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Space, agriculture and Canadian climate change: a homecoming discussion

This map shows Earth’s average global temperature from 2013 to 2017, as compared to a baseline average from 1951 to 1980, according to an analysis by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Yellows, oranges, and reds show regions warmer than the baseline. Credit: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio.

The role of space in helping combat climate change, along with in-situ examinations of plant response to global warming, came to the fore during a recent talk by Western University.

The one-hour livestreamed event was meant to highlight research with impact at Western, and took place during the virtual edition of the university’s homecoming Sept. 25. The featured speakers were:

  • Earth science professor Gordon “Oz” Osinski, interim director of the Institute for Earth and Space Exploration and director the Canadian Lunar Research Network;
  • Biology professor Danielle Way, associate professor and director of the Biotron Experimental Climate Change Research Centre.

Gordon Osinski: The Importance of Space

Osinski opened his talk by showing pictures of the International Space Station, the Apollo moon landings and research by the Hubble Space Telescope as common reference points as to how the public thinks of space. For him, however, he sees space as an interwoven network of different research points connecting aspects such as the ocean, the air and space – with space being “a natural progression of exploring our own planet.”

Osinski is well-known for running geology expeditions in the Canadian Arctic, often with the participation of Canadian Space Agency astronauts who are embarking on training related to future lunar surface missions, as Canada is a participant in NASA’s Artemis program that seeks to put people on the moon by 2024, if technological and funding progress allows. In preparing for these expeditions, Osinski read a lot of Arctic and Antarctic expedition literature to get into the mindset of the explorers who moved through these regions in the past century.

“We are still exploring, and trying to get to the poles of this planet,” he said. But in a century, he said, the technology has changed as we were moving into the air in the early 1900s, and now access to space is broadening. He cited the all-civilian Inspiration4 mission aboard a SpaceX spacecraft that just flew in September as one example. Next year, Canadian investor Mark Pathy will fly on the all-private Axiom Space mission that will visit the ISS, he added.

“These are totally, totally different times, where space is really opening up for non-governmental astronauts,” Osinski said. “One of the things I’m most excited about, [because] I am a geologist, we’re going to go back to the moon and hopefully it’s actually to go there to stay this time and perhaps eventually set up research stations – like we have in Antarctica – and keep learning about the moon.”

Osinski highlighted Artemis II as a seminal moment for Canada, as one of our government astronauts will be on board and circle around the moon with the crew – the first time any human has done so since 1972. Showing the iconic “Earthrise” image taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders during an orbital mission in 1968, Osinski said he is looking forward to a new version of that, “hopefully taken by a Canadian astronaut.”

A few weeks ago, Osinski travelled to northern Labrador, at the Mistastin Lake impact crater, with CSA astronaut Joshua Kutryk and NASA astronaut Matthew Dominick. He characterized the crater as “an excellent analogue for the moon” and said he is looking forward to examining the samples they collected. For the two astronauts, both trained fighter pilots, Osinski said such experience shows them the value of collecting samples and allows them to start training on geology at a very early stage, before even being assigned to a mission.

While space sounds separated from Earth, Osinski argued the value in exploring is allowing spacefarers and satellites to look downward at our planet, particularly in monitoring changes on Earth such as global warming. He cited Canada’s Radarsat series of satellites as leading the effort in allowing our country to look at its own changes from orbit, to help with disaster relief and to assist with managing agriculture.

“The title of this talk was something that I borrowed from this outreach initiative that we lead here at Western, called Space Matters. In this unit, we’re trying to bring home how really space in particular today pervades all aspects of our everyday life, and the importance of satellites,” he said.

Big questions that space will help to answer, he said in concluding, include the prevalence of life – including icy moons at Jupiter and Saturn and the ongoing sample return effort at Mars – and how to ensure long-term human survival, which likely involves the “need to get off this planet.” In Canada, he said space is an innovation driver, particularly through technologies such as the Canadarm series of robotic arms that have brought about advances in robotic surgery.

“We have a new economy, it’s perhaps surprising to think about that, but space is a new economy. The fact that you can buy a ticket now to fly into space means that we have an economy there,” Osinski said. He also noted that he would be glad to sign up for a few days in space, although a long-duration mission to Mars would not be as appealing.

Danielle Way: Plant resilience to global warming

Way opened her talk by citing the overwhelming evidence that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are increasing due to fossil fuel burning and through land use change, such as deforestation. Accurate carbon dioxide measurements only arose starting in the late 1950s, she noted, and showed numbers from Hawaii where the air is “quite pristine, relatively speaking.”

In 1976, when Way was born, carbon dioxide was at about 330 parts per million and today’s figure 45 years later (2021) is around 420 parts per million, she noted. On the longer scale, carbon dioxide is 50 percent greater than it was before the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th century at which fossil fuels were burned at a large scale.

Greenhouse gas emissions have already increased global temperatures by about one degree Celsius, and the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change is trying to keep that warming below 2 degrees or 2.5 degrees Celsius. “We’re already in a future warmer world,” she warned. “If we continue on the types of trajectory that we’re on, then this is what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts for the end of the century – the fact that globally, we would have warming of sort of three to four degrees Celsius.”

Such warming disproportionately affects places in high latitudes, including in the Canadian Arctic – where certain areas could be 11 degrees to 12 degrees warmer by the end of the century, she said. This in turn would affect the distribution and productivity of plant species, which is Way’s focus. She showed a figure with the distribution of aspen, a common boreal tree species. With current projections of global warming, aspen is expected to go as far north as the Arctic Ocean.

What is less well-known among the public, however, is that plants also affect the climate. Plants take up carbon dioxide and emit carbon dioxide, which students are often taught in elementary or high school. She showed a simplified version of the global carbon cycle, taking into account this plant process.

“Plants every year absorb 123 billion tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere; it’s by far the biggest drawdown, and the biggest absorption, of carbon that you get on a global scale – and this is just land plants,” she said. “Half of that is then remitted by plants back into the atmosphere. Animals and microbes and soil processes – just like us – breathing out also emit about another 60 billion tons of carbon every year on the planet. These numbers roughly balance out normally.”

However, the dynamic changes as humans emit carbon through industrial processes and land use change, she said. “That means that you’re accumulating in this scenario, about seven billion tons of carbon every year in the atmosphere. That’s that rising CO2 [carbon dioxide] that we just talked about. But the implication is also that if you move into a warmer, drier climate in the future, plants might not absorb as much carbon.”

In other words, she said, if plants are unable to absorb as much carbon, climate change may happen more rapidly due to global inequities in carbon absorption and production. “Understanding how plants absorb carbon and these sorts of processes – how much they grow, how much they can sequester – is really important for actually predicting where we’re going with our climate,” she added.

Way then featured her team’s research concerning climate change and how northern forests respond to future climates. They compare plants grown at current carbon dioxide levels, and future carbon dioxide levels. They also combine conditions with temperature changes, to see how the plants change, if they absorb more carbon and how well they survive.

Some of the group’s major findings include:

  • Studies of two major species of black spruce – the most common tree in the North American boreal forest – along with Tamarack, a deciduous tree, show that in warmer conditions they have less nitrogen available to absorb carbon dioxide. “In other words, as you warm the environment of the plant, the ability to fix CO2 – to continue to take CO2 out of the atmosphere – is suppressed,” she said.
  • Tamarack, however, can keep its absorption levels of CO2 the same up to a point by opening its stomata (tissue openings) a little wider. This process allows this species to “offset and minimize the effect of this suppression of the biochemistry inside their leaves,” she said. Black spruce does not demonstrate as much resilience, in comparison.
  • Accordingly, by the year 2060, the warming trend in the Canadian Arctic may produce a shift to deciduous forests and away from boreal forests. “You might also expect to see a transition from a boreal forest that’s dominated by spruce and pine trees and evergreen conifers into a forest that’s more dominated by things like birch and poplar,” Way noted. “That has enormous implications for the sort of the ecosystem processes, and what that environment is going to look like and how it’s going to function.”

Way’s group is also involved in a major Minnesota-based experiment called Spruce, run by the U.S. Department of Energy, studying spruce and Tamarack trees in both current and future carbon dioxide conditions, experiencing warming anywhere between zero and nine degrees Western. The results from Spruce are very similar to what Western is finding at its own facilities, she said.

While Canadians often think global warming “would not be so bad”, she noted that the warming temperatures are expected to have an adverse effect on both our forests and on the crop species that we rely on for food security. To meet food security needs as a planet by 2050, food production will have to increase by 70 percent in part to accommodate a growing population and in part because more people will move out of poverty and shift to meat-based diets. “That challenge has to be met in the face of climate change,” she warned.

Western is also examining how to identify lines of crops, like wheat, that would be resilient to future climates – growing such crops at the university’s facilities in similar conditions to the trees mentioned earlier. Plants in high carbon dioxide conditions (such as wheat, rice, or maize) tend to see a suppression of micronutrients such as zinc or iron, along with less protein. “This is really a problem when you’re thinking about the nutritional status of the global population,” she said, especially because plants tend to produce extra sugar in these conditions, which dilutes nutrients.

Way said developing the land in the future will be “a really big challenge”, even though places like Southern Ontario have soils with an extraordinary ability to grow food. As food production moves north, many of those lands are quite rocky and with poorer soils. “So you’re not actually going to be able to grow food on them,” she said. And at this time, genetic modifications to plants are in such an early stage that the results cannot be widely replicated or used, she added.

About Elizabeth Howell

Is SpaceQ's Associate Editor as well as a business and science reporter, researcher and consultant. She recently received her Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota and is communications Instructor instructor at Algonquin College.

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