Climate change is adding fuel to the Fort McMurray fire – and it’s okay to say that

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If you would like to support the aid in Fort McMurray, you can donate to the Red Cross here, or by texting REDCROSS to 30333 ($5 donation per text message).

View of wildfire from Highway 63 in Fort McMurra, on 3 May, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)
View of wildfire from Highway 63 in Fort McMurray, on 3 May, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

As the province of Alberta declares a state of emergency and tens of thousands of people are displaced, social media is abuzz with shock, sympathy, and support.

While scrolling through my Twitter feed yesterday, I decided to scour the #yymfire hashtag. At the top of the thread was a tweet from @Slate which linked to an article on their site published by @EricHolthaus. In a moment of weakness, I decided to take a gander at the online responses to the article. Almost every response to the tweet included commentary about the insensitivity of associating this disaster with political arguments about global climate change. The fire, the responses argued, is an inevitable result of conditions inherent to the location of Fort McMurray and would have resulted in the same devastation regardless of climate conditions, concluding that it is inappropriate and fallacious to place the extreme loss to the working class people in the region in the context of climate change. I can empathize with these responses – emotions are high and the laceration of this tragedy is fresh. However, knowing that climate science does, in fact, predict increased wildfire occurrence (that is, the event can be scientifically linked to climate change), I’m inclined to disagree with the majority of responses on Twitter.

At the same time, I came across Facebook posts from numerous friends linking to a post from a man in British Columbia (that has subsequently been deleted after going negatively viral) expressing his lack of sympathy and karmic association towards a tragic fire in a town that exemplifies the Canadian oil industry and the proliferation of climate change – of course this attitude is highly insensitive and inappropriate.

So is it okay to talk about this fire in the context of climate change when the area affected is so heavily scrutinized for being a major contributor to it? My short answer is undoubtedly yes.

While the proximate cause of this fire wasn’t climate change. Of course, climate change isn’t the proximate cause of any fire – usually it’s something like lightning or some a**hole who doesn’t listen to fire advisories. However, the functional reasons for the fire’s spread and destruction can be largely attributed to record-breaking, abnormally-high temperatures and humidity – and this is going to be something that we face more often in both the immediate and distant future. Stating that isn’t insensitive – it’s factual and it’s our reality. What is insensitive is stating that this tragedy is karmic and to lack sympathy for the people affected. I’d consider those that feel this way as environmental extremists (yes, like religion and politics, environmentalism has extremism too), and they need not be pandered to.

I have many close friends working in Fort McMurray that are impacted by the devastation, and although I firmly think climate change has played a large role in this event, I’d never wish this tragedy on anyone. But discussing and admitting to the factors contributing to these events is a necessary part of adapting and making sure they don’t happen again.

So I will continue to discuss this tragedy in the context of climate change, and feel that we should all be framing this tragedy in the context of climate change, because it is important to. Not only because more people need to be aware of what future climate change means for us as a species, but in order to prepare ourselves for the next event of this magnitude – because it is inevitably going to happen. Such a discussion doesn’t imply insensitivity, nor should it be treated as such.

It’s times like these that I wish I could do more than donate money, express sympathy, and educate people, but that is what I’ve got to offer. My heart goes out to those affected. In the words of everybody’s favorite Cape Bretoner, “best of luck to ya’”.


It’s World Oceans Day – why should you care?

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On April 22nd, I celebrated Earth Day by spending an hour in darkness pondering some of the things I’ve learned over the course of the past 4 years as a PhD student. A month later, I celebrated World Turtle Day by proudly wearing a shirt featuring my favourite “heroes-in-half-shells” (though one could argue that they’re really heroes in full shells…). As a benthic ecologist working on the mudflats of the Bay of Fundy, I will assuredly spend June 29th celebrating International Mud Day. And, of course, who can forget Darwin Day? It seems that, today, there is a special day dedicated to almost anything! Although such events have often been criticized for being arbitrary and not enforcing any substantial action for the betterment of their intended cause, I would argue that such days are important for amplifying public knowledge and awareness regarding topics of utmost importance. And so today, on 08 June 2015, should you care about World Oceans Day? I think you should, and here are three reasons why:

The ocean is the source of life

The ocean is huge and is the source of almost all water on Earth (Table 1). Covering 71% of our planet, the ocean paints 140 million square miles of the earth’s surface a shade of magnificent blue (1) and makes available a 1.3 billion km3 tub of seawater (2). Furthermore, although we are terrestrial beings, we depend on the ocean for everyday life. Approximately 44% of all humans live within 150 km of the ocean (3). Furthermore, the interaction between the atmosphere and the surface of the ocean is the primary driver of the earth’s climate and weather and plays a critical role in maintaining air quality, as marine plants provide more than 80% of the earth’s oxygen (take that, trees!) (4).

Table 1. The contributions of various water sources to the relative volume and percentage of the total water on Earth.
Table 1. The contributions of various water sources to the relative volume and percentage of the total water on Earth. Data reflect that reported in Gleick (1996).

Economically, we depend on the ocean to an extraordinary degree. Commercial fisheries (capture and aquaculture) provide some 55 million jobs and provide about 400,000 tonnes of fish every day (5)! Alongside all of this, the ocean is also the source of life on Earth. It is well established, scientifically, that life itself originated in the marine realm. Ultimately, without the ocean, life as we know it would not exist. As Dr. Sylvia Earle puts it, “No water, no life. No blue, no green.”

We know less about Earth’s ocean than you might think

Although the ocean covers 71% of the planet and is the source of life on Earth, we know very little about it. To date, less than 5% of the ocean has truly been explored (6), while the surfaces of Venus, Mars, and the moon have been mapped more extensively and at a higher resolution than the sea floor (7; Table 2). Furthermore, while 12 people have visited the moon since 1969, only 3 people have visited the Mariana Trench (8) – one of them being Hollywood director James Cameron, who recently co-authored a scientific paper about biological communities of the Mariana and Britain Trenches. In fact, when we do visit the deep ocean, we make multiple new discoveries, including brand new species, almost every time. Although it’s important to understand the future of human life (i.e., space), it is just as critical, if not more critical, to understand our origin. Ultimately, despite the over-impressive efforts of marine scientists, from Captain James Cook to now, we still have much to learn about the ocean.

Table 2. Comparison between the relative percentages of three given locations (Earth's ocean, Mars, and Venus) mapped at a given resolution.
Table 2. Comparison between the relative percentages of three given locations (Earth’s ocean, Mars, and Venus) mapped at a given resolution. Data reflect percentages at a given resolution reported in Copley (2014).

Humans are impacting the ocean in a catastrophic manner

Despite depending on it for life, humans induce substantial impacts on the ocean, most notably along the coast, where more than 40% of all humans live (3; Figure 1). Nutrient loading, pollution, coastal development and habitat destruction, fishing, oil exploration and extraction, species introductions, shipping, and climate change are all human-sourced drivers that are currently imposing drastic changes to the ocean. Although you may think that the oceans are too large for humans to influence, more than 40% of the ocean experiences heavy anthropogenic impact, with very few (if any) areas remaining unaffected by human activity (9).

Figure 1. Global distribution and severity of human impacts on the world's ocean. Warmer colors indicate more severe impacts. Source: Halpern et al. (2008).
Figure 1. Global distribution and severity of human impacts on the world’s ocean. Warmer colors indicate more severe impacts. Source: Halpern et al. (2008).

Of those areas impacted, coastlines bare the brunt of the effects, particularly in Europe, North America, the Caribbean, China and Southeast Asia. Large areas of the Bering Sea, the China Seas, and the North Sea are also heavily impacted. Not all is yet lost, however. The poles stand out among the least impacted areas, while the North coast of Australia and areas in the tropical Pacific also appear less impacted than the rest of the globe. As a result, species are dying (10), the ocean is warming (11; Figure 2a), its chemistry is changing (12; Figure 2b), and sea level is rising (13; Figure 2c). Consequently, humans are not only invoking irreparable harm to the ocean and marine life, but we are risking our own livelihood as well.

Figure 2. Annual trends in sea surface temperature (a), sea surface pH (b), and sea level rise (c) over time.
Figure 2. Annual trends in global sea surface temperature in degrees Celsius (a), sea surface pH (b), and sea level rise in cm (c).

So why should you care about World Oceans Day? The oceans are the source of life on earth and allow us to live in the way that we do, by providing us with oxygen, food, and a means to navigate our planet (among other things). However, we don’t really know much about our planet’s life support system and we are rapidly impacting it in such a way that we might not get to learn much about it. Fortunately, not all is lost and there is still time to salvage what we do have. So today, you should reflect on what the ocean has given and continues to give you, take a stance for a healthy ocean, and inform those around you of the threats that face our oceans. A wise man once said, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better; it’s not.” (Dr. Seuss, The Lorax). That is why you should care about World Ocean Day – we all need you to.


1. UN Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. 2011. The oceans are the very foundation of human life [online]. Retrieved 08 June 2015 from http://www.un.org/depts/los/oceans_foundation.htm.

2. Gleick PH. 1996. Water resources. In: Encyclopedia of climate and weather, Vol. 2 (ed. SH Schneider). Oxford University Press, New York, pp.817-823.

3. UN Atlas of the Oceans. 2010. Human settlements on the coast [online]. Retrieved 08 June 2015 from http://www.oceansatlas.org/servlet/CDSServlet?status=ND0xODc3JjY9ZW4mMzM9KiYzNz1rr3M~.

4. Hall, J. 2011. The most important organism? [online]. Retrieved 08 June 2015 from http://www.ecology.com/2011/09/12/important-organism/.

5. FAO. 2015. The post-2015 development agenda and the millennium development goals [online]. Retrieved 08 June 2015 from http://www.fao.org/post-2015-mdg/14-themes/fisheries-aquaculture-oceans-seas/en/.

6. NOAA. 2015. Ocean [online]. Retrieved 08 June 2015 from http://www.noaa.gov/ocean.html.

7. Copley, J. 2014. Just how little do we know about the ocean floor? Scientific American [online]. Retrieved 08 June 2015 from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/just-how-little-do-we-know-about-the-ocean-floor/.

8. Thar, J. 2011. World Oceans Day: why should we know more about the moon that our oceans? [online]. Retrieved 08 June 2015 from http://blogs.vancouversun.com/2011/06/07/world-oceans-day-why-should-we-know-more-about-the-moon-than-our-oceans/.

9. Halpern, BS et al. 2008. A global map of human impact on marine ecosystems. Science, 319:948-952.

10. Braje, TJ & Erlandson, JM. 2013. Human acceleration of animal and plant extinctions: a Late Pleistocene, Holocene, and Anthropocene continuum. Anthropocene, 4:14-23.

11. Levitus, S et al. 2000. Warming of the world ocean. Science, 287:2225-2229.

12. Doney, SC et al. 2009. Ocean acidification: the other CO2 problem. Annual Review of Marine Science, 1: 169-192.

13. Church, JA & White NJ. 2006. A 20th century acceleration in global sea-level rise. Geophysical Research Letters, 33: L01602.

Using social media as a classroom learning platform

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This post appears in the Spring 2015 issue of the Teaching Matters Newsletter, published by the Teaching and Learning Centre at the University of New Brunswick Saint John.

They are something that the vast majority of us are aware of and may see as a teaching barrier – social media (SM). SM are a set of relatively new and popular online tools whereby individuals can create profiles to communicate and keep up-to-date with the daily musings of their friends, family, acquaintances, or complete strangers. SM can consume a great deal of time in the daily lives of students, and can be a distraction in class if not monitored. However, SM can also be a useful teaching tool and can enhance student engagement by supplementing or adding to institutional classroom learning platforms (Said et al. 2014).

The case study

During the Winter 2015 semester I conducted a quantitative case study (REB file no. 007-2015) to compare the teaching-tool efficacy of SM versus other learning platforms. Specifically, I used available statistics from three communication platforms (D2L discussions, e-mail, and Facebook) to assess the independent engagement of students in BIOL1202, by sharing additional, relevant material that students could choose to interact with or not. No bonus marks were assigned for participating. Engagement was approximately 4 times higher on Facebook than through e-mail, although engagement was still relatively low; D2L was not used by students. Students used Facebook primarily to share pertinent information that they found independently (something I did not initially consider) and communicate with each other, while e-mail was primarily used to communicate with me. The results of this case study and my experience using Facebook helped elucidate some of the pros and cons of using SM as a teaching tool.

Social media as a teaching tool

The biggest benefit of using SM as a learning platform is that most students attending university today are social media savvy, checking them regularly and independently. Despite having access to university-provided learning platforms (e.g. Desire2Learn, Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) and student e-mail accounts, many students check their SM accounts much more often (Clements, personal observations), simply because it is something they already want to check. Although most students are active on multiple SM platforms, some serve better than others as learning platforms.

In particular, Facebook (FB) is well suited to use as a learning platform because it allows users to create “closed groups” – a group that you can tailor to your course and personally moderate. In closed groups, the group administrator can control who can join the group, who can view/comment on material, and who can post material themselves. This allows an instructor/professor to create a group for a given course, only let students enrolled in the course into the group, and modify posting restrictions to coincide with what the instructor wants to get out of the group.

Another convenient feature of FB is the “chat” option. Using this option, the instructor/professor can chat with students in real-time and can even set “FB hours”, where students can expect the instructor to be online and ready to chat. Furthermore, this option allows students in the group to chat with each other as well, with the potential to facilitate and expedite communication and enhance various course requirements (e.g. group work). Although this may seem to take more time and effort from the instructor, it can easily be synchronized with office hours to maximize student outreach and assistance.

Students can also have group notifications sent directly to their phone or tablet so that they can engage with the material instantaneously. Although such notifications can be activated on mobile devices for e-mail accounts and institutional learning platforms, this is typically a step that students must take on themselves upon university enrollment. Given that students already have FB notifications set up, they are likely to receive class messages more quickly via FB than other learning platforms (Sturges 2011, my study). This is not only useful for sharing course material, it is a great way to communicate last-minute updates to students (class cancellations, documents, etc.) as well.

FB also provides a variety of useful statistics which allow instructors/professors to evaluate how students are interacting with the material. On each post, instructors can see how many people and exactly who have seen a post, “liked” a post (primary level of engagement), and have commented on a post (deeper level of engagement). These statistics can be used to assess student engagement, as well as assess how FB is operating for a particular course.

Although it is a great outlet for communicating and sharing material, there is a risk that students may be distracted by other aspects of SM, leading to a reduced level of understanding or engagement. For example, students may be more interested in what their friends are doing on the weekend rather than discussing course material. Given that online multitasking can hinder learning (Sana et al. 2013), caution should be taken in this regard when considering using SM as a learning platform.

Another potential problem is that not all students are SM savvy. This can limit the number of students joining and engaging in, for example, a FB group. Although students can be required to join FB and engage, this introduces many of the same hurdles as institutional learning platforms. As such, understanding class demographics is important.

Finally, using SM in synchrony with other platforms can be extremely time-consuming for instructors/professors. It is thus beneficial for educators to garner an understanding of classroom demographics before deciding to implement SM as a teaching platform. A well-defined class demographic can help educators determine whether or not SM may be a useful avenue to explore with the class.

Ultimately, SM (FB in particular) can be effectively utilized as classroom learning platforms, either synergisti­cally with or in place of institutional classroom learning platforms. Given that the educational services provided by institutional platforms are available through FB, the familiarity that today’s students have with FB makes it an optimal and convenient tool to foster learning at var­ious levels. I plan to follow up on this case study and strictly implement FB as the learning platform in future courses to see how my results regarding independent engagement compare to those from mandatory engage­ment.


Said MNHM, Tahir LM, & Ali MF. 2014. Facebook as a tool: Exploring the use of Facebook in teaching and learning. 2014 International Conference on Teaching and Learning in Computing and Engineering, 1:120-124.

Sana F, Weston T, & Cepeda NJ. 2013. Laptop multi­tasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education, 62:24-31.

Sturges, M. 2012. Using Facebook as a teaching tool in higher education settings: Examining potentials and possibilities. International conference on the future of educa­tion. 2nd conference edition [online]. Accessed 30 March 2015 from http://conference.pixel-online.net/edu_fu­ture2012/common/download/Paper_pdf/182-EL10- FP-Sturges-FOE2012.pdf. 12