tofino environment - the roof over our heads

The Roof over our Heads

by John Platenius, Tofino


It rains a lot in Tofino. The average annual rainfall is well over ten feet, making this area one of the wetter places in Canada. So it's no surprise that one of the main concerns when we build our houses here is to make darned sure that the roof over our heads is built and maintained in a manner that will keep us comfortably dry through those wet winter months.

I can hear everyone saying, "Duh - like that's obvious, Dude." And it is obvious - basic stuff, right? Well, maybe it's not so obvious when we look at this issue on a planetary scale, so bare with me for a paragraph here while I elaborate.

Maintaining the roof over our heads is one of the things that unite us as a species. Whether you live in the Atacama desert (the driest place in the world - some areas of the Atacama haven't seen rain for over 400 years) or Cherrapunji, India (one of the wettest places in the world, holding a world record of 23 metres of rainfall in one year), you will be very prudent about keeping the roof of your home in good condition. Roofs provide essential climate regulation for people in almost all areas of the world. This is why it is so surprising that we have been really lazy about maintaining the biggest roof on Earth: our atmosphere.

We've all heard about the Greenhouse Effect, but here's a quick and oversimplified review for those of us who slept through Grade 7 science class. The Greenhouse effect is this really cool way that the atmosphere has of regulating the Earth's temperature:

  1. Some of the heat coming from the sun 'bounces' off of the Earth.

  2. A portion of this reflected heat gets absorbed in the atmosphere by certain gasses. These are called "Greenhouse Gasses" and mostly consist of water vapor, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, ozone and methane.
  3. These gases then radiate this heat in different directions, which doesn't allow all of that heat to escape into space.

The Greenhouse Effect is one of the reasons that Earth is a relatively hospitable place for plants animals and fungi to live. This naturally occurring process effectively acts as Earth's insulation layer. Without it, the average temperature of the Earth would be minus 18 degrees Celsius instead of its present balmy 14 degrees Celsius.

The story of Global Warming is quite a bit easier to understand. We all know that humans have been rapidly increasing the concentration of certain Greenhouse Gasses in the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The human-caused Greenhouse Gasses are mostly carbon dioxide (72%), but methane (18%) and nitrous oxide (9%) play a significant role as well. These emissions mostly come from coal-fired power plants for electricity, exhaust from passenger vehicles (much more than commercial transport trucks), and the extraction and refining of oil and natural gas.
What some of us may not be aware of is that we are witnessing Global Warming at a very fast pace. Nine of the last ten years have been the hottest years the Earth has seen in over 1000 years. Summer sea ice in the arctic declined 20% between 1979 and 2003 and the ice continues to dwindle. If current emission trends continue, my kids will live to see an ice-free artic. Repeat: no ice in the arctic by the end of this century. Worse yet, this massive influx of fresh water into the Atlantic Ocean could cause the North Atlantic currents to slow down or stop.

The last time scientists think that these currents slowed down significantly was between the years 1300 and 1850. This is referred to as the Little Ice Age, where temperatures were low enough to freeze New York Harbour in 1780, allowing people to walk from Staten Island to Manhattan. The indigenous peoples of North American faced a massive food shortage, and the population of Iceland fell by half.

Of course, this Little Ice Age happened before the Industrial Revolution, and was probably a naturally occurring event caused by solar variation and increased volcanic activity. But if you remember one thing from this article, remember this: There is no scientific debate about whether or not humans are the driving force of today's Global Warming.

I haven't seen Al Gore's new documentary, An Inconvenient Truth yet, but I've read that the most startling statistic in the movie is this: Out of more than 900 peer-reviewed studies in scientific journals, all of them suggest that humans are causing this climate change. Now here's the shocking part: More than 53 percent of mainstream media articles surveyed suggested that there is doubt in the scientific community about whether or not humans are contributing to the current climate crisis.

What does all of this have to do with Tofino? Maybe you didn't realize it, but Tofino is located right in a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. According to the United Nation's Declaration, the Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve is supposed to be "devoted to conserving biological diversity, promoting research and monitoring as well as seeking to provide models of sustainable development in the service of humankind." Maintaining the roof over our heads is intertwined into all of these goals.

So let's get on it, eh? We should all be thinking about how to curb emissions on an individual and political scale. On an individual level, the most effective place to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions is by driving less and driving a fuel efficient vehicle when you do drive.

I think we're off to a great start on the political scale with the District of Tofino's unanimous support and financial assistance of the Tofino Bus's public transit initiative. Now get out and vote for some provincial and federal candidates who take this stuff seriously so we can start to manufacture cars with better fuel economy, burn cleaner fuels for electricity and fund research for clean energy technologies.

John Platenius is the Director of Programs and Development at the Tofino Botanical Gardens Foundation.

Tofino Time Magazine August 2006

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