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Q&A: Scientist Doug Wallace has an ocean of concerns about climate

Doug Wallace grew up on the Isle of Cumbrae, Scotland, and jokes it was destined he would study oceans.

As an ocean scientist, however, Dr. Wallace says he's at a disadvantage from his colleagues as he doesn't study "charismatic megafauna – the big animals, the animals that everybody loves, the turtles or the sharks …" he explains.

Rather, the 54-year-old is a chemist, studying the elements and molecules in the ocean, especially greenhouse gases and the exchange of those gases between the atmosphere and the ocean, and how it relates to climate change.

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Based at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Dr. Wallace is the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Ocean Science and Technology.

Appointed to a seven-year term in May, 2010, he was given $10-million in federal funding. Last week, the $41-million Dalhousie Ocean Sciences Building opened, housing Dr. Wallace's state-of-the art labs.

What is your research?

A very large amount of the carbon dioxide that we emit every year by burning the fossil fuels ends up in the ocean … it used to be … probably over the last 200 years as much as 50 per cent is dissolved in the ocean.

Much less is dissolving now because the chemistry of the ocean is changing.

As we add more and more CO2 to the oceans, the ability of the oceans to take up more CO2 goes down. In fact, it's filling up with CO2 and taking less and less out of the atmosphere.

That means more and more stays in the atmosphere, which drives more and more climate change. This changes the heat balance of the Earth and is causing our climate to become warmer … there are predictions that with a warmer planet comes more extreme weather conditions.

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What do you hope your research will lead to?

A better understanding of how much CO2 will remain in the atmosphere 50 to 100 years from now. … If you put something into the atmosphere as a result of deliberate activity, whether that's driving a car or turning on your TV, then I think you have a responsibility to understand what is happening with that. … CO2 in the ocean is an acid, so we are actually making the oceans slightly more acidic with time and because the ocean acidity has always been … invariant … there are some concerns that what we are doing right now may be affecting the viability of sea water as a habitat for certain forms of life in the future.

Where did you start?

I started in the Arctic Ocean. [As a student in 1982 he spent eight weeks at a Canadian Forces ice camp near the North Pole.] You wouldn't be able to do that any more. The amazing thing … the Arctic has completely changed just in my career … you would probably be hard-pressed to find a suitable piece of ice in that part of the Arctic Ocean now to build that camp. I do have a concern right now that, while climate change in the Arctic is an economic opportunity, somebody is going to pay the price and that could include Canadians as well. … There are winners and losers. It's not completely obvious to me right now that for Canada as a nation that climate change is a net gain. I think in the central parts of Canada, with concerns over water resources, obviously, a dryer central Canada is a major, major problem for agriculture.

Harper cabinet minister Leona Aglukkaq recently became chair of the Arctic Council, billed as an intergovernmental forum for Arctic governments. The Conservative government has made the Arctic a priority. What should be her priorities?

There's a kind of sovereignty in the sense of who owns something. I think that what would be important in the future, especially with the Arctic, would be a scientific sovereignty. … If you want to exploit resources, especially if they are living resources … if you are interested in food … then you have to know what you are doing. The only way you are going to know what you are doing is by doing research.

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Are we doing enough research?

I can't see that we are doing enough. … It's not just having patrol boats and military. Increasingly, I think it's knowledge. Do we understand enough to say to people, who want to make use of resources in the Arctic, 'no, that's not a good idea.'

How many oceans have you been to?

Not as many as I would like – the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Mediterranean and one very short cruise in the North Pacific.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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