This interview was conducted and written by Ruby Barcklay and appeared first on Berkeley Lab’s internal website.
Scientists in the Earth & Environmental Sciences Area (EESA) are tackling some of the most pressing challenges of our time in order to enable sustainable stewardship and judicious use of the Earth’s resources. To achieve this, EESA’s Climate and Ecosystem Sciences and Energy Geosciences Divisions are advancing new insights about and capabilities to monitor and predict multi-scale Earth system behavior. Associate Lab Director Susan Hubbard discusses the Area’s mission and priorities.
How does EESA support the Lab’s mission?
EESA’s strategic vision is to simultaneously advance environmental sustainability and energy security. Our vision is motivated by the recognition that sustainably meeting the water, energy, environmental quality and food needs of a growing population—given Earth’s finite resources and a changing climate—is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Aligned with Berkeley Lab’s mission to bring science solutions to the world, EESA researchers iterate between basic and applied Earth and environmental science approaches to tackle these challenges.
Over the past 40 years, EESA’s scientific discoveries and technologies have been used to advance the nation’s nuclear waste storage, geological carbon sequestration, and clean geothermal energy strategies. Our scientists have developed new insights about climate change and new capabilities to predict the influence of gradual and abrupt disturbances on ecosystem and watershed behaviors.
In general, our research seeks to quantify and predict how small-scale chemical, biological, hydrological, physical, and mechanical processes interact and influence larger Earth systems behaviors. We strive to understand how these complex interactions, which occur from molecular through landscape scales, will change over time or with manipulation.
We explore the ramifications of these changes for clean water, carbon sequestration, agriculture, and clean energy. We are increasingly exploring how to enhance the resiliency of Earth systems and associated resources.
Our research also addresses urgent global, national, and state needs. For example, in California, EESA scientists are actively studying earthquakes, sea-level rise, droughts, and wildfire, and assisted the state in plugging the world’s largest natural gas storage leak at Aliso Canyon. EESA has also brought new capabilities and team-based science to bear on a range of other disasters, including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Hurricane Maria, and the Fukushima Daichi incident.
What are EESA’s top priorities today? Why are they important?
A crosscutting priority is the development of approaches to seamlessly integrate mechanistic numerical models, data systems, and multi-platform sensing networks to quantify multi-scale Earth system processes, whether for deep subsurface reservoirs or ecosystems or the atmosphere. We are developing and testing these advanced ‘model-data’ approaches with all five of EESA’s Grand Challenges – a few examples are provided below.
Earth’s Microbial Engines. EESA scientists are advancing approaches to predict soil-microbe-plant interactions across scales, which govern ecosystem biogeochemical cycles that underpin water quality, soil carbon sequestration, and agricultural productivity. We are performing experiments under controlled laboratory conditions using fabricated ecosystem ‘SmartSoils’ testbeds and are developing and using novel ‘EcoSense’ instruments and strategies to measure key processes in-situ. Through virtually connecting SmartSoil testbed and field study site observing systems, and using mechanistic ‘EcoSim’ models and machine learning approaches to analyze the datastreams, we will for the first time be able to predict how multi-scale soil-microbe-plant interactions respond to climate, wildfire, land-use and other disruptions. The new sensors and testbeds, which will eventually be housed in BioEPIC, will help guide novel strategies for simultaneously utilizing and protecting our natural resources.
Climate and the Carbon Sink. EESA scientists are developing unique capabilities to simulate vegetation dynamics and ecosystem-climate feedbacks. They are coupling the models with novel measurements and field experiments to predict how terrestrial ecosystems sequester and cycle carbon – and how such processes will change with warming. EESA leads a significant effort focused on predicting these processes in Tropical forests, which cycle more CO2, water and energy than any other biome on Earth. Many countries that signed onto the Paris Agreement are counting on forest carbon uptake to meet their greenhouse gas goals, but as forests are exposed to climate change, their capacity to act as carbon sinks is highly uncertain. The modeling and measurement approaches being developed in EESA are critical for addressing this uncertainty.
Future Water. Mountainous watersheds are called ‘water towers for the world’ because they provide 60-90% of water needed for communities, industry, agriculture and other sectors. However, these snowmelt driven watersheds are highly vulnerable to climate change, which threatens water sustainability in the Western U.S. and elsewhere. EESA scientists are using artificial intelligence to unite mechanistic watershed and climate models with subsurface, land surface, and atmospheric measurements to predict how mountainous systems will behave as these regions experience both abrupt and gradual environmental change.
Sustainable Subsurface. EESA scientists are developing bespoke sensors, built using the Geoscience Measurement Facility, and integrating obtained datasets with multi-scale models and lab experiments to understand how geochemical, geomechanical, and physical processes interact from molecular to reservoir scales. These capabilities are used to explore, for example, if subsurface adaptive control approaches can be used to greatly enhance subsurface energy and storage strategies. For example, at the Sanford Underground Research Facility, EESA scientists are developing adaptive control approaches that are expected to be useful for greatly enhancing clean energy production. Our scientists are also developing new approaches to safely store carbon dioxide in geological reservoirs at a scale, which would provide an essential mitigation strategy for meeting the nation’s climate goals.
Resilient Systems. We are advancing capabilities to characterize and explore interdependencies between natural and built systems. This frontier is incredibly important as we strive to translate our scientific understanding of natural system behavior into sustainable solutions and impact. For example, our scientists are exploring the interdependencies between water and energy systems and are developing strategies for water treatment and sustainability. And they are developing exascale models, novel sensors, and data analytics to help first responders and communities quickly assess how different types and sizes of buildings respond to earthquakes, which can guide both planning and safe reoccupation after an earthquake. The broader topic of urban system resiliency is an active area of EESA research, given that urban systems are subject to a variety of climate-induced stressors, such as heat waves and sea level rise. As such, EESA scientists are developing subsurface-through-rooftop strategies that may offer resilience for urban systems and infrastructure.
A key priority for EESA is the continued improvement of our organizational health. Over the past five years, EESA has developed many programs and practices geared toward fostering a collaborative, stimulating, and welcoming culture. We have developed many new programs to attract, nurture, and develop early career scientists, including supervisor training, a mentorship program, and an internship program with Cal State University East Bay. We have created an EESA inclusion, diversity, equity, and accountability (IDEA) framework aligned with Berkeley Lab’s, which embodies rotating working group topics to ensure we are working towards continual improvement. We currently are focusing on seven key topics, the most recent being racial diversity in the Earth sciences.
Who do you partner with at the Lab to be successful?
Being an integrative field that includes chemical, biological and mechanical processes, and that relies on advanced computing and sensing, Earth scientists collaborate widely with experts across all Areas at Berkeley Lab as well as externally. Because our scientists primarily work as members of multidisciplinary teams, they thrive in the Berkeley Lab collaborative and resource-rich environment. EESA science benefits from the extraordinary facilities at Berkeley Lab, including the NERSC supercomputer, the Joint Genome Institute, and the Advanced Light Source. EESA has partnered to develop several lab-wide initiatives, including Microbes-to-Biomes, Water-Energy Resilience (and the NAWI project), and the new and exciting Carbon Negative Initiative. EESA scientists appreciate and partner with the Lab’s employee resource groups (ERGs). Finally, EESA truly appreciates the partnership we have with teams in the Laboratory Operations and Directorate, including EH&S, Legal, Human Resources, Workforce Development, Communications, and Government Affairs. We are grateful to the many scientific and operational partners across the Lab who have helped to propel EESA science and technology.