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October 24, 2002 Global carbon cycle is part of climate puzzle



Chemistry professor Yves Gélinas

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj


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 Opportunities grant.

“I’m 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, I’m 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.

“There’s always an exchange; there’s CO2 being added through anthropogenic [human] activities, and there’s 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 I’m 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 don’t 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 is referring.

“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. That’s 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.

Gélinas’s 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 research.

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.