Could MIT Be Partly Underwater by the End of the Century?

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).

Data Sculpture

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.



Float Away with Hubway

By Erick Friis, Sam Resnick, and Sean Soni

The data say that Hubway is often used for short rides of a few miles or less.  We want to tell this story because we think people don’t realize that taking these short trips can prevent CO2 emissions and have a meaningful impact on climate change.  Our audience is college students, specifically MIT students, and as such we have designed our data sculpture around MIT.  We want to encourage MIT students to use Hubway instead of calling an Uber or Lyft.  We used the Hubway dataset to look at a few of the most popular Hubway destinations from MIT, and then calculated the mileage between these points.  We then calculated the volume of CO2 that a Hubway rider would save by not taking a car on this trip.  We then filled giant balloons with helium to represent CO2.  The larger the balloon, the more CO2 saved by taking Hubway.  Each balloon was tied to its respective route on a giant map of Boston.  What makes our treatment so effective is that we do not scale the numbers.  If a Hubway trip saves a cubic meter of CO2, its balloon will have a volume of a cubic meter.  In this way, our audience can see that even small trips can have a sizeable impact, and they can fully appreciate the size of that impact.  Audience engagement is often a key aspect of ensuring an audience remembers your message, so we decided to add an interactive aspect to our data sculpture.  We envision our demo being deployed at a booth where it is accessible to MIT students, and we would like to make it memorable and have it generate discussion.  Thus, we would ask students what a popular Uber route they take might be.  We would then calculate how much CO2 they could save by taking a Hubway instead.  If they agree to try out Hubway, we will inflate a giant balloon with that amount of CO2.  This is a light-hearted way to encourage students to use Hubway, and has the added benefit of promoting discussion among any students who happen to inquire about the balloon.

Tasting Air Pollution

Tina Quach, Margaret Tian, Tony Zeng, Aina Martinez Zurita

In starting this project, we were initially motivated by the data set collected by the US State Department on the Air Quality Readings in Beijing. While the city is commonly known for it’s bad air quality, we were interested in understanding how the air pollution in Beijing compares with other cities around the world, as well as with the accepted health standards. Is the air quality of Beijing really as bad as people think?

In order to answer this question, we focused on the data collected by the World Health Organization [1] which reports yearly average of different air pollutants (PM 2.5 and 10) in different cities all around the world.

Indeed, this data set confirmed that the air quality in Beijing is extremely unhealthy. The annual mean of particulate matter with diameters of 2.5 microns or smaller (PM 2.5) in 2014 was 85 ug/m3, over 8 times the recommended limit of 10 ug/m3. According to several studies [2], an annual average of only 35 ug/m3 is associated with 15% higher long-term mortality risk with respect to the recommended guideline. Given the high health impact such a high average of air pollutants, we wanted our story to convey the damaging effects of air pollution and the importance of the efforts to combat it.

We were also interested in creating an interactive experience that was different and surprising, and also communicated our message effectively. And so, we decided to use food to portray our data.

We collected the annual averages of PM 2.5 for several representative cities. Each city is represented by a set of brownies, and there is also a set of brownies that represents the ideal air quality standard. While all brownies look similar, we added salt to each batch proportional to the air quality of the city they represent. Brownies from cities with a bad air quality have higher level of salt (to uncomfortable levels) while the ideal air quality brownie has no added salt. As well, each set of brownies is accompanied by a glass of milk. If the taste a specific city salty brownie is uncomfortable, we invite the viewer to drink the corresponding glass of milk. The milk in the glass however, is proportional to the efforts that city is making towards clean air policies and measures. Finally, if the amount of milk provided by the city is not enough to clear the bad taste, we also provide a jug of milk. The cartoon is covered with a label explaining measures that a person can take independently to improve air quality.

We envision our target audience as young kids. Our display would provide a way for them to learn about the impacts of air pollution and the importance of air quality in a tactile and fun way. For example, it could be part of an activity at a science museum, or a display on a science fair. We believe that the direct experience of something that we expect to enjoy (Aka. a sweet brownie) being damaged by the air pollution (aka. salt) is a very effective way of communicating the importance of air quality. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a good brownie!


The Olympic Reduction

Meghan Kokoski, Mikayla Murphy, Kimberly Yu, Kevin Zhang

The Beijing air quality data shows that there was a drastic increase in air quality during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. We wanted to tell this story because although Beijing normally has poor and sometimes even dangerous air quality, they were able to increase air quality to safe levels while hosting the Olympic Games. This change did not occur naturally and was a direct result of government intervention. The data does not show a permanent improvement in the air quality in Beijing, but it does prove that through laws and the will of the government, there can be a noticeable change in air quality.

We wanted to demonstrate the changes Beijing made during the Olympics in the hopes of encouraging better policy to protect air quality. Our audience is the inhabitants of Los Angeles, particularly those interested in health and environmental issues. A larger scale of the sketch would be set up in a public setting in the city of Los Angeles. We would play the part of an activist for clean air, using our data sculpture to show how government can play a large role in creating clean air. In addition to the physical model, the accompanying screen would specify the clean air improvements in Beijing made during the Olympics, as well as the adverse effects each pollutant has on the environment and one’s health. Ultimately, the data visualization would encourage participants to push their government officials to implement policies promoting cleaner air.

Los Angeles is an appropriate location for our visualization because it often has unsafe levels of air pollution and has the worst air quality of any large city in the US. They are also in contention to host the 2024 Summer Olympic Games, so people will relate to the Olympic rings.

We started by analyzing the Beijing air quality data provided by the US State Department and noticed an unusual increase in air quality in August. Based on the timeline, we hypothesized that it may have been related to the 2008 Summer Olympics. Intrigued, we did some additional research and found a study conducted by The Hong Kong Polytechnic University which looked at specific levels of pollutants before and during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Our physical model is based on the information in this study.

Steps to a Better Environment

Steps to a Better Environment

Tricia Shi, Nina Lutz, Sharlene Chiu, and Zachary Collins

The data says that our collective mindset towards the environment will have a serious impact on how global carbon emissions will trend over the next few decades. If we take care of the environment, they can level off somewhere very near our current rate. If we don’t, they are expected to increase quite rapidly. We wanted to tell this story because the effects of our actions today, although not necessarily making an immediately noticeable impact, could have drastic consequences on the state of our environment just a few decades into the future. This will not only determine the world future generations live in, but even the majority of us today.

Our data visualization project is a staircase that will help people understand the impact our everyday actions can have on our carbon footprints. The shape of the staircase maps our past global carbon emissions as well as two projections for carbon emissions over the next few decades. One projection assumes we live in a world in which, “people pursue personal wealth rather than environmental quality” while the other is a world in which we place a, “strong emphasis on community initiative and social innovation to find … solutions.” Essentially, what happens if environment protection becomes a societal passion versus something we just brush under the rug. The differences are drastic.

To display this data, we wanted to create a visualization that could be interactive with the viewer while still being able to reach our audience passively. We decided that a staircase offers many metaphorical and engaging traits that would help us hammer our major points home. From a passive perspective, the shape of a staircase could easily be molded to align with the line graph representation of our data. Observing it from the side allows the viewer to make out the trends in CO2 emissions and presents it in a form that makes comparing the two models easy. The ability to view the data from various angles allows the different projections to be highlighted.

Climbing the stairs presents a very clear opportunity to get the audience engaged and quite literally feel a comparison between the two. Along the way, we present the climber with numerous facts about both past, current, and future carbon emissions. The first half of the staircase, which follows CO2 transmissions over the past few decades, presents facts related to what actions have led to the current levels and incident climb that we are making. As soon as they reach 2020, the staircase splits into two halves, one for each projection. The audience can feel the different steepness of the two set of steps and this is representative of the rising CO2 levels associated with them.

The two sides are meant to act as a parallel and present facts that demonstrate what actions we take as a society that impact environmental conditions. The half that follows the path toward high levels of CO2 showcases facts like “3 billion trees are cut down annually” and “13% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from the production and transportation of food”. Things that we don’t think about impacting our global ecosystem so heavily but might observe everyday. The second half that follows the path to a better environment presents paralleled ways we can counter the other half. Facts like “planting an individual tree can help consume up to 48 lbs of carbon dioxide from the air per year” and “Eating locally grown foods avoids the high carbon output created by transporting long distances”

The ideal setting for our data visualization would be a museum. Having this staircase lead to two paralleled exhibits could further compound the comparison these two models attempt to make. The staircase that follows the projections of high CO2 levels could lead to a display on what the rising pollution levels could change (i.e. food quality, climate, and disease). The other could lead to a display of things that reducing pollution and CO2 levels would instead protect. We imagine setting this up in a museum would have a powerful effect on the people there. Going to a museum fosters a sense to explore and engage with what’s around you. Having that mindset will really maximize the potential for people to understand the information the staircase offers, both passively and interactively. Our target audience consists of children, young adults, and middle-aged adults, many of which we would find in this setting. Since museum trips are often done with families, the onus to prepare for future generations — their children’s generations — are more heightened and will allow these paralleled projections to be more profoundly felt. Placing positive connotations around acts that are good for the environment could help reach children who climb and interact with the stairs.


  4. (Spencer Weart & American Institute of Physics)

Grey Skies Black Clouds (Hui Tian Hei Yun)





Team names: Brandon Levy, Margaret Yu, Lawrence Sun, Ashley Yang

Summary sentence: The data say that the average concentration of small particulate matter (PM2.5) in Beijing’s air in January 2017 was 121.96 µg/m³, much higher than both the World Health Organization’s safe standard of 35 µg/m³ and the more lenient Chinese safe standard of 75 µg/m³. We want to tell this story because the air quality in Chinese cities is not even close to meeting the lax standards of the Chinese government, let alone the stricter WHO standard. Our target audience is Chinese politicians attending environmental conferences who have the power to reduce air pollution in their nation’s cities.

Our data come from the U.S. State Department’s “Mission China” air quality monitoring program. Specifically, we examined data from the years 2017 and 2016 that show the concentration of small particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution each hour of each day in those years in Beijing. We ultimately settled on showing the monthly average across January 2017 (121.96 µg/m³) and decided to compare it to the standards established by the Chinese government (75 µg/m³) and the WHO (35 µg/m³), which we found in the WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines for Particular Matter, Ozone, Nitrogen Dioxide and Sulfur Dioxide: Global Update 2005.

In our prototype, we are physically representing the data as balls of newspaper suspended by string from a canopy. The idea for the final piece would be to set up a series of these canopies leading up to the doors of the building where the Chinese politicians are gathering for their environment-related conference. The politicians would have to walk underneath these canopies – and through these “blown up” PM2.5 particulates – in order to get into the conference. In front of each canopy it would say what that canopy represents (WHO standard, Chinese standard, January 2017 average, etc.). In our mock-up, each newspaper ball represents 4 µg/m³ of PM2.5. In a scaled up version, each canopy would be one meter by one meter and each string would hang down one meter from the canopy, thereby representing one cubic meter of space, and each hanging ball would represent 1 µg/m³ of PM2.5.

This is an effective way to tell the story of our data because it turns PM2.5 pollution into something that is not only easy to see but also something that can be physically felt. We hope that walking through these hanging bundles of newspaper balls will be a sobering experience for the politicians, making them think about how problematic air pollution is and how PM2.5 pollution in Bejing far exceeds even the Chinese government’s lax standard. Hopefully, this will encourage them to pass legislation to curb air pollution and/or enforce existing laws to bring pollution levels down to their government’s safe limit.