Battling the elements: McGill researchers on global climate change

Battling the elements: McGill researchers on global climate change McGill University

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McGill Reporter
January 30, 2003 - Volume 35 Number 09
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Battling the elements: McGill researchers on global climate change

At a kindergarten level, the greenhouse effect is pretty simple: humans burn fossil fuel for energy, sending into the sky rich stores of carbon dioxide and other gases that trap the sun's heat and gradually warm the planet. Like a greenhouse.

Weather illustration ILLUSTRATION: Tzigane

But serious investigation of the who, when, where, how and what next of global climate change is not so simple. Nor is it a solitary pursuit. To bring together the divergent disciplines working on this general theme, McGill's Centre for Climate and Global Change Research (C2GCR) formed 13 years ago. Now the Centre is working with private and public researchers across the country and has links with climate centres in universities across Quebec (which have recently received a $12 million influx from La Fondation canadienne pour les sciences du climat et de l'atmosphère).

"We intended a healthy collaboration from the outset," recalled founder Lawrence Mysak, a professor of ocean and climate dynamics at McGill. "We realized that many of the problems of global climate change are not only physical or biological or biophysical or biochemical or biogeochemical."

Today the centre's faculty includes experts in meteorology, chemistry, biology, economics, geography, ethics and natural resources science. Each approaches the problem from a different angle and on a different scale. Yet through symposia, seminars and workshops and an A-list of visiting speakers, they are comparing notes, expanding scope and even collaborating on projects that run across disciplines.

"People laugh when I say this," said Nigel Roulet, professor of geography and recent centre director, "but just getting people of divergent views and very different expertise sitting in the same room has resulted in a number of excellent collaborations and synergies. You always come away with something you hadn't thought about before that connects to your own work."

To talk with members of the centre is a window onto the positive feedback loop that propels the study of so global a topic as climate change. The findings, the theories, even the explorations build a fascinating contagion to learn more.

Take Roulet, who spends considerable time in a peat bog near Ottawa, studying the exchange of carbon between land and atmosphere, and how it's affected by climate, ecology and chemistry. His study is local. His thinking is global. Will the earth become a sink for or source of excess carbon in the atmosphere? Preliminary findings suggest that under warmer, dryer conditions (think global warming), peat tends to absorb less carbon from the atmosphere, resulting in even greater degrees of heating. This is one microclimate of many; one piece of an amazingly complicated puzzle in three dimensions. Roulet explained, "To get a global picture, we have to rely on models."

Enter Jacques Derome's findings. A professor of dynamic meteorology and climatology, Derome has created a sophisticated computer model that measures climatic variations between years and can forecast the mean global temperature for an entire season from a single moment's data of temperature, humidity and wind readings from around the atmosphere.

Now he's working to add oceanic temperatures and flows to the mix, edging the simulation ever nearer to the reality of the natural system. And he's not working alone. As head of the national Climate Variability Network, Derome sees models of a range of time scales. "I can't say that my work on inter-annual variability will solve the greenhouse problem," he admitted. "But we have to understand the variability on all time scales. It's a big puzzle. We're all doing our part."

Studying a different piece of the puzzle is Charles Lin, chair of the department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences. A meteorologist by training, Lin studies regional patterns of extreme weather, but also its effect on the land and its inhabitants. "People frequently ask me, 'Is the 1996 Saguenay Flood or the ice storm of 1998 due to global warming?' That's not really the proper way of looking at it," he explained. "Global warming is a long-term climate change scenario. Those storms happened over minutes or days. There's a mismatch of time scale."

But, Lin added, there is evidence that the rapid temperature rise associated with increased carbon in the atmosphere might be increasing the frequency of extreme weather events like floods and severe storms. "If climate change is causing these events to increase in frequency, that's another layer of concern," he said. "Regardless, we still have to deal with these extreme events that have both economic costs and costs in the form of human suffering.

"And it's worth noting that society is becoming increasingly vulnerable to these events. If the ice storm had happened in the same location 150 years ago, it would have been little more than a curiosity. We are much more dependent on our transportation, energy and communication infrastructure. And we will become increasingly vulnerable."

As humans play the central role in the climate change scenario -- in cause and effect -- social scientists have joined the fray to consider the ethical and economic issues. Christopher Green, a professor of economics, is a great believer in the science behind global warming projections. But his view of the human dimension runs askew of the popular script. "Climate change is not a political or social problem," Green said. "It is an energy problem, a technology problem."

Even under the most conservative estimate, he said, the planet's energy requirements will triple or quadruple over the next century. So stabilizing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases is no short order. According to Green, conservation and efficiency efforts, though worthwhile, will fall far short. The development of renewable, carbon-free energy sources like solar, hydro and wind power cannot achieve the necessary scale. And nuclear fission might prove too controversial. The solution, he believes, will only be found in painstaking research and development of entirely new energy technologies. "This will be a more difficult problem than getting to the moon, it will be more difficult than the Manhattan Project," he said.

But Green takes hope in the wealth of intellect in the engineering sciences, and believes that the fossil fuel industry will increase its investment in research as a way of diversifying its portfolio of energies.

"Can we do what it takes to stabilize?" he asked. "Absolutely. But it will take long-term research."

A part of the world that is particularly sensitive to atmospheric changes is the Arctic. Wayne Pollard, the current director of the C2GCR, doesn't study the human role in climate change per se. But as he studies permafrost, the perennially frozen layer of ground that covers 25 percent of the planet, he works in the engine room of the earth's system. His research suggests that even moderate atmospheric warming can weaken the fragile structure of permafrost, which can run hundreds of metres deep, until the landscape it forms literally crumbles. Though permafrost regions are lightly inhabited, the predicted consequences of its wide-scale breakdown are global, from the release of enormous stores of greenhouse gas to the disruption of the important Thermohaline Cycle that redistributes heat around the globe through ocean currents. "The polar regions are a major driver of ocean circulation," Pollard explained. "Climate change, whatever the cause, means the whole mechanism of redistribution becomes susceptible. We don't know what's going to happen."

Even Mysak, whose global climate models map earth conditions over thousands of years, doesn't have all the answers. His earth system model of intermediate complexity can project global temperatures, sea ice cover, vegetation, rainfall for 50,000 years. But it can't predict the unpredictable.

"The paradigm says that to understand the future, you have to look at the past," Mysak said. "But we haven't seen this rapid a rise in atmospheric CO2 before in earth history. The stress we are putting on the planet's systems could result in very sudden, non-linear changes."

He recalled the particularly memorable title of a lecture he attended on the potential for rapid global warming to trigger a sudden, catastrophic change like a collapse of the Thermohaline Cycle: "Be Prepared Immediately for Whatever Is Going To Happen Next."

Mysak and colleagues at the C2GCR are doing just that, in large and small ways, in multiple combinations and permutations of different disciplines and locales. It's the only way. "Our challenge is to expand beyond the early foci of atmospheric physics and oceanic circulation and surface processes to include the human and biological dimension," said director Pollard. "There are measures we can take at a personal level, and I have great admiration for recycling and conservation programs. But solving the problems of global climate change requires immense cooperation of researchers and a recognition that we won't see any short-term benefits."

"Synergy is key," added Roulet. "The time of individual disciplines working on this problem is over."

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