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Lakehead University Magazine Spring/Summer 2008

Making Climate Change Real

A profile on Professor Steve Colombo, research scientist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources

By Frances Harding

Professor Steve Colombo

Steve Colombo knew he was on to something important when, as a graduate student, he had to stop his research every weekday because of rush hour traffic.

“I was measuring photosynthesis in tree seedlings at Lakehead during the late 1970s. In those days, the Forestry labs were located on the third floor of the Centennial Building directly above the parking lot. I was drawing outside air into a semi-closed gas analysis system — an old aquarium tank actually — and every day around 4 o’clock in the afternoon we would watch our CO2 levels jump as people started their vehicles and drove away from the campus. It was amazing.”

Today, Steve Colombo is a research scientist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources’ Ontario Forest Research Institute and one of the driving forces behind a website that shows through a series of maps just how different Ontario’s climate could be unless we all do our part to control greenhouse gas emissions.

The website shows possible future climates for three time periods — the early, middle, and late 21st Century — under two scenarios representing two different levels of greenhouse gas concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The “A2” and “B2” scenarios of greenhouse gas concentrations are considered intermediate scenarios and have been approved by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

For example, 50 years from now, under the “A2” scenario, the average winter temperature in Thunder Bay would increase by 3 or 4 degrees Celsius. In Fort Severn, high up on the coast of Hudson’s Bay, it would increase between 6 and 7 degrees Celsius, and this is going to wreak havoc on many isolated communities in the North that rely on winter roads during the colder months of the year.

“Our goal was to make climate change real to people living in Ontario,” says Colombo. “We wanted the website to be technically sound but not overly complex.”

Sure enough, the projections are proving to be useful for people doing strategic planning, adaptive management, and resource forecasting. Since the website was launched last summer, MNR has logged an average of 185 views per month.

Born in Owen Sound, and raised in Toronto, Colombo showed no particular interest in science in high school until the early 1970s when, as he says, “the modern environmental movement was beginning.” He chose to study Forestry at the University of Toronto and, after one particular third-year tree physiology course captured his imagination, he decided to become a scientist.

He enrolled first in the Master of Forestry program at Lakehead University in 1977 where he was one of four or five members of the inaugural class. After graduation, he was hired by the Ministry of Natural Resources’ Research Branch and since 1985 has conducted research mainly on climate issues pertaining to forest growth. In 1996, he completed a PhD in Forestry at the University of Toronto.

These days, Steve Colombo serves as adjunct professor at Lakehead University and is based on campus at the Centre for Northern Forest Ecosystem Research (CNFER). Although he does not teach classes at Lakehead, he does serve on the graduate committees for Master’s and PhD students, and has collaborated with Lakehead faculty members, Professors Qing-Lai Dang and Nancy Luckai, on a review paper on forest management effects on carbon storage.

Professor Colombo describes himself as a “humanist” when it comes to approaching the problems associated with climate change. He is optimistic about our ability to change the way we do things in light of the threats associated with rising greenhouse gas emissions. “Given our resources, we can come up with solutions; what is needed is the political will and the dedication of competent people in many different fields.”

Reprinted with permission from the Ministry of Natural Resources
“Most of the adaptations we need to make are good for us anyway,” says Colombo. “Take industry for example. Industry needs to be more energy efficient and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When they do, they’ll also be more competitive because their energy costs will go down.”

Does he think the issue of climate change will stay high on the political agenda?

Yes! “Climate change is a grass roots issue that is being driven by people concerned about their future. From taking part in meetings around the province, I know that if the subject is climate change, you are guaranteed a sell-out audience.”

See how climate change will affect your community http://www.gogreenontario.ca/maptool.php

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