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Sandwiched Between Land and Open Water

With an eye to the seven gigatons of carbon released every year, Dr. Helmuth Thomas is working to help find a complex answer for a seemingly simple question: “where does all that carbon go?”

Since about half remains in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, the rest should be absorbed by the oceans and the land. But research shows that some carbon is unaccounted for – about two gigatons. Thomas, Dalhousie’s Canada Research Chair in Marine Biogeochemistry, is working to better understand where it goes. In doing so, he is first focusing on coastal oceans, underresearched areas that Thomas feels have great importance.

“The coastal waters are sandwiched between land and the open ocean making them the passage way for raw sewage, fertilizer run-off and other human-made pollutants as they flow into deeper water,” explains Thomas. “What happens along this pathway is very important. Is our food source being destroyed? Does the marine environment being altered allow invasive species such as noxious algal blooms to take over an area?”

His work looks at coastal carbon cycles, key factors in climate change processes. By quantifying and studying carbon flows from land to ocean in eastern Canada and northwestern Europe, Thomas’ research will help improve knowledge of the marine
world, and increase the ability to predict changes in the carbon cycle based on environmental factors.

Thomas feels strongly that getting a clear understanding of the causes of climate change is needed, and soon. “If we don’t take any action to mitigate the causes of climate change, many millions of people will be at risk from extreme events such as heat waves, drought, floods and storms, with coasts and cities threatened by rising sea levels, and many ecosystems, plants and animal species in serious danger of extinction.”

At the same time, he says that scientists should tread lightly when claiming a climate change indicator, without understanding all of the variables. Changes in the weather, ocean temperature and wind speed and direction are caused by phenomena other than
carbon dioxide. For example, the North American Oscillation, the major atmospheric and climate model, is responsible for weather variability in the North Atlantic region. It affects temperature changes, moisture distribution and the intensity, number and track of storms.

“Responding to climate change requires a comprehensive understanding of all of the factors that contribute to it,” says Thomas. “I’m hopeful that my research will contribute to the overall insight needed to respond to the climate change crisis.”

Reproduced from
OutFront Magazine: Research that Matters
Fall/Winter 2009/10 - vol. 4 no. 1