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What will Toronto’s climate be like in the future?

Visualization tool predicts North American urban climates in 2080

What will Toronto’s climate be like in the future?

Nature has published a new climate visualization tool, which matches the projected 2080 climate of 540 North American urban areas with a present-day climate analogue. Climate analogues refer to regions experiencing statistically similar weather conditions, distinct from the period in which they currently occur.

The visualizer was developed by Dr. Matthew C. Fitzpatrick, Associate Professor in the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and Dr. Robert R. Dunn, Professor of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University.

Through climate analogue mapping, the tool matches 12 climate variables, including maximum and minimum temperatures and precipitation, during different seasons of a present-day location with its future climate counterpart.

For example, Toronto’s climate in 2080 is projected to be akin to the climate of present-day Secaucus, New Jersey, which has summers that are on average 2.9 degrees Celsius warmer and 35.1 per cent wetter than Toronto’s.

Other Canadian cities show similar increases in summer temperature and precipitation levels: Montréal’s analogue, Chester, Pennsylvania, is 4.2 degrees Celsius hotter and 11.6 per cent wetter; while Ottawa’s pair, South Shore, Illinois, is 3.3 degrees Celsius hotter and 18.6 per cent wetter.

Across all of the areas studied, a general trend of similarity to locations hundreds of kilometres away and mainly to the south was observed. Certain projections were found to have no modern-day equivalent.

The tool was created in order to show the human dimensions of climate change in accessible and relevant ways for the general public. It illustrates cities currently populated by over 250 million people, and considers the impact of emission levels as well as climate variables on current and future climate trends.

However, Dr. Stephen Bede Scharper, Associate Professor in U of T’s School of the Environment, explained in an email to The Varsity that these types of models can produce mixed results.

“On the one hand, it can indeed raise awareness about climate change, and help people think about the implications for their cities if they don’t take serious action in limiting greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, this can also lead to a false sense of security. What we are experiencing today is not actually climate change but climate ‘chaos.’ The accent here is on chaos.”

Scharper noted that rising temperatures are affecting weather regulators such as the Jet and Gulf Streams, resulting in unpredictable weather. Focusing solely on temperature and rainfall, the potentially wild and violent impacts on weather patterns caused by climate change are not fully explored by the tool.

It is becoming more apparent that a long-term, sustained plan may be the only way to address climate change, and awareness-raising tools such as the one described are merely the first step.

“While taking public transit or reducing use of fossil fuels in one’s personal life is vital, we have to as local, national, and international citizens make the structural change that will make the reductions necessary to alter our climate course,” wrote Scharper.

“This is not going to be remedied by filling our recycling bins, changing our light bulbs, [or] reducing our garage tenants from two cars to one. This requires a firm, dedicated, and lasting commitment to a new way of doing business in the world. Business as usual is unacceptable.”

The Arctic haze

Suspended particulate matter could have drastic effects on our climate

The Arctic haze

Each spring in the Arctic, haze blankets the atmosphere. The particles that make up this ‘Arctic haze’ are known as aerosols and have wide-ranging effects on health and climate.

Dr. Megan Willis, a former postdoctoral fellow at U of T, recently published an article in the Reviews of Geophysics about the threats that atmospheric aerosols pose to the environment.

“We have learned a lot about Arctic aerosol in the last 10 to 15 years, and I think we have identified some of the important gaps in our knowledge,” Willis said in an email to The Varsity. “If we want to have a good understanding of how our climate will change in response to greenhouse gases we need to understand what aerosol does to the climate.”

What are atmospheric aerosols?

Aerosols are liquid and solid particles that are less than 1/75th the width of a human hair and largely originate from from Canadian, European, and Russian cities.

Long-distance transport of spring aerosols to the Arctic occurs through tropospheric currents transporting air from Eurasia to North America, though the permeable Arctic front seldom experiences the removal processes such as rain and snow. During transport, the chemicals mix, some are removed, and the smallest form clouds.

These aerosols are mainly composed of sulfates, black carbon, organic carbon, mineral dust, volcanic sulfur, and suspended sea salt. The first three originate largely from anthropogenic sources.

The accumulation of atmospheric aerosols in the Arctic will have long-term consequences. For example, the expansion of the oil and gas industry into the Arctic will release black carbon, which is known to cause a warming effect. Climate change has also resulted in the loss of sea ice in the Arctic, and this increases the presence of aerosol precursors.

By contrast, increased shipping activity is known to emit climate-cooling aerosols, and a decrease in shipping travel distance is said to reduce carbon emissions.

What is being done to reduce atmospheric aerosols?

According to Willis, groups like the International Arctic Science Committee and the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program provide international communities with opportunities to assess Arctic aerosol and other forms of pollution.

“We don’t know enough about how aerosol impacts the global climate system to be sure about what the effect would be of, for example, [releasing] aerosol into the stratosphere with the hope of offsetting greenhouse gas warming,” Willis wrote. “Such measures could have very undesirable consequences on precipitation patterns.”

Willis, who previously researched atmospheric aerosols in the Abbatt Group in U of T’s Department of Chemistry, continues to research natural and anthropogenic aerosol in the Arctic.

“Some examples [of remaining open questions] include how emissions of gas-phase organic compounds contribute to Arctic aerosol and how these might change with decreasing sea ice, and how aerosol emitted locally in the Arctic under cold and dark conditions is chemically processed and removed,” wrote Willis.

It’s getting hot in here

A look at the progress and pitfalls of the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference

It’s getting hot in here

At the tail end of 2015, the world’s leaders met in Paris to discuss the growing issue of global climate change at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The conference, also known as the twenty-first “Conference of the Parties” to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, successfully ended with the creation of the Paris Agreement.

The agreement binds 55 parties, which account for 55 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. It aims to hold global temperature increases to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, worldwide. With China and India continuing to rapidly industrialize, and the continuation of high per capita carbon emissions in the West, this agreement sets some ambitious targets.

While the conference was arguably successful in setting measurable goals, critics have called the targets unrealistic. Citing the failures of 1997’s Kyoto Protocol, and the slow adoption of green technology worldwide, many experts have their doubts about whether this new agreement will succeed where other agreements have failed.

Recently, a group of University of Toronto students were selected as delegates for the conference. Larissa Parker, a fourth-year U of T student studying ethics, society and law, environmental studies, and political science, was one such delegate.

“Overall, I believe that the meeting was a success,” said Parker. “It is impossible to ignore the fact that this was really the first time that a vast majority of countries agreed on a binding agreement and collectively responded to the urgency of tackling climate change in an organized and respectful manner.”

The agreement has also been criticized for imposing restrictions on countries that are becoming increasingly industrialized. These countries need energy to power their industrialization, and are pointing towards the historical abuse of fossil fuels by high-income countries as a pathway for success.

When asked about the fairness of the declarations made by the agreement to low-income countries, Parker pointed out that the declarations are, in some respects, fair. Parker also noted that the warming target of 1.5 degrees Celsius was “a huge victory for the developing world, and particularly small island states who passionately argued that two degrees was not enough to save their nations from natural disasters such as floods and droughts.”

The conference discussed the possibility of global partnerships, whereby more industrialized countries would work to alleviate the effect of climate change in less industrialized countries. One of the proposals is to compensate lower-income countries for the economic losses they may incur due to the destruction of their natural ecosystems, with funding coming from countries that have polluted the most.

“Many states like the US and Canada however, were uncomfortable with ‘liability and compensation,’” Parker said. This led to a “footnote in the agreement specifying that loss and damage would not involve liability or compensation.”

Even with all of the high hopes for this agreement, critics around the world still question whether these targets are attainable. “Although the agreement is the most ambitious and cooperative text to tackle climate change that the world has ever seen, it is clear that the targets that each country has put forward, when added up together, do not reach 1.5 or even two degrees. In fact, with the current targets, the world is looking at around three degrees of warming,” Parker said.