Focusing our ‘atmospheric’ lens with climate science literacy

By: Alyssa Murdoch

Summary of an RCIScience Talk by Dr. Hind Al-Abadleh and science activities with Let’s Talk Science – March 5th, 2017

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A truly unique community gathering was held Sunday March 5th as part of the winter talk series hosted by RCI Science. The scientific event brought together a diverse group ranging from retirees to high-schoolers, to newly arrived refugee families facilitated by York University’s SEEDs group (Science Enrichment and Educational Development for Syrians and Refugees). Together, these groups listened to Dr. Hind Al-Abadleh (Wilfrid Laurier University) deliver her talk “What Every Citizen Should Know About the Earth’s Atmosphere” in both Arabic and English, and participated in interactive science activities provided by the award-winning science educational group, Let’s Talk Science. Only here could one learn that the Sudbury’s Inco smoke stack is as tall as the Empire State Building, how to build your own homemade weather station, how acid rain eroded our iconic statues, and how photocopiers emit the pungent smell of ozone.

Dr. Al-Abadleh explained how looking back at our previous actions may be useful for navigating our current climate crisis. For example, at its height in the 1970s, acid rain plagued many aquatic environments with Eastern Canada being particularly sensitive to acidification. This area was in the unfortunate position of receiving a high concentration of airborne nitric and sulphuric acid pollution, in combination with a naturally low ability to buffer the increasing acidity. At the same time, public concern over the ozone layer was mounting, with scientists reporting an ozone hole the size of North America looming above Antarctica. It was quickly found that ozone loss was directly linked to the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were used as a replacement for toxic ammonia in refrigerator coolants. Unfortunately, the nonreactive, odourless properties that made CFCs so useful in coolants were also responsible for their rapid atmospheric accumulation. While acid rain and ozone depletion issues are still present today, the improved management of nitric and sulphuric emissions, and a significant reduction of CFCs have led to notable recoveries.

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Although the air we breathe is made up of 99% nitrogen and oxygen, Dr. Al-Abadleh explained that the remaining 1% contains the worst culprits responsible for global climate warming. She was quick to bring the issue of climate change close to home. For example, in Ontario, climate change is likely to increase water security issues, disrupt energy generation and transmission, and increase health risks due to extreme weather, heat, smog and disease propagation. Certain areas in Canada will be even more vulnerable, which will have wide reaching implications for the well being of all Canadians. However, Dr. Al-Abadleh also provided some real, tangible examples of progress and hope on the issue. Ontario was the first jurisdiction in the world to end coal fired electricity due to health and environmental reasons alone. Looking abroad, Denmark has become a world leader in renewable energy, and is currently on target to meet its plan for 100% renewable electricity by 2035. Dr. Al-Abadleh pointed to electric cars, energy efficient buildings, and modified agricultural practises as viable contributors to solving the climate crisis. In addition, forward-thinking companies are now taking it a step further, by investigating how we can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to help manage existing levels.

It is inclusive, meaningful events like these that foster a collective passion for science transcending age and cultural background. The unique setting facilitated some memorable sights: children volunteers teaching their peers about the atmosphere with a hands-on demonstration, university-level science students mentoring keen high-schoolers, retirees applying glitter to their carefully constructed paper snowflakes, and refugee children assembling makeshift weather stations. Science community outreach promotes the scientific literacy of a wider audience with cascading effects on innovation, economic stability, a cleaner environment, and an improved quality of life. While there is no quick fix for climate change, we will have a much better chance facing the oncoming uncertainty if we work together: spreading scientific knowledge, drawing from past successes, and becoming stewards of the atmosphere which safeguards our home planet.

About the Author

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Alyssa Murdoch is an Aquatic Biologist researching the effects of human stressors on northern fish. She has previously worked as an environmental consultant, government biologist, and academic research assistant. She holds a Master of Science degree from the University of Waterloo, and is currently a PhD candidate at York University.