Seeing the world in high definition

Timur Cinay sits on a rocky outcrop on the sea, smiling at the camera while the sun warms the ocean colors.

Graduate student Timur Cinay conducts research at the Galápagos Science Center where he has established a monitoring site for marine nitrous oxide emissions. Photo: Courtesy of the researcher

Graduate student Timur Cinay charts the path of wind over ocean dead zones

Read this at the School of Science

A typical morning in the Galápagos starts with a swim.

Timur Cinay, a PhD student in the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science (EAPS), rises with the sun and marvels at the beautiful views of San Cristóbal Island. Before breakfast, he takes a dip in the Pacific Ocean, where, on most days, he’s able to count a squad of sea lions among his swimming companions.

Now, though, it’s time to get to work. After breakfast, Cinay heads to the Galápagos Science Center (GSC), an academic research facility located near the western tip of the island, just a stone’s throw from the beach. The GSC, which was created by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, hosts researchers from around the world as they conduct interdisciplinary research in a variety of different fields.

Cinay is here on behalf of Andrew Babbin, the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Professor in the MIT EAPS department. Babbin’s lab — the BabLab, as it’s colloquially known — has partnered with the GSC to establish a monitoring site for marine nitrous oxide emissions. Cinay, who has played a commanding role in the project since arriving at MIT two years ago, hopes the data the lab collects will provide insight into the present and future of our planet’s climate.

Cinay spent his youth in a small town in western Turkey, where he bore firsthand witness to the devastating impact of climate change. As a result of rising global temperatures, droughts and wildfires in Turkey have become increasingly frequent and severe, with 2021 marking the nation’s driest year in two decades. Agricultural workers, including many members of Cinay’s family, have been impacted by drought.

In 2017, Cinay traveled to the United States, where he majored in chemistry and environmental science at the University of Rochester. After taking a class on marine biogeochemistry modeling, he became interested in the forces of water, wind, and climate, as well as the intersections of chemistry and computer modeling. As an undergraduate researcher, he specialized in physical chemistry and chemical oceanography, with a particular focus on greenhouse gases such as methane.

After earning his bachelor’s degree, Cinay decided to pursue a PhD in climate science at MIT, where he is this year funded through the E. Alan Phillips Fellowship for Environmental Sustainability created by Audrey Buyrn ’58, SM ’63, PhD ’66 wife of the late Alan Phillips. “Everyone was very keen to try to attract him to their institution,” Babbin recalls. “My pitch was science with trips to the Galápagos,” he adds with a laugh.

The BabLab is dedicated to all things biogeochemistry: an expansive field overlapping with chemical oceanography, which explores the chemical components of our oceans, and marine microbiology, which looks at the tiny organisms that inhabit them. Most of their research projects focus on the cycling of marine nitrogen, its control on life in the ocean, and its effects on climate.

Finding the shadow zone

Nitrous oxide has a major impact on climate change. It is a greenhouse gas that traps atmospheric heat with nearly 300 times the potency of carbon dioxide. Once it reaches the stratosphere, it also reacts with high-energy oxygen atoms to form nitric oxide, a compound that destroys ozone. Over the past few decades, concentrations of this gas have been rising. The increase has been mostly attributed to the use of artificial fertilizer, but the BabLab is concerned with the undetermined secondary effects of global climate change — warming oceans could add insult to injury by pouring even more nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, our current understanding of the ocean’s role in nitrous oxide emission is limited by a lack of direct data.

Nitrous oxide is mainly produced by marine microbes that have adapted to survive in areas with low oxygen levels, which are known as oxygen minimum zones or shadow zones. These dead zones are rare and are usually localized to remote areas, which hinders the taking of direct measurements. The BabLab’s past investigations into nitrous oxide emissions have been conducted on the open ocean as part of research cruises, a method Babbin describes as “both exciting and harrowing.” He and his team have weathered hurricanes and faced the frustration of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Then, a few years ago, a brilliant undergraduate researcher in Babbin’s lab — Elisabeth Boles, Class of 2018 — showed that atmospheric chemistry measurements could be used to monitor a previously described emission hot spot in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, a region that includes the Galápagos Islands.

This discovery laid the groundwork for the BabLab’s current project, which aims to continuously monitor nitrous oxide production from their GSC monitoring site. They plan to use a highly sensitive instrument — a cavity-ring spectrometer — to provide by-the-second feedback about interactions between ocean and atmosphere over the entirety of next year. Computer modeling performed back on MIT’s campus can chart the path these gases are taking across the ocean and reveal more about the ocean’s role in rising nitrous oxide levels.

Small scale, high resolution

“One of the things I’m really excited about is the scale,” Cinay says of the nitrous oxide monitoring project. While previous measurements covered small time frames, the GSC continuous monitoring site will be able chart the movement of nitrous oxide over the course of seasons as well as seconds. This new method, Cinay explains, will take our image of marine emissions from pixelated to high-definition. “That increase in resolution is quite exciting,” he says.

But the image will have to wait until a few practical problems are resolved. The cavity-ring spectrometer isn’t terribly large — “the size of a few desktop computers,” Babbin says — but it’s taken a huge amount of work to program and now faces the mundane but frustrating task of traveling from MIT’s campus to San Cristóbal Island. Once there, Cinay and other members of the BabLab will spend quite a lot of time climbing ladders and running plumbing lines through the GSC in order to get the instrument running.

“It’ll certainly be an endeavor,” says Babbin, who notes that Cinay will still probably be waking up early and swimming with sea lions. “He’s able to make the most out of any individual situation,” Babbin says. “His personal connection to the world around him really is amazing.”

Ever since coming to MIT, Cinay has appreciated how the BabLab brings together many different types of science, from computer modeling to chemistry, and he’s embraced the interdisciplinary nature of his surroundings. Although his background is in chemistry and environmental science, he’s spent the past two years developing new skill sets, including the engineering and software required for setting up the spectrometer. In the lab, he’s known for his ability to think up creative approaches and solutions to research questions, which he backs up with hard work and expertise.

“It’s really special to just see how his brain works,” Babbin says. “That’s been the best.”

The BabLab hopes to keep the GSC station running for years to come, providing increasingly higher-resolution information about the ocean’s role in nitrous oxide emissions. This research will be key to predicting future changes in climate and finding ways to mitigate them.

Babbin has similarly high hopes for his lab members. “Timur has a great career ahead of him,” he says. “It’s going to be spectacular.”