Turning the tide on climate change

- June 5, 2023

(stock image)
(stock image)

The science is clear. The Earth is warming, and the burning of fossil fuels is contributing to that trend, accounting for more than 95 per cent of the carbon released into the atmosphere. If that warming continues, parts of the planet will become uninhabitable in our lifetime.

But the outlook is not all doom and gloom. We have an invaluable ally in our effort to avert a climate catastrophe: the ocean. For years, it’s been doing the heavy lifting in slowing climate change. It absorbs approximately 40 per cent of all the carbon that’s released, while land-based carbon sinks, such as the rainforests, absorb just 3 per cent.

It’s an impressive feat. But Dr. Anya Waite, associate vice-president research (ocean) of Dalhousie University, and chief executive officer and scientific director of Dalhousie’s Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI), says emerging research shows the ocean is changing. And those changes may compromise the amount of carbon it’s able to absorb. Equally troubling, the simulation models that are raising alarm among experts about ocean changes are built on limited data about the ocean. This means we don’t have a clear picture of the situation or the necessary insights to improve it. And time is not on our side. At current carbon emission rates, we have less than nine years before we exceed the threshold that would keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5 degrees—an important limit for averting a climate disaster. Given the increased risk for an event, or series of events, that could further compromise the ocean’s carbon absorption capacity, it’s possible that nine-year timeline could be accelerated.

“What we need to do,” Dr. Waite stresses, “is reduce uncertainty about how the ocean is functioning so that we can rise to meet the challenges we face.”

It’s a challenge Dalhousie is meeting head on through its leadership of the multi-university research program, Transforming Climate Action: Addressing the Missing Ocean. The endeavour aims to help humanity turn the tide on climate change, an effort that will establish Dalhousie as the premier authority on the ocean’s ability to absorb and hold carbon to help achieve a net-zero carbon emissions world.

A notable endorsement

There are several reasons to be optimistic about what Dalhousie will achieve through Transforming Climate Action. It’s a comprehensive and strategic research program that leans into the talents of Dalhousie’s world-leading ocean researchers across multiple faculties. It brings Dal’s vast resources and deep expertise together with those of other prominent Canadian ocean research universities—Université du Quebec à Rimouski, Université Laval and Memorial University of Newfoundland—which have joined as partners. It has also received a major endorsement from the Government of Canada’s prestigious Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) in the form of a seven-year, $154 million investment. This commitment from CFREF is particularly notable. To date, it’s the largest research grant ever made to Dalhousie. It’s also the federal government’s second investment in the university through the CFREF program, which has the stated goal of “Helping Canadian postsecondary institutions excel globally in research areas that create long-term economic advantages for Canada.”

“Transforming Climate Action will focus the world’s attention and energies on the primary importance of the ocean in determining climate policy, shifting the global discourse and positioning the partner institutions as leaders in evaluating the impacts of climate change,” says Dr. Alice Aiken, Dalhousie’s vice president of research and innovation. “CFREF funding substantially enhances Dalhousie’s impact on the global stage by creating an ambitious research program that will attract new global experts to join the university’s world-leading, ocean-focused faculty and global partnerships that place Dalhousie at the centre of ocean-climate science, innovation and solutions.”

We now have the plan and the partnerships in place to thrive on a scale that was unimaginable until now."
Dr. Alice Aiken

Transforming Climate Action has three ambitious, integrated goals. It will reduce international uncertainty about the ocean’s capacity to absorb and hold carbon. It will position Canada as a global leader in reducing carbon emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere to mitigate climate change. And it will create people-centric adaptation solutions to ocean and climate change based on science, developed in collaboration with communities and informed by Indigenous ways of knowing. These goals will be achieved using an approach that spans institutions and disciplines, from law and biology to agriculture and computer science. To coordinate and amplify its impact, Dalhousie’s Ocean Frontier Institue will play an integral role in the leadership and management of Transforming Climate Action, connecting researchers to a global community focused on climate-ocean science, policy and advocacy.

“This is a landmark undertaking for us at Dalhousie,” says Dr. Frank Harvey, acting president and vice chancellor. “It’s one that we’ve been laying the groundwork for since the 1940s, when our ocean research and education efforts began in earnest. Over the years, we have developed leading-edge ocean research centres, created the Canadian Excellence Research Chair in Ocean Science and Technology, and built a team of more than 100 faculty members, researchers and scholars, many of whom support core elements of our work in this field. The standards we have set through our research and the knowledge we have accumulated establish a strong and durable foundation for breakthroughs in addressing many of the most pressing environmental challenges we face today. We now have the plan and the partnerships in place to thrive on a scale that was unimaginable until now.”

Although Transforming Climate Action is in its early days, this $400-million undertaking has quickly drawn international attention and interest. Major research centres, government agencies and non-government organizations are stepping up to help turn its goals into reality. In addition to the $154 million CFREF investment and collaboration with the participating universities, support will come from major global research, industry and government partners. They include the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Canada’s Ocean Supercluster, among many others.

“The global reputation of our ocean and climate researchers has been critical in helping the university garner our initial commitments and partnerships for the Transforming Climate Action research program,” says Dr. Charles Macdonald, Dalhousie’s dean of science. “Because of our legacy for innovation and leadership in ocean research, the world knows we have the depth and talent to take on this work. With the support of the CFREF, our partners see we are gathering significant momentum and are throwing their support behind us to get it done.”

Further reading: Swell of support: Researchers and government leaders gather to celebrate Transforming Climate Action

Filling the ocean 
knowledge gap

Making progress on climate change will require more insights on the changes that are occurring in the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Transforming Climate Action will focus its exploration efforts on the North Atlantic and Atlantic-Arctic gateways. These areas are not only geographically close for studying, but also account for approximately 30 per cent of the ocean’s carbon uptake. Through Transforming Climate Action, researchers will increase their understanding of how carbon absorption works and the factors that affect it. They’ll also gain insights into the potential impact of extreme ocean events, such as accelerated Arctic warming, and the role that marine ecosystems play in this process.

Dr. Katja Fennel is helping to remedy the ocean knowledge gap. She and her team will be deploying new sensor-equipped robotic devices in the Labrador Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean to measure properties such as water temperature, salt levels, oxygen levels, plankton and acidity. The devices are part of Argo, an international program that has been gathering data on ocean temperature and salinity for over 20 years. The program has almost 4,000 devices dotting the ocean from the South Atlantic to the North Pacific, which transmit data to shore via satellites. The Argo program is now adding biological and chemical sensors to these devices. The result is an impressive ocean observation network that will transform our ability to observe biological and chemical changes in the ocean and to better understand its potential in climate mitigation.

These data are helpful for researchers like Dr. Fennel. She is interested in phytoplankton—microscopic plant-like organisms that are the basis of the marine food web. They also play a key role in the ocean’s ability to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and cycle it to the deep ocean. The fear is that global warming is causing the nutrients that plankton rely on to become stagnant. This means reduced circulation to the sunlit surface ocean, where photosynthesis can occur. This is a serious problem; if plankton are not well nourished and their numbers decrease, it could have a dire effect on ocean life, carbon absorption and climate change.

“We have to get a handle on what the ocean’s carbon inventory is and how it is changing, because the ocean holds 50 times more CO2 than the atmosphere,” Dr. Fennel explains. “If the processes in the ocean that keep the CO2 in there change even in a subtle way, that could mean a huge change in the atmosphere. This is why we need to understand what is going on. It’s crucially important.” 

Added data will enable Dr. Fennel to develop more accurate predictive models. In turn, these models will enable more informed decisions for increasing the ocean’s carbon absorption capacity—one of the aims of Transforming Climate Action. As much as that appeals to her, Dr. Fennel has something more ambitious in mind to advance the quality and amount of data gathered from the ocean.

“I think about how much weather forecasting has advanced over the past 20 years, thanks to more sophisticated models and computational power, but also sustained observation networks that steadily deliver data,” she says. “Our field is a far cry from that. My dream is to see a big push to real-time observation streams that allow us to really describe what the ocean is doing at any given moment so we can predict how it will behave going forward. The more accurate our predictions are, the better equipped we will be to grapple with climate change.”

For now, what Dr. Fennel envisions is a dream. But it illustrates what could be possible as a result of CFREF funding.

Boosting the ocean’s 

As Dalhousie researchers like Dr. Fennel work to better understand the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon, others are exploring ways to increase that superpower. One proposed approach is ocean alkalinity enhancement, a process that’s often compared to giving the ocean an antacid. Adding alkaline substances, such as limestone, to seawater reduces harmful acidity in the water caused by increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It also enables the ocean to absorb more carbon dioxide.

“There is a lot of cautious optimism about ocean alkalinity enhancement,” says Dr. Ruth Musgrave, the Canada Research Chair in Physical Oceanography at Dalhousie. “It mimics the natural geochemical processes that have caused the ocean to take up so much carbon and to be such a large reservoir of it.”

However, Dr. Musgrave says there are still many questions as to how this process will work. She and other Dalhousie researchers are trying to answer those questions in collaboration with Planetary Technologies. This Dartmouth, N.S., company has developed a unique alkalinity-based carbon removal technology that has proven safe and effective in the lab. The goal now is to use Dalhousie’s Aquatron, Canada’s largest aquatic research centre, to see if the same results can be achieved in an open-sea setting.

Dal oceanographer and professor Dr. Hugh MacIntye is conducting ocean alkalinity enhancement-related experiments to ensure the science behind it will be safe for life below the waves. He and his students are assessing the impact of added alkalinity on plankton. “There is a mass of literature on acidifying the ocean and its impacts,” says Dr. MacIntyre. “But there is surprisingly little on raising pH with alkaline substances and its effect on plankton growth. What we want to know is whether they can accommodate a sudden rise in alkalinity or if they will be harmed by it.”

If Dr. MacIntyre and his students find that plankton can accommodate this increase, the company will be one step closer to a viable technology that could help keep climate change in check.

Coastal in a different way

Meanwhile, environmental social scientist Dr. Kate Sherren says it’s time to be coastal in a different way. The CFREF investment offers an opportunity to further explore how people living along the coast are experiencing and responding to climate-related changes. Through interviews, focus groups, surveys and social media analysis, she is gathering their opinions on adaptations ranging from restoring wetlands along the Bay of Fundy to retreating from the coastline altogether.

“We need to ask hard questions about our continued ability to inhabit the places we call home,” says Dr. Sherren, a professor at the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie. “I know many of us have an emotional connection to our coastline, but we need to look at where we should pull back and leave space for ocean dynamism.”

This is why the research being conducted through Transforming Climate Action will be vital. Insights on the factors driving climate and ocean change will enable Atlantic Canadian and other coastal communities to make informed decisions about how they’ll adapt to that change. Those insights will also support further efforts by Dr. Sherren to shape the necessary policies, engagement and actions to help keep these communities, and their ways of life, safe in the face of more extreme weather events.

“We think, in our hearts, that we’re going to have time to make decisions,” Dr. Sherren says. “We think that the change is going to be gradual and that it’s going to become clear when we need to adapt and pull back. But hurricane Fiona and the damage it caused to houses along Newfoundland’s shores, for example, demonstrates that the time for action is now.”

As Canada's leading ocean university, it's not just an opportunity to advance ocean and climate research; it's also our reponsibility to the world.   

Video: Open Dialogue Live: Accelerating ocean research at Dalhousie University

Supporting Indigenous-led research

Ultimately, it’s questions about adaptation that Dr. Waite is most enthusiastic to address through Transforming Climate Action. She sees the program as an opportunity to raise public awareness about the impacts of climate change, which she believes will inspire more strategic and concerted mitigation efforts. Dr. Waite also sees opportunities for researchers and communities to share best practices and success stories for adaptation, creating a wealth of knowledge and resources for everyone to draw on. Research co-led by Indigenous researchers and organizations is a key piece of Transforming Climate Action, building on existing relationships at the four partner institutions. This will be further bolstered by support for relationship-building early in the project, culminating in a round of funding specifically for additional Indigenous-led research projects.

“This is an opportunity to have discussions about decolonization and how Indigenous ways of knowing inform climate change action,” Dr. Waite says. “We are going to do this through several pathways, including direct engagement with our Indigenous colleagues, an Indigenous-led research call, and though the establishment of the Transformation Hub, based at the University of Quebec at Rimouski. Those conversations will not be easy, and they are going to take time. But they are important if we are going to achieve climate change solutions that promote equity, justice and resilience. The more we engage in those conversations, the more we can equip a new generation of students and leaders to approach these conversations with those concepts as their baseline.”

A major step forward

With the CFREF investment in place and research underway, Dalhousie and its partners are working to secure further funding to achieve the goals outlined in Transforming Climate Action. Dr. Aiken believes the expertise assembled through this program and the potential to realize change will prove invaluable in garnering additional support. She stresses such support will be necessary not just to prevent a climate-related catastrophe, but also to strengthen Dalhousie’s vital role in protecting the ocean.

“The Transforming Climate Action research program will solidify Dalhousie as a global leader in climate science, innovation and solutions by putting the ocean front and centre in the fight against climate change,” says Dr. Aiken. “As Canada’s leading ocean university, it’s not just an opportunity to advance ocean and climate research; it’s also our responsibility to the world.”

This story appeared in the DAL Magazine Spring/Summer 2023 issue. Flip through the rest of the issue using the links below.


All comments require a name and email address. You may also choose to log-in using your preferred social network or register with Disqus, the software we use for our commenting system. Join the conversation, but keep it clean, stay on the topic and be brief. Read comments policy.

comments powered by Disqus