by Sylvain Comeau
Scientists attempting to forecast the impact of global warming face a
daunting task: taking into account all relevant factors in a climate system
of mind-boggling complexity. Experts all over the world are striving to
provide key data needed for computer modelling of the phenomenon.
Yves Gélinas, a Concordia professor in the Department of Chemistry
and Biochemistry, is working on one piece of that giant puzzle. On January
6, he received a boost in his research
efforts in the form of a $213,779 Canadian Foundation for Innovation New
Im studying the global carbon cycle, in relation to increases
in CO2 [inorganic carbon, a greenhouse gas] concentration
in the atmosphere and increases in temperature. My specialty is looking
at the organic carbon cycle, which means carbon from living organisms
and from the dead remains of non-living organic matter.
Specifically, Im looking at preservation of organic matter
in marine sediments, such as phytoplankton, because of its long-term influence
on CO2 removal from the atmosphere.
Many global warming researchers look at the processes which add excessive
greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Gélinas, in collaboration with
researchers at McGill, UQAM and the University of Washington in Seattle,
is trying to determine to what extent organic matter settled at the bottom
of the ocean will remove some of the excess.
Theres always an exchange; theres CO2
being added through anthropogenic [human] activities, and theres
also a natural removal process. Before humans started using fossil fuels,
there was an equilibrium; there was as much natural removal as natural
addition to the atmosphere.
That delicate balance has been tipped in one dangerous direction, and
now nature is struggling to adjust.
The rate at which we are adding greenhouse gases now is much faster
than the removal rate, so Im studying these natural removal processes
to see to what extent they will catch up. If we can fully understand these
processes, it will help build computer models to predict what will happen
in the long term.
The question here is: how well, and quickly, can nature cope?
We dont believe that nature can fully catch up. There probably
will be an increase in the process of CO2 removal,
but the increase will never be high enough to fully compensate for what
is being released in the atmosphere through human activities.
For years, scientists have been predicting some surprising outcomes from
global warming. One such scenario is the adjustment to which Gélinas
Some scientists think that the greenhouse effect will result in
a higher growth rate of trees and plants, not just because of the warmer
weather, but also because if you increase CO2 concentration,
plants grow faster. Thats what you do in a greenhouse; they have
increased temperatures, but also more CO2.
So we may also have more plankton growing in the ocean, and thus more
exchange of greenhouse gases between the atmosphere and the ocean.
As a corollary, examining marine sediments also yields a lot of information
about the past which is one of the keys to forecasting the future.
When organic matter is buried in sediment, it also buries with it
information about what happened in the past; the deeper you go in the
sediment, the farther back you go in time. Examining the molecules in
the sediment can tell you what was going on when it was deposited. We
can see what kind of species grew at which temperatures and climate conditions,
which will tell us what kind of species will grow in the future at similar
temperatures and conditions.
As his work progresses, he expects that other scientists will use his
data to develop new and increasingly complete and accurate computer models
forecasting global warming.
Gélinass research is a long-term project with an indefinite
time line. He expects to pursue this work for many years, and says that
the recent CFI grant will be invaluable. New Opportunities grants are
awarded to new faculty members to help them acquire equipment for their
Gélinas is indeed new to Concordia, having joined the Department
of Chemistry and Biochemistry in July 2001, but not new to Montreal; he
graduated from Université du Québec a Montréal, although
he started his first degree at Concordia. He completed his post-doctoral
research at the University of Washington, where he started working on
his current research interest, and has also worked in Africa as a university
professor and consultant studying the quality of drinking water in Senegal
and Republic of Guinea.
My goal was to come back to Canada first of all, and especially
to Montreal; I want my daughter to learn French and English. He
is attached to Concordia, having acquired his first degree here.
I chose Concordia because I wanted to play for the Stingers; I was
playing hockey at the time, and the Stingers were one of the best university
hockey teams in town. I never made it, because I got injured before training
camp. That leaves little doubt Gélinas is a true Quebecer
who has come back home.
In addition to Gélinas, Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Louis
Cuccia also received a CFI grant this month.