Researchers take lead on addressing global issues spanning from space to earth

(Edmonton) Researchers from the University of Alberta have won awards from an international research organization that will enable them to work with colleagues around the globe to address two issues with global ramifications.

Proposals by U of A professors Ian Mann and Nora Keating have been granted funding by Worldwide Universities Network as part of the worldwide research partnership’s Global Challenge.

With a long tradition of excellence in understanding the dynamics of outer space around the earth, Mann and his U of A colleagues are teaming up with experts from the United Kingdom and Norway to determine the impact of space radiation on climate change.

 “There’s a strong human impact on climate change and carbon dioxide is certainly the major contributor to climate change,” Mann said. “Nonetheless, we know that there are other processes that can cause some smaller changes to the climatic system.

“One of the things we are interested in is trying to understand is what impact space radiation might have on the much lower altitude regions of space—the neutral atmosphere—and whether it can even have some role in some climate processes in changing some of the atmospheric dynamics.”

According to Mann, at the beginning of the space race more than a half century ago, an accidental discovery revealed that near-Earth space is filled with highly relativistic radiation. This radiation, which forms the so-called Van Allen radiation belts, can be scattered into the Earth’s atmosphere but no one knows what role this radiation may play in influencing climate change.

Mann cautions that any outcome would not do away with the explanation of the contribution of carbon dioxide on global warming, partly because their focus is on higher altitudes or layer of the atmosphere, 60-100 kilometers above ground. However, because there is a complex relationship between different layers of the atmosphere involving changes to chemistry and energy transfer, he says it’s important to determine the impact of space radiation on the atmosphere.

“It is possible that current global climate systems are not capturing the impact of space radiation,” said Mann. “If the global-climate models are to do a good job in predicting what goes on in the atmospheric system, then the elements that are used in making those predictions have to be very well described. The objective is to try to improve that system and to make sure that the dynamics of the coupled atmospheric system are represented in the most realistic way as possible in the models.”

Nora Keating, U of A human ecology researcher, won an award for her proposal that address the world’s rising life expectancy.

 “In Japan, 20 per cent of the population is over age 65 and that number is going up quickly,” said Keating. “In places like China, much of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South America, the proportion of old people is quite low, but in absolute terms, the numbers are immense.”  

Keating will use her award to launch the Global Social Initiative on Ageing, which is designed to bring the world’s leading experts on aging to the U of A to address some of the key welfare issues of older people.

“First we want to discuss and identify the main social issues affecting older people across the world,” said Keating. “Then we want to figure out how to get into the attention of organizations such as the United Nations with this information. We want to change things so that the lives of older people are better. We have big goals. This is not just an academic undertaking.” 

Stefan Scherer, U of A Worldwide Universities Network project co-ordinator, says the number of wins shows the quality of U of A researcher’s engagement within the network.

“Both proposals are perfect examples of what the Worldwide Universities Network wants to achieve and the U of A’s contributions to addressing universal issues. Winning two of the three proposals submitted shows that the university is engaged in the network and that the quality of proposals coming from the U of A is of a sufficient status that resonates with the reviewers. That is a positive indicator that the network provides value to the university.”

The WUN  is a global alliance of 16 research-intensive universities drawn from the UK, Europe, North America, China and Australia. Central to WUN’s mission is the fostering of international collaborative research. In particular, WUN is committed to the development of inter-disciplinary research collaborations addressing recognizable global challenges.