By Paul Choi, Miguel Garrido, and Willie Zhu
In 2016, MIT celebrated 100 years in Cambridge. As the Institute reflected on this milestone, it also touted its bold initiatives for the 21st century and beyond. By most accounts, MIT’s second century in Cambridge will be even brighter than the first.
However, there is one aspect of MIT’s future that is less promising: its home (Cambridge, MA) could face calamitous consequences from climate change in the next century and beyond. Cambridge is situated by Charles River and the ocean, making the low-lying city highly vulnerable to changes in the sea level.
Carbon dioxide emissions cause global temperatures to rise, which in turn cause the polar ice sheets to melt. As a result, sea levels rise, and the first areas to be affected on a large scale are low-lying coastal cities. This is already happening around the world, but the sea levels haven’t risen enough – yet – to impact Cambridge.
But the future will change this quickly. The purpose of our data sculpture is to show our audience (MIT students) in a dramatic but accurate manner (based on scientific estimates) how climate change could impact the MIT campus and Cambridge in the future.
What the Data Say
The data say that the consequences of climate change on the greater Boston area are expected to be far more calamitous than previously thought. According to numerous scientific studies, sea levels could rise by as much as 10 feet in the Boston area by the end of the century. This drastic change in sea levels could mean that as much as 44 percent of Cambridge would be permanently submerged.
Since the MIT campus flanks the Charles River, the Institute would almost certainly be partly underwater (as much as 10 feet) by the end of the century or later, assuming a) current greenhouse gas emission rates remain unchanged; and b) no steps are taken to control sea levels (through geoengineering or other means).
To make the impact of climate change as relatable as possible to our target audience (MIT students), we created a 3D model of the MIT Dome and placed it in a plastic cube.
Our data sculpture consists of two interactive steps.
First, we filled the cube with liquid (PowerAde) to the 10-ft mark (in proportion to the Dome model) to illustrate what could happen if we don’t take steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, raise awareness, or control the rise in sea levels.
The second step involved asking a different but related question: if the sea levels in Cambridge rise by 10 feet, what percentage of dry, habitable land in the city would be underwater? The answer, according to studies, is about 44 percent (the share of population was unavailable). Hence, for this step we changed the scale to the percentage of Cambridge underwater (0 to 100%) and filled the cube to the 44% mark. This represents a different way of looking at the data and reinforces the notion that a sizable share of the city would be permanently submerged due to climate change.
We want to tell this story because we believe that a simple sculpture like the submerged MIT Dome building can serve as a powerful symbol to raise awareness and induce action. Climate change is often difficult for people to grasp and act on (regardless of educational levels) because its impacts are distant in both time and space.
Hence, we believe that our data sculpture tells a compelling story because it uses a highly relatable point of reference (the MIT Dome building) for our audience and explains the impacts of climate change in a simple two-step interactive process (sea levels rising and the proportion of the city that would be submerged). By raising awareness with this sculpture, our hope is that the MIT community can take action to fight climate change and protect our campus, city, and planet before it is too late.