Who is fighting for our future?

Youth protests reveal the lifeless reality of on-campus climate activism

Who is fighting for our future?

Fridays for Future is a movement started by 15 year old Greta Thunberg, who sat for three weeks outside of the Swedish parliament to challenge their inaction on climate change. Her courage and determination sparked an international student activism movement.

In Toronto, the Fridays for Future school strike for climate change action began on May 3 at Queen’s Park. It coincided with Doug Ford’s meeting with the recently-elected Alberta Premier, Jason Kenney, as they discussed their objections to the recently-enacted federal carbon tax. The strike concluded at Nathan Phillips Square, in front of City Hall.

These protesters highlighted the fact that even if they collectively decided to recycle, stop using straws, and go vegan, it would not be enough to contest the amount of damage that large-scale carbon emissions have done to the earth. Just 100 businesses alone have contributed to 71 per cent of our world’s global emissions since 1988.

Statistics like this can leave some feeling hopeless, but it ignited a movement among thousands of students around the world. These students refused to let the world decide their future. They refused to be left with the scraps of a dying planet. The march on May 3 was just a glimpse of their potential for enacting change. This is a continuous fight on all fronts, and it is being led by those who will be affected the most.

In 11 years, the damage to the Earth caused by climate change will be irreversible. It is the terrifying end to a story that began with the birth of the industrial age. From the early eighteenth century to now, generations have witnessed the development of what the National Centre for Climate Restoration calls a “near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization.”

It may seem excessive to phrase it that way, but it is the unfortunate, daunting truth. Scientists around the world have made it clear that if we do not stop the current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions there will be permanently detrimental consequences.

We already see some of these consequences today, with frequent wildfires on the west coast, record-breaking hurricanes, floods with tolls on thousands of lives, and a severe lack of crops, a major instigator behind the modern refugee crisis.

As reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international goal is to reduce warming to under two degrees Celsius and afterward to not allow warming to rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius. It seems impossible, but in order to even begin the process, “every sector of the economy needs to get to zero emissions if we are to stabilize our climate” according to Akshat Rathi, reporting for Quartz.  

It is an intimidating task laid before all of humanity, and yet the response in political spaces has been lackluster.

U of T has witnessed a small protest campaign centred around divesting from fossil fuel companies led by the climate activist group Leap UofT. However, the scale and reach of the movement, unfortunately, does not compare to that of Fridays for Future and is only the second campaign of its kind on campus, following the UofT350 campaign. The truth is, we are nowhere near leading the charge. We are not doing enough.

Just before the march began, the voices that spoke from the microphone placed at the top of Queen’s Park were young, innocent, and enraged. They screamed, they begged, they chastised, and they joked at all those who claimed to work for the betterment of their future.

They spoke on a range of issues in quick, concise speeches. Topics included fast fashion, the effect of the meat industry on global emissions, the Green New Deal, and why divesting from the corporations leading in greenhouse gas emissions was vital for the fight against climate change. All this, when they should have been busy being kids.

Signs are one of the most important parts of a protest, and at the Friday for Future protests it was no different. One replaced the faces on the popular ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme with Doug Ford, money, and our dying earth. Another displayed earth imagined as an ice cream cone with the caption “Noo, I’m melting.” Then there were those with simple, heartbreaking messages, such as “I want to meet my grandchildren.”

That is the core message of Fridays for Future: to let the world see who would be left to deal with the ramifications of a dying earth. At the heart of protest signs covered in memes and the innocence of various misspelled words were children, standing in front of adults who have determined their future, begging for their lives.

As the world faces the consequences of negligent production and selfish policies, children, armed with seemingly more knowledge and worldly understanding than our public servants, are rallying. The question to be asked is where do we, the students who should be empowered by the privilege to learn more, question more, and fight for more, stand. We, as fellow students, must follow in the footsteps of the brave, impassioned students at Fridays for Future in combating climate change. This movement is for all of us, and we must do a better job.

It can be comforting to see youth rising against the injustices of the world. It can make you feel hopeful that the future will be filled with bright minds ready to challenge any obstacle that comes their way. You must not forget that this is not what they should be doing. At the end of the day, it is upsetting to see so many children forced to protest in the streets, because instead, as dozens of signs read, they should be at school.

Nadine Waiganjo is a second-year Social Sciences student at University College.

Undergraduate students take on Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Research Fair

More than 30 students presented their research to peers and faculty

Undergraduate students take on Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Research Fair

Undergraduate students from the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology presented their research on an array of topics, from biodiversity to gene-environment interactions, on April 5 at the Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Undergraduate Research Fair.

Judges selected four winners for a cash prize: Natasha Klasios for research in gene-environment interactions, Elenore Breslow for research in biodiversity & morphology, Joshua Craig for research in mutualism & parasitism, and Edita Folfas for the category of life history ecology & evolution.

Highlights from microplastics research

Klasios, supervised by Dr. Chelsea Rochman, investigated whether wildlife in the San Francisco Bay were absorbing microplastics. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than five millimetres in diameter which can potentially harm wildlife.

In an interview with The Varsity, Klasios explained that her experiment’s design was to compare the absorbance of microplastics in mussels residing in the bay, to those taken from a marine reserve and left in the Bay for 90 days. Unexpectedly, she found that the transplanted mussels absorbed a greater number of microplastics per individual on average versus the resident species.

Closer analysis revealed that the data was skewed due to specific sites of the Bay having higher concentrations of microplastics, particularly in the central and lower south regions.

Describing the applications, Klasios explained that since her research shows site-specific differences in microplastic absorption by mussels, officials could potentially take samples of mussels from bodies of water over time to monitor microplastic concentrations, and identify “hotspots of pollution” for clean-up.

Jacqueline Bikker, also supervised by Rochman, explained how she analyzed the distribution density and composition of microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay.

Using spectroscopic analysis of surface water samples, she found that the most common type of microplastic pollution consisted of the polymers polyethylene and polypropylene. She also discovered that pollution in the Bay was highest downstream of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Highlights from botanical research

Miguel Eduardo Felismino, supervised by Dr. John Stinchcombe, explained how his research found a correlation between the flower size of the ivy-leaved morning glory and a measure called “stomatal conductance.” This is the rate at which carbon dioxide enters and water vapour exits a plant, through small holes in the leaves called stomata.

The findings provided evidence of an abiotic factor that could affect flower size. It does not involve other creatures, unlike known biotic factors that affect flower size, such as the population of local pollinators and the reproductive strategies of nearby plants.

Also supervised by Stinchcombe, Matthew Coffey investigated whether a population of Queen Anne’s lace, or wild carrot, could evolve to develop frost tolerance over time.

While he did not find evidence of evolutionary change over the relatively short six-year timeframe of the study, his investigation showed that developing a seedbank over time through a “resurrection study” design could be a viable way to conduct evolutionary studies.

Julia Boyle, supervised by Dr. Megan Frederickson, investigated whether there are “priority effects” in mutually beneficial relationships between plants and microbes. In other words, she studied whether the order in which microorganisms were introduced to a legume affected the plant’s growth.

Boyle found evidence that the first microbial strain introduced to the plant affected it the most, compared to a subsequently introduced strain. She found that initially introducing a parasitic microbe led to stunted above-ground plant growth, compared to the introduction of a mutualistic microbe.

Even if both strains were ultimately introduced to the plant in identical amounts, Boyle’s observations showed that the order of introduction would significantly affect the plant’s growth.

Highlights from animal research

Cole Brookson, under the supervision of Dr. Martin Krkosek, investigated how two species of sea lice could affect populations of three different species of wild pacific salmon – chum, pink, and sockeye.

L. salmonis is a specialist species of lice that only affects salmon, while C. clemensi is a generalist species that affects all fish. From examining how they affect the salmon species as they swim from the British Columbian coast, he found that the pink salmon species was the most susceptible to both species of lice.

He further found that L. salmonis was more prevalent in the southern Discovery Islands, while C. clemensi was more prevalent around the northern Johnstone Strait. These findings could help guide local communities to manage parasite populations.

Vicki Zhang, supervised by Dr. Locke Rowe, investigated how environmental factors are projected to affect the populations of two ambush bug species in Southern Ontario.

Zhang used Maxent — a machine learning species distribution model — to visualize data. From this data, Zhang created presence-absence maps and discovered that bug population ranges may be contracted in specific areas due to climate change. These maps could help guide future field work on the Phymata americana and Phymata pennsylvanica bug species.

Under the supervision of Sebastian Kvist, Sophia Samuelsson created a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Leeches of Canada.” In doing so, she created the first meta-analysis of natural history information for Canadian leech species since the 1970s.

To collect findings, Samuelsson combed through a variety of studies, from how leeches affect turtles, to how leeches carry disease between hosts and respond to lake acidity. She hopes the reference resource may be useful for leech biologists, scientists who study species affected by leeches, and researchers in environmental health.

Saving the Great Lakes from ecological disaster

The consequences of climate change on our largest freshwater system

Saving the Great Lakes from ecological disaster

As summer approaches, students are exchanging their scantrons for swimsuits and pencils for popsicles. For many, summer plans will involve the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes are an epicentre of recreational, economic, and ecological activity. 9.8 million Canadians, about a third of our country’s population, rely on them. Carved thousands of years ago by retreating glaciers, the Great Lakes are a unique ecosystem housing a fifth of the world’s freshwater.

However, concealed by the rolling waves and the glassy surface of the lakes is evidence of environmental damage caused by humans over the last few centuries.

We have not always been kind to the Great Lakes. Heavy human use of the lakes has resulted in habitat loss and fragmentation, the introduction of invasive species, and environmental pollution. The invasion of zebra mussels and clouds of green algae blooming from phosphorus runoff are just two consequences of human activity to make headlines.

More than 3,500 species of plants and animals call the Great Lakes home, and for some, this is the only place where they can exist. Faced with the growing consequences of climate change, the Great Lakes system is coming under even more stress and is possibly reaching a tipping point.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center report

In March, the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), an American non-profit advocacy group, released a report detailing the effects of climate change on the Great Lakes.

Although it is widely understood that the consequences of climate change – like rising temperatures and more extreme weather events – will affect everyone, this report also detailed specific consequences for those who live in the Great Lakes region.

Increasingly severe weather patterns will bring hotter, drier summers to the area, causing heat waves. They will also bring wetter springs and winters, which will trigger flooding and increased water flow.

From the early 1900s to 2015, the Great Lakes region experienced a 10 per cent increase in precipitation, compared to the rest of the United States, which had only experienced an increase of four per cent.

“We’re seeing more and more of these… powerful wind storms, rain storms, [and] thunderstorms in the summer, and more milder winters for sure,” said Dr. Harvey Shear, a professor of geography at UTM, who teaches courses on the Great Lakes.

However, the ELPC anticipates that by 2100, the Great Lakes region will have less moisture in the summer, leading to fewer periods of intense precipitation at the start of the season.

Intensifying heat will bring about more days with temperatures above 33 degrees Celsius. By 2100, the ELPC report predicts that the Great Lakes region will experience an additional 30 to 60 days of such temperatures per year.

These intensified patterns of precipitation and hotter temperatures will translate into devastating consequences for the environment and our society. Shortened growing periods, increased disease, and the rising prevalence of waterborne pathogens will directly affect humans.

Nothing new

While it may seem like a shock to find that the Great Lakes region will experience such severe changes in the near future, researchers are not surprised by some of these consequences.

“We have modified the Great Lakes over the last 400 years to the point where they’re almost unrecognizable from what we would have seen if we [went] back in time,” explained Shear.

A case in point is the St. Lawrence River, which has been carved out to accommodate human activities since 1680. Construction began for the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1954 to directly connect the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. The $470.3 million seaway enabled cities like Toronto and Chicago to expand their commercial shipping industries, bringing in more than $6 billion USD per year to the Great Lakes region.

However, the seaway’s completion resulted in the decimation of the system by invasive species like sea lampreys. Sea lampreys are circular-mouthed fish with hooked teeth that attach themselves to native fish, feeding on their bodily fluids and abandoning them to succumb to their wounds. During their parasitic stage, lampreys kill approximately 40 pounds of fish over 12 to 18 months.

Spiny water fleas, zebra mussels, and other invasive species have also found their way to the Great Lakes system through shipping freighters. When taking on water in their ballast tanks, which are designed to stabilize vessels that are unloading or taking on cargo, these ships will also take on waterborne invasive species. Zebra and quagga mussels, in particular, are known for clogging water intake pipes and being costly to remove.

As temperatures continue to rise, native inhabitants of the lakes will endure added stress from an ecosystem where they are already competing with their non-native neighbours, likely forcing these species to shift to more northern regions.

These concerns are not new — the original 1971 edition of Dr. Seuss’ children’s book, The Lorax, referenced the dire state of Lake Erie. In the 1930s, runoff from fertilizer and waste from humans and animals introduced phosphorus into the lake. Annual phosphorus input soared from about 3,000 tons in 1800 to 24,000 tons in 1960, after the introduction of the mineral in cleaning agents after World War II. The high phosphorus levels caused an overgrowth of algae, clouding the water and killing off other species in a phenomenon known as eutrophication.

State and provincial governments around Lake Erie took action to limit the addition of phosphorus to soap, and began working with local farmers to reduce the amount of phosphorus input by more than half. However, new sources of phosphorus appeared in the 1990s, returning phosphorus levels in Lake Erie to previous conditions.

These algal blooms are more than an eyesore. A species of cyanobacteria called Microcystis causes such harmful algae blooms by producing a toxin called microcystin. The toxin can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and in high enough quantities, liver failure in humans.

Microcystis gripped Toledo, Ohio in 2014, when Lake Erie was subjected to two harmful algae blooms that year due to a one-two punch of increased precipitation and warmer temperatures. The toxin overwhelmed the city’s water filtration system, leaving half a million residents without clean water for three days.

Not all strains of Microcystis produce this toxin, but researchers have found that warmer growing conditions have increased the prevalence of the toxic strain, suggesting that this phenomenon could become more prevalent in the future.

Although some of these consequences listed in the ELPC report are not a result of climate change alone, climate change could worsen their effects in the coming years.

The looming storm

The consequences of climate change are not so far off. Shear noted that significant shifts can happen quickly within a year or two, intensifying extreme weather events.

“With climate change you’re dealing with very long-term changes over decades which makes it easy to attribute extreme weather events to normal year to year variation,” said Shear.

A more tangible consequence of the changing climate, continued Shear, is the uptick of unpredictable weather events, such as violent wind storms. In fact, climate change may have caused the Toronto Islands and the Harbourfront to flood in spring 2017

Shear further explained that we have hardened the surfaces of urban areas with hectares of paved roads and roofs that don’t absorb water. “So when it does rain, there’s nowhere for the water to go but straight into the streams and into [the] lake.”

“[The] Lake Ontario water level was fairly consistent,” he continued, “and then the water level began to rise because of the rainfall and snowmelt… that [had] nowhere to go.”

Concurrent flooding in Montréal, due to extra water in the Ottawa River and St. Lawrence Seaway, denied the officials the option of draining Lake Ontario into the sea to lower the water level.

Although the islands reopened later that summer, visitor attendance was down for the rest of the season, costing the city approximately $5 million in lost ferry revenue, in addition to costs from property damage.

That 2017 flood should be a sobering sign that the Great Lakes will not stay the way they are for very long.

Economic damage

Viewing environmental damage through an economic lens helps put the consequences of changing conditions into perspective. The Great Lakes provide over 1.5 million jobs and generate $60 billion in wages annually for local workers. The regional economy of the Great Lakes system is valued at $6 trillion, which is more than the GDP of countries such as Japan, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

With the prospects of decreased employment, damaged infrastructure, and forgone revenue, it raises the question of whether or not we are willing to lose an ecosystem that benefits local economies so much. It’s not that the Great Lakes will cease to exist, but that the system will cease to be a sustainable habitat for not only plants and animals, but for ourselves as well.

Starting change

Seeing the consequences of our past actions shows how much of an impact our behavior can have. But how can we begin to undo the damage that we have done?

Canada and the United States have pledged to reduce the amount of phosphorus in the Great Lakes by 40 per cent by 2025. However, this goal has proven to be tougher to match now than it was in the past. Unregulated farms, dissolved phosphorus, and different phosphorus sources causing the algal blooms have made it harder for the countries to meet their targets. With the added threat of rising temperatures, the threat of algal blooms is imminent.

The Ontario Great Lakes Strategy 2016 progress report outlined the collective efforts of the government, scientists, Indigenous peoples, and private-sector organizations to work toward returning the Great Lakes to a state where they are not at risk of ecological collapse. However, governments have yet to impose hard-hitting restrictions on certain behaviours such as the use of phosphorus by the agriculture industry.

In 2018, then-Ohio governor John Kasich signed an executive order to restrict agricultural runoff, which contributes to algal blooms, by setting requirements for how nutrients in animal waste and fertilizer should be stored.

But government intervention isn’t the only source of change in our society. Organized groups of concerned citizens have a created huge impact on these pressing matters.

According to Shear, citizen activism has led to eradication of all sources of mercury in the Lake Superior Basin and to the cleanup of the Love Canal disaster in New York in the mid-twentieth century.

Love Canal was the site of a failed energy project that became a landfill, which was eventually buried and sold to the city for development. Decades later, chemicals began to seep up through the ground, exposing the region’s residents to carcinogens and teratogens, which are implicated in deforming embryos.

“It was citizen activism in Niagara Falls, Ontario that linked with citizen activists in Niagara Falls, New York that really brought [the provincial, state, and federal governments] to shut down Love Canal… to prevent the contamination of the Niagara River,” said Shear. “So citizen activism can really work.”

In building our cities, we did not plan to bring harm to our environment. Rather, we were careless and uninformed about how our actions could damage the very home we live in. As we learn about why these ecologically devastating events occur and how human activity causes them, we must take action to prevent further damage and restore what we can.

We could otherwise negligently trek forward and continue to make decisions that harm not only ourselves, but those who will come after us.

Opinion: Ontario budget’s climate change plan a mess of contradictions, inaction

Ford’s frivolous climate lawsuit will cost taxpayers $30 million while doing nothing for the environment

Opinion: Ontario budget’s climate change plan a mess of contradictions, inaction

The Ontario government’s frivolous $30 million lawsuit against the federal government over the carbon tax is a self-inflicted wound that the provincial 2019 budget, announced April 11, fails to address. Doug Ford’s government claims that the implementation of a carbon tax on Ontario would be ineffective, result in job losses, and be bad for business. However, he brought this tax on the province when he chose to scrap the cap and trade program, which aimed to hold industry directly accountable instead of putting the onus on consumers.

In lieu of clarification on the carbon tax or the binned cap and trade model, the budget vaguely outlines a performance-based emissions reduction program that it expects will circumvent implementation of the impending carbon tax. The program entails developing and setting emissions performance standards sector to sector and assessing reductions according to the previous output of facilities. This will be buttressed by the creation of an emissions reduction fund, meant to incentivize industries to adopt “cost-effective projects in various sectors, such as transportation,” with no mention of investments in renewable energy.

Ironically, the budget states that performance standards will be “tough but fair, cost-effective and flexible,” as if ‘tough’ and ‘flexible’ are not antonyms.

Initiatives like these may not result in substantial emissions reductions because preceding enforcement, industry can ramp up their emissions in order to be held to a lower bar — what they would have normally been producing — when the time comes to ostensibly reduce output.

Green Party of Ontario leader Mike Schreiner told The Varsity that the proposed plan mirrors the failing emissions reduction mechanism currently operating in Australia, which has a much larger budget of about $1.9 billion, compared to the $400 million “emissions reduction fund” proposed in the provincial budget.

Ford is fear mongering about job losses, when, in reality, Ontario has had a good year of job growth overall, and despite the carbon tax in British Columbia working for years. Whether Ford likes it or not, the federal government is within its rights to impose a federal tax according to the distribution of powers outlined in section 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867. The taxpayer-funded money used to fight the carbon tax will be wasted in a frivolous lawsuit.

Lastly, it is worth noting the province has based its emissions targets on the federal government’s, which was grandfathered in from the Stephen Harper era and does not comply with the Paris Agreement. Their target of reducing emissions levels by 30 per cent compared to 2005 levels by 2030 is not nearly aggressive enough to curtail catastrophic repercussions, as forewarned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report.

As Schreiner said in his address to the press during the budget lockup, it is clear that “this budget cares about the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

An opportunistic argument about climate policies

Canada and the US are missing the point about climate change, focusing on ideology instead

An opportunistic argument about climate policies

We have entered an age in which climate policy has come to the forefront of political debate. The upcoming federal election will contrast the Liberal Party’s carbon levy and output-based pricing system against the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party’s plan to dismantle it. The PCs have not yet published their climate plan, although Leader Andrew Scheer promised to in the fall.

Nonetheless, the PCs are very clear on their stance against carbon pricing in Canada. Recently, Scheer referred to repealing the carbon levy as “job number one” in a town hall in New Brunswick. Climate change policies arguably contributed to the downfall of the Ontario Liberal Party and will likely be used as a wedge issue by the United Conservative Party against the incumbent New Democratic Party government this May in Alberta.

But while the ebb and flow of climate policies remain on the front page, the constant attacks carried out by conservative leaders in Canada and the United States on these policies remain ideologically hypocritical.

A tenet of Canadian and American conservative ideology is the  decentralization of power and the rejection of  ‘big government.’ These aspects of conservative ideology, whether masked as the colloquial states’ rights or federalism, are being opportunistically bent in different ways to fit the arguments used against climate policies. Here’s what’s going on:

Canada

Ontario, New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan have each filed lawsuits against the federal government after it implemented a carbon pricing system to replace the purportedly inadequate provincial systems. The provincial governments argue that the implementation of the carbon levy and the output price-based system is unconstitutional. The Ontario government’s factum challenging the carbon levy and output-based pricing system presents its case as follows: “Greenhouse gas emissions are not a single, distinct, and indivisible matter which Parliament can regulate under its jurisdiction over matters of a national concern without fundamentally disturbing the balance of federalism.”

In other words, a regulation on carbon emissions would be a governmental overreach, since regulating greenhouse gases would inevitably involve controlling other intermingled emissions.

In Saskatchewan, Premier Scott Moe recently said that “the imposition of carbon pricing on provinces whose climate change plans do not fall in line with federal plans does not make sense according to our Canadian constitution, and fails to respect the sovereignty and autonomy of the provinces with respect to matters under their jurisdiction.”

In another instance at the Saskatchewan factum, Ontario’s environment minister Rod Phillips said that “the provinces are fully capable of regulating greenhouse gas emissions themselves.”

It is worth noting that Saskatchewan has a form of carbon pricing; the federal government is only implementing the backstop where it judges there to be insufficient pricing coverage.

The United States

Andrew Wheeler, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is currently fighting with the California Air Resources Board (CARB), a department within California’s EPA, over regulations involving clean fuel standards. The EPA wants to standardize these regulations across the country, which, for this administration, entails weakening them, even though more than 10 states including New Mexico, Maine, and Massachusetts have used California’s regulations as a template.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Wheeler argued that the “states should not have authority over CO2 emissions. California is an important player — an important part of this — but this is not a two-sided negotiation for a national standard.”

These two arguments are conflicting. Canadian provincial and some US state leaders argue that the provinces and states should have jurisdiction over the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and should therefore be the ones to implement these regulations. Meanwhile, the Canadian government and acting head of the EPA in the United States disagree, claiming federal jurisdiction over state environmental policy.

Instead of coming up with solutions that will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impact of global climate change, politicians are opportunistically attacking climate policies based on ideology, completely and utterly missing the point. It’s not about provinces, states, or federalism — the world is at stake.

The disappearing permafrost

Navigating a thawing landscape

The disappearing permafrost

Stepping out onto the sidewalk from Robarts Library, it’s obvious that winter is in full swing. The air has gone cold, turning that pleasant fall nip into a winter bite. And although it would seem that the freeze is inescapable, not all temperatures are dropping.

Despite the frigid weather, global warming is still in effect. Since 1975, average global temperatures have been increasing at a rate of roughly 0.15–0.20 degrees Celsius per decade, prompting consequences such as rising sea levels, extreme weather, disappearing Arctic ice, and severe droughts and floods.

Another major unseen consequence of this climb lies deep beneath the tundra soil. The frozen expanse known as permafrost is beginning to thaw.

According to Dr. William Gough, a climate change researcher at UTSC, the thawing process occurs annually. “The surface area actually thaws and then refreezes and thaws… and that’s called the active layer.” The active layer supports vegetation and wildlife and acts as a buffer for the area underneath, allowing it to stay frozen even during the summer.

This subsurface expanse is called permafrost, soil that remains continuously frozen for two or more years, though it can be thousands of years old.

Although associated with the frosty expanse of the Arctic Circle, variations of permafrost can be found in in almost all provinces and territories with the exceptions of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia.

Approximately 40–50 per cent of Canada is underlain with permafrost.

Gough studies the effects of permafrost shrinkage along the James Bay coastline in Northern Ontario, searching to see if permafrost is still present in the region.

Due to the loss of snow and ice caused by the warming, the darker ground absorbs more solar energy, resulting in a heated active layer that no longer protects the permafrost. The amount of permafrost decreases as the soil thaws, and eventually the layers collapse.

From 2007–2016, permafrost temperatures were found to have risen approximately 0.29 degrees. This has already started to have lasting consequences.

In the Sakha Republic in Russia, the ground has begun to collapse under itself, resulting in a half-mile-long opening in the ground known as the Batagaika Crater. Measurements of the crater have indicated that it has doubled in size within the past five years.

The Batagaika Crater “was a disturbed system. So they had taken down a bunch of trees that reduced the amount of shade and so the surface warmed and then there was a positive feedback and the crater formed,” said Gough.

“It illustrated how fragile the system is…that’s an analogue to much of what the climate system may be experiencing where it’s fragile in the sense that if you push it, it will sort of gallop off into a positive feedback.”

As the ground begins to warm, large volumes of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon would be released as organic material stored within the permafrost begins to decay, accumulating in the atmosphere and accelerating the pace of climate change.

Neurotoxins such as anthrax and methylmercury are emerging from the mushy soils as predicted in a 2011 study, five years before the 2016 anthrax outbreak in Siberia. These toxins have the potential to spread and cause outbreaks for wildlife and eventually humans.

Across the land, tilting forests, thaw pools, collapsing craters, and landslides pockmark the regions where permafrost has begun to disappear, turning an invisible phenomenon into a very visible problem. Structural integrity and storage of organic material are benefits of permafrost, which have started to unravel as temperatures increase.

In addition to the devastating environmental effects, these consequences have also found their way into the lives of people living in the affected regions. The daily bustle of life also results in the gradual heating of the once permanently frozen soil beneath, causing buildings to lean, roads to buckle, and slopes to fail.

“Historically, you can build on permafrost. What you do is you put a pylon down and the pylon… sits on that piece of permafrost below, which is always frozen,” said Gough. “Now, the problem with global warming is that the active layer is getting deeper so… the foundation of the pylon is lost because then it’s just dangling in air and so the building will sink or shift…It’s been engineered for a certain active layer depth.”

In some cases, such as for the inhabitants of Shishmaref, Alaska, the loss of permafrost will result in complete collapse of the soil, leading to an annual seven-metre recession of the shoreline and the evacuation of a town that can no longer be occupied.

Currently, there are plans to slow the consequences of climate change. Governments entered into the Paris Agreement in 2016, pledging to limit the global average temperature rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

However, the following year, a 2017 United Nations report indicated that if newer, more rigorous carbon goals aren’t set by governments by 2020, we will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030.

At the local level, there are attempts to curb the thaw of permafrost in human inhabited regions. During the construction of the Qinghai–Xizang Railway, a transport corridor running across the Tibetan Plateau, crushed rock served as an aid to lower the ground temperature and prevent the permafrost from thawing and, in some cases, increase the height at which permafrost occurs. Similar designs for the stilts that prop up buildings use convection currents to bring cooler air down into the ground to maintain the freezing temperatures.

However, these projects require frequent monitoring, which may make them costlier in more ways than one. Research done at McMaster University has also found that peat and additional forest cover can aid in keeping temperatures lowered; however, this can increase the likelihood of fires, which will in turn cause warming of the ground.

Despite these gloomy trends, people may start moving into these vulnerable permafrost regions, not for prevention, but for gain. At the direction of the Trump administration, the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska is being auctioned off in the largest lease sale of public land in the history of the United States.

Fossil fuel companies are being given access to land, some of which is environmentally sensitive, to extract the potentially recoverable 89.9 billion barrels of oil and 1,668.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas present in the Arctic regions.

Canada’s northern territorial governments and the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation are also looking to make use of the resources as the Trudeau government’s 2016 ban on Arctic drilling is up for review in 2021. While there are obvious social benefits for the communities involved, there may be some long-term consequences to be mindful of.

“There’s a range of potential disasters and impacts… It’s really what kind of infrastructure you’re bringing into an area that’s been sort of pristine [that’s] been used for many generations by a native population. We know what an urban structure does… it totally and radically changes the nature of the environment,” said Gough. “So I worry, and I worry about the infrastructure that’s needed to be there to do the drilling.”

He stressed the environmental consequences. “You only have to only see one oil spill to see how devastating it is on a local level. The Arctic ecosystem is a fragile one, it doesn’t have a lot of redundancies… [the ecosystem] is much more sensitive to change and so you do something devastating, it takes a long time to recover.”

And although living in southern Ontario may protect us from the physical consequences of permafrost, we are not exempt from the financial consequences. The release of carbon dioxide and methane from the thawing permafrost will result in economic impacts that total $43 trillion USD, increasing the total cost of climate change to $398 trillion USD, a 13 per cent increase.

But perhaps it is best not to think of these consequences in terms of money. Our economy can be revived, but our environment can’t. Permafrost has many roles, not only for wildlife, but also for the people who live in surrounding areas. For some, such as Indigenous peoples, leaving their traditional land as it breaks down is not an option.

We can’t abandon a sinking ship when there are no lifeboats to separate us from the frigid water below. Combatting climate change is a decision made by governments and the people who vote for them.

It’s a choice that we must make.

Simulating climate change in the lab

New chemistry experiments teach students the effects of greenhouse gases

Simulating climate change in the lab

The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is often misunderstood by the public. Most people know that climate change is caused by increased emissions of greenhouse gases. However, many don’t understand how — for example — carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere. 

U of T chemistry professors Jessica D’eon, Jennifer Faust, Kristine Quinlan, and Scott Browning are acutely aware of this knowledge gap and have developed a lab to address it. Their findings were published in the Journal of Chemical Education. 

The researchers designed a first-year chemistry laboratory on the greenhouse effect that provides a topical and engaging introduction to the undergraduate student laboratory. 

The relatively simple experimental design allows students to focus on grasping complex, big picture concepts without feeling anxious about measurements or dangerous chemicals.

Despite climate science being taught in primary and secondary schools, researchers from Purdue University found that most students enter post-secondary education with a fragmented understanding of the climate system. 

D’eon agrees with the findings of this study, writing that many of her students have “put [the mental model] together in a way that is not scientifically sound” and that generally “the greenhouse gas effect has been identified as a poorly understood concept in climate science.”

Now, these tangible experiments are giving students the ‘aha’ moment that they rarely experience when untangling complex and abstract concepts. As students move on from this course to pursue careers in science and non-science disciplines, they will do so with a fundamental understanding of greenhouse gases.

In the first experiment, students are asked to recognize phase changes using dry ice —  solid carbon dioxide. Here, they develop a sense of scale while improving their qualitative observation skills. 

In the second experiment, students compare types of radiation and energy, discussing their relative importance for the greenhouse effect.

 They then apply this knowledge by comparing the heating rates of two ‘beaker Earths’ — one containing a normal atmosphere and another enriched with carbon dioxide. The students observe firsthand the faster rate of warming in the latter beaker, which they can relate back to their studies. 

Reflections before and after the experiments indicate that, upon completing this lab, 87 per cent of students significantly improved their mechanistic understanding of the greenhouse effect.

 Prior to the experiments, most students gave an unscientific description of greenhouse gases or were too vague in their explanations. After the experiments, students gave more detailed, scientific responses. 

Improving students’ fundamental understanding of greenhouse gases contributes to a better-informed future generation of voters who will make critical decisions about how our society tackles climate change.

Students, climate activists protest provincial climate plan at Queen’s Park

Ford’s plan lowers carbon footprint reduction target, includes funds for big polluters to cut emissions

Students, climate activists protest provincial climate plan at Queen’s Park

Students and climate activists braved the cold weather on January 11 to protest Premier Doug Ford’s climate plan at Queen’s Park as part of Fridays for Future, a global environmental movement started by 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg.

The movement encourages students to protest outside of federal or local government buildings on Fridays to urge politicians to create better policies addressing climate change and ensure a sustainable future. In a speech at the United Nations Climate Change Conference last December 14, Thunberg called upon world leaders to act on the effects of climate change, particularly targeting the personal interests of the one per cent.

“You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet,” Thunberg said in the speech, which went viral.

Her words inspired a movement of young people including Ava Lyall, a 17-year-old Grade 12 student at Adam Scott Collegiate in Peterborough, Ontario.

Lyall arrived at Queen’s Park with a number of elementary and high school students, some from as far as Peterborough, others from schools downtown, who skipped class Friday morning to support efficient climate action at the greater municipal, provincial, and federal levels.

“We have seen the choices of our parliament affecting what’s going on in Peterborough,” said Lyall. “Programs that were supposed to address climate change, such as bike lanes, that were to be implemented in Peterborough have been cancelled from cap and trade.”

Local politicians were also in attendance at the strike. MPP of Spadina—Fort York Chris Glover addressed the crowd, criticizing the decisions of the Ford government for combatting emissions and abandoning an effective climate action plan.

“This government has made a number of decisions, jeopardizing our future, our environment, and cancelling the cap and trade agreement,” said Glover.

“That’s had a really negative impact,” Glover said. “Not only on our environment because we are not reducing our carbon emissions as fast as we should be — it’s also had an impact on our economy because the money that was coming from the cap and trade system is going into environmental measures.”

Allie Rougeot, a member of the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council’s Sustainability Commission, was also present at the protest. “As older students, it still really matters for us to show that we’re going to support them,” Rougeot said. “And also say that we’re also part of that generation that’s going to get severely impacted by the effects of climate change.”

Background on the climate plan

The Ford government unveiled its much-anticipated climate change plan on November 29. The plan is modelled after Australia’s carbon emissions reduction fund and features the Ontario Carbon Trust, a $350 million allotment toward large corporations to develop clean technology and reduce emissions overall.

The trust also includes a $50 million Ontario Reverse Auction, which awards businesses for sending in proposals to combat emission reduction.

Ford has been a perennial critic of the federal carbon tax plan, which he claimed was a main cause behind the November announcement that the General Motors plant in Oshawa would be closing this year, though there is no consensus on this.

The new plan was met with scrutiny from Ford’s opponents, including Mike Schreiner, leader of the Green Party of Ontario, who criticized its inefficiency and lower outcomes.

“We need a climate plan, not a litter-reduction plan. This is not a climate plan,” Schreiner said.

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna was also quick to criticize Ford’s plan, calling it “backwards.”

“All I know about Doug Ford’s plan — Premier Ford’s plan — is that they’re going backwards on climate action, that they’re making it free to pollute,” she said.

Ford’s government has reduced the 2030 provincial target for carbon footprint reduction to 18 megatonnes, or 30 per cent below 2005 emission levels. While this is lower than the previous government’s target of 37 per cent below 1990 levels, it remains in accordance with federal and international targets.