotherapy devices;
- intelligence deployment to improve agri-supply chains; and
- photovoltaic-powered village-scale desalination systems.
The first day to a close with a fireside chat with Ernest Moniz, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems Emeritus and former U.S. Secretary of Energy, followed by a town hall on funding social innovations with Ann Dewitt, COO of The Engine, Barry Johnson of the National Science Foundation, and Harkesh Kumar Mittal from India’s Department of Science and Technology.
On the second day of the conference, Ann Mei Chang, the author of “Lean Impact” and former chief innovation officer at USAID, delivered an inspiring keynote address on the importance of thinking big, starting small, and pursuing impact relentlessly.
This second day was dedicated to parallel sectorial workshops on Tata Center’s six focus areas: housing, health, agriculture, energy, environment, and water. Workshop participants included faculty from MIT, the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, Tata Fellows, active Tata Center collaborators, industry representatives, and representatives of some of India’s most influential NGOs.
“So many projects end up not leaving the institution because of gaps in our support ecosystem,” Stoner said, drawing the event to a close. “We’re determined at the Tata Center not to let that happen with our projects by filling those gaps.”
The MIT Tata Center’s efforts to build connections in the developing world are linked to MIT’s broader campaign to engage with global challenges, and to translate innovative research into entrepreneurial impact. That work continues year-round. The next Tata Center Symposium will be held at MIT on Sept. 12 and 13, 2019.
Four members of the MIT community have been elected as fellows of the American Physical Society for 2018. The distinct honor is bestowed on less than 0.5 percent of the society's membership each year.
APS Fellowship recognizes members that have completed exceptional physics research, identified innovative applications of physics to science and technology, or furthered physics education. Nominated by their peers, the four were selected based on their outstanding contributions to the field.
Lisa Barsotti is a principal research scientist at the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research and a member of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) team. Barsotti was nominated by the Division of Gravitational Physics for her “extraordinary leadership in commissioning the advanced LIGO detectors, improving their sensitivity through implementation of squeezed light, and enhancing the operation of the gravitational wave detector network through joint run planning between LIGO and Virgo.”
Martin Bazant is the E. G. Roos (1944) Professor of Chemical Engineering and a professor of mathematics. Nominated by the Division of Fluid Dynamics, Bazant was cited for “seminal contributions to electrokinetics and electrochemical physics, and their links to fluid dynamics, notably theories of diffuse-charge dynamics, induced-charge electro-osmosis, and electrochemical phase separation.”
Pablo Jarillo-Herrero is the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics. Jarillo-Herrero was nominated by the Division of Condensed Matter Physics and selected based on his “seminal contributions to quantum electronic transport and optoelectronics in van der Waals materials and heterostructures.”
Richard Lanza is a senior research scientist in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. Nominated by the Forum on Physics and Society, Lanza was cited for his “innovative application of physics and the development of new technologies to allow detection of explosives and weapon-usable nuclear materials, which has greatly benefited national and international security.”
On March 22, the city of Atlanta was hit by cyberattackers who locked city-wide systems and demanded a bitcoin ransom. Many city systems still have not recovered, and the cost to taxpayers may have reached as high as $17 million.
Also in March, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted nine Iranian hackers over an alleged spree of attacks on more than 300 universities in the United States and abroad. The hackers stole 31 terabytes of data, estimated to be worth $3 billion in intellectual property.
And recently engineers at Facebook detected the biggest security breach in Facebook's history. It took the company 11 days to stop it.
The FBI reports that more than 4,000 ransomware attacks occur daily. Large private sector companies routinely grapple with cybersecurity and fending off cybercrime, and corporate security isn't getting better fast enough. Cyber risk has emerged as a significant threat to the financial system: A recent IMF study suggests that average annual losses to financial institutions from cyber-attacks could reach a few hundred billion dollars a year, potentially threatening financial stability. Hacker attacks on critical infrastructure are already alarming, and the security of our cyber-physical infrastructure — the computer-controlled facilities that produce and deliver our energy, water, and communications, for example — are dangerously exposed.
This imminent danger is the subject of study by Stuart Madnick, founding director of the Cybersecurity at MIT Sloan Initiative. In a recent article for The Wall Street Journal, Madnick warned of weakest link in the defense against cyberattacks: people.
“Too many companies are making it easy for the attackers to succeed,” Madnick writes. “An analogy that I often use is this: You can get a stronger lock for your door, but if you are still leaving the key under your mat, are you really any more secure?”
In today’s landscape of escalating cybercrime, resiliency calls for a new kind of leadership and cybersafe culture, requiring the active engagement of both technical and non-technical management. This holistic approach is all the more urgent given the shortage of cybersecurity personnel; in the U.S. alone, 1 to 2 million cyber security analyst roles will go unfilled this year. This holistic approach is the focus of a new MIT Sloan Executive Education program taught by Stuart Madnick and his colleagues Keri Pearlson and Michael Seigel: Cybersecurity Leadership for Non-Technical Executives.
Cybersecurity issues are not purely a technology problem — they are multi-headed hydras that need to be addressed with a multi-disciplinary approach. This timely new program provides general managers with frameworks and best practices for managing cybersecurity-related risk. It also addresses the element common among many of the attacks that strike organizations every day — in particular, attacks that start as phishing or “spearphishing” emails. They rely on people falling for them.
“Such gullibility … is the result of a cyberculture where people are willing to share all kinds of information and try new things all the time,” writes Madnick in his recent WSJ article. “There are lots of good things about that, but also much that is dangerous. So now is the time for companies and institutions to change that culture. It won’t be easy, and it will take some time. But it’s crucial if we want our companies and information to be safe from cybertheft. We have to start now, and we have to do it right.”
The first session of Cybersecurity Leadership for Non-Technical Executives will occur Nov. 6-7.. The program will be offered again in April and July of 2019.
In the fight against drug-resistant bacteria, MIT researchers have enlisted the help of beneficial bacteria known as probiotics.
In a new study, the researchers showed that by delivering a combination of antibiotic drugs and probiotics, they could eradicate two strains of drug-resistant bacteria that often infect wounds. To achieve this, they encapsulated the probiotic bacteria in a protective shell of alginate, a biocompatible material that prevents the probiotics from being killed by the antibiotic.
“There are so many bacteria now that are resistant to antibiotics, which is a serious problem for human health. We think one way to treat them is by encapsulating a live probiotic and letting it do its job,” says Ana Jaklenec, a research scientist at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and one of the senior authors of the study.
If shown to be successful in future tests in animals and humans, the probiotic/antibiotic combination could be incorporated into dressings for wounds, where it could help heal infected chronic wounds, the researchers say.
Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor and a member of the Koch Institute, is also a senior author of the paper, which appears in the journal Advanced Materials on Oct. 17. Zhihao Li, a former MIT visiting scientist, is the study’s lead author.
The human body contains trillions of bacterial cells, many of which are beneficial. In some cases, these bacteria help fend off infection by secreting antimicrobial peptides and other compounds that kill pathogenic strains of bacteria. Others outcompete harmful strains by taking up nutrients and other critical resources.
Scientists have previously tested the idea of applying probiotics to chronic wounds, and they’ve had some success in studies of patients with burns, Li says. However, the probiotic strains usually can’t combat all of the bacteria that would be found in an infected wound. Combining these strains with traditional antibiotics would help to kill more of the pathogenic bacteria, but the antibiotic would likely also kill off the probiotic bacteria.
The MIT team devised a way to get around this problem by encapsulating the probiotic bacteria so that they would not be affected by the antibiotic. They chose alginate in part because it is already used in dressings for chronic wounds, where it helps to absorb secretions and keep the wound dry. Additionally, the researchers also found that alginate is a component of the biofilms that clusters of bacteria form to protect themselves from antibiotics.
“We looked into the molecular components of biofilms and we found that for Pseudomonas infection, alginate is very important for its resistance against antibiotics,” Li says. “However, so far no one has used this ability to protect good bacteria from antibiotics.”
For this study, the researchers chose to encapsulate a type of commercially available probiotic known as Bio-K+, which consists of three strains of Lactobacillus bacteria. These strains are known to kill methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The exact mechanism by which they do this is not known, but one possibility is that the pathogens are susceptible to lactic acid produced by the probiotics. Another possibility is that the probiotics secrete antimicrobial peptides or other proteins that kill the pathogens or disrupt their ability to form biofilms.
The researchers delivered the encapsulated probiotics along with an antibiotic called tobramycin, which they chose among other tested antibiotics because it effectively kills Pseudomonas aeruginosa, another strain commonly found in wound infections. When MRSA and Pseudomonas aeruginosa growing in a lab dish were exposed to the combination of encapsulated Bio-K+ and tobramycin, all of the pathogenic bacteria were wiped out.
“It was quite a drastic effect,” Jaklenec says. “It completely eradicated the bacteria.”
When they tried the same experiment with nonencapsulated probiotics, the probiotics were killed by the antibiotics, allowing the MRSA bacteria to survive.
“When we just used one component, either antibiotics or probiotics, they couldn’t eradicate all the pathogens. That’s something which can be very important in clinical settings where you have wounds with different bacteria, and antibiotics are not enough to kill all the bacteria,” Li says.
Better wound healing
The researchers envision that this approach could be used to develop new types of bandages or other wound dressings embedded with antibiotics and alginate-encapsulated probiotics. Before that can happen, they plan to further test the approach in animals and possibly in humans.
“The good thing about alginate is it’s FDA-approved, and the probiotic we use is approved as well,” Li says. “I think probiotics can be something that may revolutionize wound treatment in the future. With our work, we have expanded the application possibilities of probiotics.”
In a study published in 2016, the researchers demonstrated that coating probiotics with layers of alginate and another polysaccharide called chitosan could protect them from being broken down in the gastrointestinal tract. This could help researchers develop ways to treat disease or improve digestion with orally delivered probiotics. Another potential application is using these probiotics to replenish the gut microbiome after treatment with antibiotics, which can wipe out beneficial bacteria at the same time that they clear up an infection.
Li’s work on this project was funded by the Swiss Janggen-Poehn Foundation and by Beatrice Beck-Schimmer and Hans-Ruedi Gonzenbach.
Angelika Amon, an MIT professor of biology, is one of five scientists who will receive a 2019 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, given for transformative advances toward understanding living systems and extending human life.
Amon, the Kathleen and Curtis Marble Professor in Cancer Research and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, was honored for her work in determining the consequences of aneuploidy, an abnormal chromosome number that results from mis-segregation of chromosomes during cell division.
The award, announced this morning, comes with a $3 million prize.
“Angelika Amon is an outstanding choice to receive the Breakthrough Prize,” says Tyler Jacks, director of the Koch Institute and the David H. Koch Professor of Biology. “Her work on understanding how cells control the decisions to divide and the effects of imbalances in chromosome number has helped shape how we think about normal development and disease. Angelika is a fearless investigator and a true scientist’s scientist. All of us in the Koch Institute and across MIT are thrilled by this news.”
Two MIT alumni, Charles Kane PhD ’89 and Eugene Mele PhD ’78, both professors at the University of Pennsylvania, will share a Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. Kane and Mele are being recognized for their new ideas about topology and symmetry in physics, leading to the prediction of a new class of materials that conduct electricity only on their surface.
New Horizons winners
Also announced today, three MIT physics researchers will receive the $100,000 New Horizons in Physics Prize, awarded to promising junior researchers who have already produced important work.
Lisa Barsotti, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Kavli Institute, and Matthew Evans, an MIT associate professor of physics, will share the prize with Rana Adhikari of Caltech for their work on ground-based detectors of gravitational waves. Daniel Harlow, an MIT assistant professor of physics, will share the prize with Daniel Jafferis of Harvard University and Aron Wall of Stanford University for their work generating fundamental insights about quantum information, quantum field theory, and gravity.
Additionally, Chenyang Xu, an MIT professor of mathematics, will receive a 2019 New Horizons in Mathematics Prize for his work in the minimal model program and applications to the moduli of algebraic varieties.
“On behalf of the School of Science, I congratulate Angelika Amon for this extraordinary honor, in recognition of her brilliant work that expands our understanding of cellular mechanisms that may lead to cancer,” says Michael Sipser, dean of the MIT School of Science and the Donner Professor of Mathematics. “We celebrate all recipients of these prestigious awards, including MIT’s four researchers whose impressive early-career achievements in physics and mathematics are being recognized today. Our scientists pursue fundamental research that advances human knowledge, which in turn leads to a better world.”
Most living cells have a defined number of chromosomes. Human cells, for example, have 23 pairs of chromosomes. However, as cells divide, they can make errors that lead to a gain or loss of chromosomes.
Amon has spent much of her career studying how this condition affects cells. When aneuploidy occurs in embryonic cells, it is almost always fatal to the organism. For human embryos, extra copies of any chromosome are lethal, with the exceptions of chromosome 21, which produces Down syndrome; chromosomes 13 and 18, which lead to developmental disorders known as Patau and Edwards syndromes; and the X and Y sex chromosomes, extra copies of which may sometimes cause various disorders but are not usually lethal.
In recent years, Amon’s lab has been exploring an apparent paradox of aneuploidy: When normal adult cells become aneuploid, it impairs their ability to survive and proliferate; however, cancer cells, which are nearly all aneuploid, can grow uncontrollably. Amon has shown that aneuploidy disrupts cells’ usual error-repair systems, allowing genetic mutations to quickly accumulate.
A better understanding of the consequences of aneuploidy could shed light on how cancer cells evolve and help to identify new therapeutic targets for cancer. Last year, Amon discovered a mechanism that the immune system uses to eliminate aneuploid cells from the body, raising the possibility of harnessing this system, which relies on natural killer cells, to destroy cancer cells.
Amon, who was informed of the prize several weeks ago, was sworn to secrecy until today’s announcement.
“When I received the phone call, I was driving in the car with my daughter, and it was really hard to not be too excited and thereby spill the beans,” she says. “Of course I am thrilled that our work is recognized in this manner.”
Scientists Frank Bennett of Ionis Pharmaceuticals, Adrian Krainer of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Xiaowei Zhuang of Harvard University, and Zhijian Chen of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center will also receive Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences.
The 2019 Breakthrough Prize and New Horizon Prize recipients will be recognized at the seventh annual Breakthrough Prize ceremony, hosted by actor, producer and philanthropist Pierce Brosnan, on Sunday, Nov. 4, at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and broadcast live on National Geographic.
Developing automated systems that track occupants and self-adapt to their preferences is a major next step for the future of smart homes. When you walk into a room, for instance, a system could set to your preferred temperature. Or when you sit on the couch, a system could instantly flick the television to your favorite channel.
But enabling a home system to recognize occupants as they move around the house is a more complex problem. Recently, systems have been built that localize humans by measuring the reflections of wireless signals off their bodies. But these systems can’t identify the individuals. Other systems can identify people, but only if they’re always carrying their mobile devices. Both systems also rely on tracking signals that could be weak or get blocked by various structures.
MIT researchers have built a system that takes a step toward fully automated smart home by identifying occupants, even when they’re not carrying mobile devices. The system, called Duet, uses reflected wireless signals to localize individuals. But it also incorporates algorithms that ping nearby mobile devices to predict the individuals’ identities, based on who last used the device and their predicted movement trajectory. It also uses logic to figure out who’s who, even in signal-denied areas.
“Smart homes are still based on explicit input from apps or telling Alexa to do something. Ideally, we want homes to be more reactive to what we do, to adapt to us,” says Deepak Vasisht, a PhD student in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and lead author on a paper describing the system that was presented at last week’s Ubicomp conference. “If you enable location awareness and identification awareness for smart homes, you could do this automatically. Your home knows it’s you walking, and where you’re walking, and it can update itself.”
Experiments done in a two-bedroom apartment with four people and an office with nine people, over two weeks, showed the system can identify individuals with 96 percent and 94 percent accuracy, respectively, including when people weren’t carrying their smartphones or were in blocked areas.
But the system isn’t just novelty. Duet could potentially be used to recognize intruders or ensure visitors don’t enter private areas of your home. Moreover, Vasisht says, the system could capture behavioral-analytics insights for health care applications. Someone suffering from depression, for instance, may move around more or less, depending on how they’re feeling on any given day. Such information, collected over time, could be valuable for monitoring and treatment.
“In behavioral studies, you care about how people are moving over time and how people are behaving,” Vasisht says. “All those questions can be answered by getting information on people’s locations and how they’re moving.”
The researchers envision that their system would be used with explicit consent from anyone who would be identified and tracked with Duet. If needed, they could also develop an app for users to grant or revoke Duet’s access to their location information at any time, Vasisht adds.
Co-authors on the paper are: Dina Katabi, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; former CSAIL researcher Anubhav Jain ’16; and CSAIL PhD students Chen-Yu Hsu and Zachary Kabelac.
Tracking and identification
Duet is a wireless sensor installed on a wall that’s about a foot and a half squared. It incorporates a floor map with annotated areas, such as the bedroom, kitchen, bed, and living room couch. It also collects identification tags from the occupants’ phones.
The system builds upon a device-based localization system built by Vasisht, Katabi, and other researchers that tracks individuals within tens of centimeters, based on wireless signal reflections from their devices. It does so by using a central node to calculate the time it takes the signals to hit a person’s device and travel back. In experiments, the system was able to pinpoint where people were in a two-bedroom apartment and in a café.
The system, however, relied on people carrying mobile devices. “But in building [Duet] we realized, at home you don’t always carry your phone,” Vasisht says. “Most people leave devices on desks or tables, and walk around the house.”
The researchers combined their device-based localization with a device-free tracking system, called WiTrack, developed by Katabi and other CSAIL researchers, that localizes people by measuring the reflections of wireless signals off their bodies.
Duet locates a smartphone and correlates its movement with individual movement captured by the device-free localization. If both are moving in tightly correlated trajectories, the system pairs the device with the individual and, therefore, knows the identity of the individual.
To ensure Duet knows someone’s identity when they’re away from their device, the researchers designed the system to capture the power profile of the signal received from the phone when it’s used. That profile changes, depending on the orientation of the signal, and that change be mapped to an individual’s trajectory to identify them. For example, when a phone is used and then put down, the system will capture the initial power profile. Then it will estimate how the power profile would look if it were still being carried along a path by a nearby moving individual. The closer the changing power profile correlates to the moving individual’s path, the more likely it is that individual owns the phone.
One final issue is that structures such as bathroom tiles, television screens, mirrors, and various metal equipment can block signals.
To compensate for that, the researchers incorporated probabilistic algorithms to apply logical reasoning to localization. To do so, they designed the system to recognize entrance and exit boundaries of specific spaces in the home, such as doors to each room, the bedside, and the side of a couch. At any moment, the system will recognize the most likely identity for each individual in each boundary. It then infers who is who by process of elimination.
Suppose an apartment has two occupants: Alisha and Betsy. Duet sees Alisha and Betsy walk into the living room, by pairing their smartphone motion with their movement trajectories. Both then leave their phones on a nearby coffee table to charge — Betsy goes into the bedroom to nap; Alisha stays on the couch to watch television. Duet infers that Betsy has entered the bed boundary and didn’t exit, so must be on the bed. After a while, Alisha and Betsy move into, say, the kitchen — and the signal drops. Duet reasons that two people are in the kitchen, but it doesn’t know their identities. When Betsy returns to the living room and picks up her phone, however, the system automatically re-tags the individual as Betsy. By process of elimination, the other person still in the kitchen is Alisha.
“There are blind spots in homes where systems won’t work. But, because you have logical framework, you can make these inferences,” Vasisht says.
“Duet takes a smart approach of combining the location of different devices and associating it to humans, and leverages device-free localization techniques for localizing humans,” says Ranveer Chandra, a principal researcher at Microsoft, who was not involved in the work. “Accurately determining the location of all residents in a home has the potential to significantly enhance the in-home experience of users. … The home assistant can personalize the responses based on who all are around it; the temperature can be automatically controlled based on personal preferences, thereby resulting in energy savings. Future robots in the home could be more intelligent if they knew who was where in the house. The potential is endless.”
Next, the researchers aim for long-term deployments of Duet in more spaces and to provide high-level analytic services for applications such as health monitoring and responsive smart homes.
The Beaufort Gyre is an enormous, 600-mile-wide pool of swirling cold, fresh water in the Arctic Ocean, just north of Alaska and Canada. In the winter, this current is covered by a thick cap of ice. Each summer, as the ice melts away, the exposed gyre gathers up sea ice and river runoff, and draws it down to create a huge reservoir of frigid fresh water, equal to the volume of all the Great Lakes combined.
Scientists at MIT have now identified a key mechanism, which they call the “ice-ocean governor,” that controls how fast the Beaufort Gyre spins and how much fresh water it stores. In a paper published today in Geophysical Research Letters, the researchers report that the Arctic’s ice cover essentially sets a speed limit on the gyre’s spin.
In the past two decades, as temperatures have risen globally, the Arctic’s summer ice has progressively shrunk in size. The team has observed that, with less ice available to control the Beaufort Gyre’s spin, the current has sped up in recent years, gathering up more sea ice and expanding in both volume and depth.
If global temperatures continue to climb, the researchers expect that the mechanism governing the gyre’s spin will diminish. With no governor to limit its speed, the researchers say the gyre will likely transition into “a new regime” and eventually spill over, like an overflowing bathtub, releasing huge volumes of cold, fresh water into the North Atlantic, which could affect the global climate and ocean circulation.
“This changing ice cover in the Arctic is changing the system which is driving the Beaufort Gyre, and changing its stability and intensity,” says Gianluca Meneghello, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “If all this fresh water is released, it will affect the circulation of the Atlantic.”
Meneghello is a co-author of the paper, along with John Marshall, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography, Jean-Michel Campin and Edward Doddridge of MIT, and Mary-Louise Timmermans of Yale University.
A “new Arctic ocean”
There have been a handful of times in the recorded past when the Beaufort Gyre has spilled over, beginning with the Great Salinity Anomaly in the late 1960s, when the gyre sent a surge of cold, fresh water southward. Fresh water has the potential to dampen the ocean’s overturning circulation, affecting surface temperatures and perhaps storminess and climate.
Similar events could transpire if the Arctic ice controlling the Beaufort Gyre’s spin continues to recede each year.
“If this ice-ocean governor goes away, then we will end up with basically a new Arctic ocean,” Marshall says.
“Nature has a natural governor”
The researchers began looking into the dynamics of the Beaufort Gyre several years ago. At that time, they used measurements taken by satellites between 2003 and 2014, to track the movement of the Arctic ice cover, along with the speed of the Arctic wind. They used these measurements of ice and wind speed to estimate how fast the Beaufort Gyre must be downwelling, or spinning down beneath the ice. But the number they came up with was much smaller than what they expected.
“We thought there was a coding error,” Marshall recalls. “But it turns out there was something else kicking back.” In other words, there must be some other mechanism that was limiting, or slowing down, the gyre’s spin.
The team recalculated the gyre’s speed, this time by including estimates of ocean current activity in and around the gyre, which they inferred from satellite measurements of sea surface heights. The new estimate, Meneghello says, was “much more reasonable.”
In this new paper, the researchers studied the interplay of ice, wind, and ocean currents in more depth, using a high-resolution, idealized representation of ocean circulation based on the MIT General Circulation Model, built by Marshall’s group. They used this model to simulate the seasonal activity of the Beaufort Gyre as the Arctic ice expands and recedes each year.
They found that in the spring, as the Arctic ice melts away, the gyre is exposed to the wind, which acts to whip up the ocean current, causing it to spin faster and draw down more fresh water from the Arctic’s river runoff and melting ice. In the winter, as the Arctic ice sheet expands, the ice acts as a lid, shielding the gyre from the fast-moving winds. As a result, the gyre spins against the underside of the ice and eventually slows down.
“The ice moves much slower than wind, and when the gyre reaches the velocity of the ice, at this point, there is no friction — they’re rotating together, and there’s nothing applying a stress [to speed up the gyre],” Meneghello says. “This is the mechanism that governs the gyre’s speed.”
“In mechanical systems, the governor, or limiter, kicks in when things are going too fast,” Marshall adds. “We found nature has a natural governor in the Arctic.”
The evolution of sea ice over the Beaufort Gyre: In springtime, as ice thaws and melts into the sea, the gyre is exposed to the Arctic winds. Courtesy of the researchers
“In a warming world”
Marshall and Meneghello note that, as Arctic temperatures have risen in the last two decades, and summertime ice has shrunk with each year, the speed of the Beaufort Gyre has increased. Its currents have become more variable and unpredictable, and are only slightly slowed by the return of ice in the winter.
“At some point, if this trend continues, the gyre can’t swallow all this fresh water that it’s drawing down,” Marshall says. Eventually, the levee will likely break and the gyre will burst, releasing hundreds of billions of gallons of cold, fresh water into the North Atlantic.
An increasingly unstable Beaufort Gyre could also disrupt the Arctic’s halocline — the layer of ocean water underlying the gyre’s cold freshwater, that insulates it from much deeper, warmer, and saltier water. If the halocline is somehow weakened by a more instable gyre, this could encourage warmer waters to rise up, further melting the Arctic ice.
“This is part of what we’re seeing in a warming world,” Marshall says. “We know the global mean temperatures are going up, but the Arctic tempertures are going up even more. So the Arctic is very vulnerable to climate change. And we’re going to live through a period where the governor goes away, essentially.”
This research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.
Kristin Bergmann, the Victor P. Starr Career Development Assistant Professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) has been awarded a 2018 Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering. Bergmann is one of 18 early-career scientists in the nation selected this year. The prestigious fellowship, which includes a research grant of $875,000, encourages researchers to take risks and explore new frontiers in their field.
“We are all extremely proud and happy that Kristin has received this well-deserved honor,” said Robert van der Hilst, the Schlumberger Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, EAPS department head, and Packard Fellow himself. “Kristin is a wonderful colleague, deeply engaged with our academic community. Running a lab and a field program is a major challenge, and the Packard Fellowship will help her pursue her exciting and ambitious studies of geological processes in Earth’s deep time.”
Bergmann is a geobiologist who reconstructs Earth’s ancient climate and surface environments. She uses methods spanning field measurements, isotope geochemistry and microanalysis to study rocks deposited in ancient oceans before and during the evolution of early animals.
“It is a great honor to have our work recognized and supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation,” Bergmann said.
During her fellowship, Bergmann will study ancient climate dynamics and dramatic environmental changes that accompany the emergence and dominance of multicellular, complex life on Earth. “I am fortunate at MIT to be able to pursue a research agenda that includes both field observations and laboratory-based geochemical techniques,” said Bergmann. “Often a researcher feels pulled between whether to spend months in the field or in the lab, but combining and balancing these allows my students to approach a problem from two sides.” By understanding the rocks within their environmental context, Bergmann can focus her research. “Where the sample comes from and its context is as important to me as the laboratory measurements we make at MIT and elsewhere. The Packard Fellowship will support this multidimensional approach.”
Bergmann feels grateful and inspired by the award: “Geobiology is an interdisciplinary field requiring a variety of approaches and I’m very lucky to have the chance to interact with and learn from diverse, passionate scientists here at MIT and, before that, at Carleton College, Caltech, and Harvard. I look forward to meeting and interacting with other Packard Fellows from across the country.”
The David and Lucile Packard Foundation is a private family foundation created by David Packard, cofounder of the Hewlett-Packard Company.