Event Recaps

Investigating climate change impacts

April 02, 2012

Our climate is changing. How will this impact the health of humans and ecosystems? How can we best manage these effects?

These are the broad questions guiding the SFU Climate Change Impacts Research Consortium (CCIRC), a collaborative research team that integrates physical, environmental, and social approaches to improve understanding of this multifaceted issue. While much is already known about the environmental impact of changes in temperature and precipitation, the CCIRC focuses on the lesser-known secondary or indirect effects of these changes on humans and ecosystems. The team is working to develop risk based approaches, using novel computer visualization techniques, that will assist stakeholders and decision makers to comprehend, measure, communicate, and manage climate change impacts more effectively.

CCIRC’s 14 faculty members, headed by Diana Allen of the Department of Earth Sciences, possess expertise in natural sciences, environmental economics, sustainable design, emergency management and public safety, modeling and visual analytics, risk assessment, and aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. With funding from the SFU Community Trust Endowment Fund (CTEF), the Consortium is currently leading nine research projects to assess climate change risk to water and air quality, biodiversity, BC’s forest resources and salmon fisheries, aquatic ecosystems in mountain regions, and human health and communities. Another project aims to develop or improve communication strategies for climate change adaptation.

An important element of the CCIRC is providing SFU students with a research-intensive educational experience. To date, 43 students have been involved with the CCIRC team. Several have gone on to secure employment in their chosen fields, such as environmental consulting, or to pursue more advanced academic degrees. Dorian Turner, a graduate student within the Fisheries Science and Management Research Group in SFU’s School of Resource and Environmental Management, is involved in a CCIRC project. He says, “Conducting this quality research allowed me to achieve my goal of producing two publishable quality manuscripts from my Master's research. Because of the topical research CCIRC provides funding to, in my case stream flow issues, I have been given the opportunity to continue working on my Master's research as part of my current role as a Fisheries Biologist at Ecofish Research Ltd."

On April 2nd, the CCIRC and the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS) at SFU hosted the second annual Student Research Day. Eighteen graduate students and one undergraduate student presented their research and obtained feedback from fellow students and faculty members to help them refine their methodology and research goals, and strengthen their communication ability.

The day began with presentations from four Master’s students and one former undergraduate student who are interested in fundamental issues and immediate impacts related to climate change. Tyler Herrington of Geography presented his novel research that aims to apply cumulative CO2 emission calculations to regional climate targets, with the goal of avoiding reaching “tipping points” that can trigger extreme environmental events. Ben Cross from the Climate, Oceans, and Paleo-Environments (COPE) Laboratory in REM is studying wind patterns in the Pacific Northwest, research that is important to realizing the potential of using wind for power generation in this area, as well as for assessing forest fire risk. Another COPE student, Christie Spry, is working to extend data back in time on the frequency of flood-generating “Pineapple Express” storms by examining oxygen isotopes embedded in West Coast tree rings. Nat Wilson of Earth Sciences is mapping thermal glacial structure to better understand how glaciers will react to a changing climate. Carie-Ann Hancock, a former undergraduate in Earth Sciences, completed a study of the geomorphic changes to the Lilloet River due to flooding resulting from the August 2010 landslide, research that can shed light on how similar flooding events could affect debris transfer and bank erosion.

The next group of students examined issues around water supply and aquatic habitats. Mike Simpson, one of Diana Allen’s M.Sc. students, developed a risk-based assessment method for groundwater quality based on land use in the Langley area, information that is relevant to local governments for water sustainability planning. A new M.Sc. student in Earth Sciences, Shannon Holding, discussed her case study that will explore the impact of storm surge on island groundwater resources in the Bahamas, research that could inform protection measures against future storm surges in the region. Ph.D. candidate and PICS graduate research fellow Steve Conrad of the School of Resource and Environmental Management (REM) is linking human behavioural data from residential water use surveys with civil engineering methods to develop an integrated bottom-up model that will foster adaptive water management decision-making.

Ph.D. candidate and PICS graduate research fellow Mary Ann Middleton from Earth Sciences is assessing how climate change and water use are affecting groundwater sensitive streams, and developing criteria for sensitive steam designation to protect fish habitat and aquatic ecosystems. Dorian Turner, a REM graduate, has developed a method to describe instream flow requirements based on the probability of fish habitat loss during low flow periods and assessed how these might change under future climate change, important factors for environmental impact assessment for hydroelectric projects.

Tommy Rodengen of the COPE Laboratory is examining the historical and potential changes in carbon storage in Canada’s lakes, research that can help parks officials to better understand and address carbon management issues. Carolyn Duckham, also from REM, studies the effects of coastal acidification and climate change on survivorship of shellfish larvae, and will be investigating the use of lime as a mitigation strategy for reducing concentrations of CO2 in hatcheries. Sabine Jessen in Geography, also a PICS graduate research fellow, is applying her extensive experience in marine conservation to compare policy and governance issues related to climate change impacts in the oceans of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

The final group of students incorporates economic, organizational and technological approaches into their research. REM student Rupananda Widenage integrated biological and economic models to examine the economic consequences and optimal policy responses to the advance of invasive plant species in BC. Heather Munro of REM is modeling forest carbon budgets to help inform management options, and will begin her work this summer in collaboration with the Hakai Network for Coastal People, Ecosystems and Management. Laura Guzman of Geography is analyzing personal, political and institutional barriers to adopting Personal Carbon Trading mechanisms. PICS graduate research fellow Dionne Bunsha in REM is working with the Central Coastal First Nations to evaluate the factors of success for ecosystem stewardship by grassroots organizations, with the aim of helping these communities become more resilient to climate change impacts.

Two Ph.D. candidates in the Human-Centered Systems for Sustainable Living research group in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT) are looking at ways to support sustainable living through new energy technologies and residential design. Maryam Kashani is examining the lifestyle factors that influence residential energy use and the barriers that people face in adopting energy saving behaviours. She aims to apply this information to create guidelines for home designers on how to remove impediments to the effective use of technology and retrofit solutions. PICS graduate fellow Vinu Subashini relayed an absorbing personal story about her childhood home in India and her current dorm in the SFU student residences to illustrate her research, which utilizes visualization and modeling to design novel interactive displays and controls for sustainable living.

Professor Allen wrapped up the event by recognizing the diversity of student research being conducted under CCIRC. “Our students are undertaking highly relevant and novel research on aspects of climate change that are not commonly tackled within normal disciplinary boundaries. The CTEF project has allowed us to explore scientific and technological approaches more creatively due to the diverse expertise among the faculty and students.

The students’ presentations will be available for download from the CCIRC website.

For more information on climate change research and PICS at SFU, visit http://www.sfu.ca/climatechange.html

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