Science and technology to combat climate change

McGill's academic role in fighting climate change

Written by Diana Kwon and Zapaer Alip

The prospect of colder winters and hotter summers, flooding due to rising sea levels, and more frequent and severe extreme weather events are all frightening realities due to climate change. Rather than despair, it is important to identify viable solutions that people can engage in and that are implementable. This article highlights some of the solutions that researchers are developing here at McGill.

Preserving blue carbon

Recent research has found that a disproportionate amount of carbon is found in coastal regions, specifically in mangrove forests, seagrass beds, and salt marshes. There are two potential reasons for this: the first is that the type of vegetation found in these areas (root systems, dense vegetation, et cetera) is highly efficient at storing carbon. The other is the fact that they trap carbon from external sources, like rivers and oceans. Each time that these areas are inundated by tides, the size of the deposits increase and more carbon is captured, which gives these carbon sinks (natural carbon reservoirs) greater longevity than their land-based counterparts.

This coastally located carbon is referred to as “blue carbon,” and it is being lost at critical rates due to factors such as deforestation, urbanization, and climate change. Rising sea levels brought about by climate change and excessive nutrient leeching from agriculture pose further risks to these areas in the near future. Gail Chmura, a professor in the department of geography at McGill, and her team have focused their work on how to measure this stored carbon, and are looking at how climate change will impact these critical coastal areas in the near future.

One of the problems scientists face is trying to determine the amount of carbon density in these blue carbon areas. Currently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) instructs scientists to look at one-metre depth, but Chmura and her students are finding that there is a great amount of variability in peat thickness across different areas. Eventually, they are hoping for their research to allow them to make predictions about the thickness of a certain area based on its surface features. This could help in calculating the carbon sink and identifying areas that are faced with the greatest amount of risk.

Teaching students about climate change

One way to stop and reverse the damaging effects of climate change is by educating people on the issue. Drew Bush, a doctoral student in the Department of Geography and the School of Environment at McGill, is trying to do just that. By researching effective models of teaching students about climate change research, through teaching students himself, Bush hopes to create a citizenry that is more educated and informed on these issues.

Sadly, even though human-induced climate change is a well-established fact among scientists, there is still debate among both policy-makers and the public. One potential reason behind this is that the tools climate scientists use are complex. For example, global climate models, which are very commonly used, require supercomputers to process vast amounts of data and to simulate various scenarios of what past climates might have looked like.

“I think that is the most important thing [...] we need to have people who understand the science and the work that goes into it, so that when they vote in elections or are in policy-making positions, they know what they are talking about."

In order to make these models more digestible, one of the models Bush uses is Educational Global Climate Modeling (EdGCM), a user-friendly version of a global climate model that can be used in classrooms, allowing students to open the ‘black box’ that research often involves.

“I think that is the most important thing [...] we need to have people who understand the science and the work that goes into it, so that when they vote in elections or are in policy-making positions, they know what they are talking about,” Bush told The Daily.

Adapting to climate change

At this point, climate change is happening, even if we try to slow down the progress. The question now is: how can we adapt? James Ford, a professor in the department of geography, conducts research that focuses on the Arctic, where summer temperatures have been increasing by an average of 1.22 degrees celsius per decade.

Many Inuit communities get their food by hunting local species like caribou and fish. The health and migration patterns of many of these animals have been affected by climatic factors, posing challenges for the people who rely on them for food. Ford and his team look at food security by examining how communities get their food, how this varies across seasons and households, and the impact of climatic factors like the weather, sea ice, animal health, and economics.

According to Ford, the Indigenous communities in the Arctic have been surprisingly adaptable to changes, relying on traditional knowledge of hunting and using the land as a resource. However, these skills have been weakening in newer generations.

In other parts of Canada, people will be impacted by an increased magnitude and frequency of extreme events such as flooding, hurricanes, and heat waves, which can affect mobility, mortality, and mental health. Whether we like it or not, climate change affects us all, and we will have to learn how to adapt.

Storing energy in metal

Alternative fuels such as ethanol, biodiesel, and hydrogen are all potential candidates to replace fossil fuels. In 2012, Donald Smith, a McGill professor of plant science, founded BioFuelNet, a non-profit organization that aims to provide funding for biofuels research, and also connect academia, industry, and government with the intention of commercializing biofuel production in Canada. BioFuelNet focuses on second-generation biofuels, which are generated from non-food-based crops and waste materials (such as food waste and agricultural residue).

However, biofuels and hydrogen fuel each have their caveats. With biofuels, there is simply not enough biomass available to become a stand-alone alternative to fossil fuel.

Hydrogen, although it has a high ratio of energy stored per unit mass, requires a great deal of space for storage, as it has a low ratio of energy per unit volume, rendering it a less than optimal choice. Hydrogen fuel is also very flammable and is difficult to store and transport safely.

Jeff Bergthorson, a professor in Mechanical Engineering at McGill, and his team at the Alternative Fuels lab have a potential solution: metals. Currently, metals like iron are produced using a blast furnace and use a lot of coal in the process. However, this new technology allows iron to be produced using renewable sources such as solar energy. The metals would then act as a storage mechanism for energy used to create them. Once the metal is combusted or undergoes a chemical reaction, it releases the stored energy without any carbon dioxide emissions.

Metals can store more energy than hydrogen in the same volume. In comparison to hydrogen, metals are also relatively safer to transport and store. Storing energy could be done with scrap metals – allowing them to be recycled and used to store energy. This could reduce waste and eliminate the need to mine for more metals. However, Bergthorson stresses that metals are only part of the solution and that several solutions are needed to make the shift to zero-carbon energy sources.

Building solar-powered houses

Not all climate change solutions are technical. In 2013, a group of university students in Montreal formed netMTL to enter the Solar Decathlon Europe in 2016. The competition involves designing and building a small solar-powered house that is energy-neutral (producing the same amount of energy as it uses). “We are thinking of new ways to make use of resources. Beyond resources, it’s a way for rethinking our social interactions,” said Daniel Tarantino, a project manager at netMTL. This involves creating a system to share tools or food with neighbours, growing urban rooftop gardens, and composting.

“We are thinking of new ways to make use of resources. Beyond resources, it’s a way for rethinking our social interactions.”

While there are different approaches to achieve energy neutrality, netMTL is focusing on reducing the amount of energy wasted. Tarantino suggests that by using high-performance windows and material like cellulose, the insulation of houses can be significantly better, thereby decreasing the need for heating in the winter. netMTL hopes that by developing easily implementable solutions, they will reduce our impact on the environment.