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Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty of Arts
April 23, 2014
Canadian Excellence

Dr. Richard Petrone

Associate Professor, Director, Cold Regions Research Centre

Contact Information
Phone: (519) 884 - 0710 ext.3744   |  lab (519) 884 - 0710 ext.3592
Other Phone: (519) 496 - 7298
Fax: (519) 725 - 1342
Office Location: 3E16

Languages Spoken


Academic Background
I received my Ph.D. from the University of Waterloo in 2002, at which time I accepted a faculty position at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. In July 2004, I was appointed the Director of the Cold Regions Research Centre.

My research is focused on developing a further understanding of soil – vegetation – atmosphere interactions, especially as influenced by hydrologic and climatic conditions. Specific questions of interest to me include trace gas exchange in wetland and forested systems, interactions between vegetation and hydrology and climate (weather), and modeling the impacts of climatic and land-use stresses on these linkages.

My present research focuses on catchment ecohydrological processes and their influence on wetland permanence, wetland reclamation and forest hydrological and biogeochemical processes in stressed northern ecosystems (Western Boreal Forest, Subarctic Wetland-Tundra). This involves combining theoretical, laboratory and fieldwork examining micrometeorological, hydrological and trace gas exchange in heterogeneous vegetated systems. My research philosophy is grounded in the belief that the development of theory and experimentation must progress in conjunction with one another. My long-term objectives involve issues of scaling in the development of fully coupled biogeochemical-hydrological models of climate change while developing realistic sound strategies for adapting to potential climate and landuse change scenarios.

In the News

Elmira Independent, Friday, September 4, 2009.

The science of global warming is valid

Dr. Rich Petrone

For the Weekender

After just reading the “Forerunner” piece on “Global Warming Explained” in last week’s edition of the Weekender, I have to say that I am shocked and disappointed that such a misinformed, biased and poorly written piece has appeared in our community’s newspaper. As an academic in the climate sciences I am very familiar with many of the arguments that were stated in this piece; however, I was surprised by the author’s general lack of appreciation of the basic and fundamental aspects of climate change and our climate in general. 

With an issue so critical to all of us, the ignorance shown in this article is dangerous. Please allow me to refute and explain some of what has been said in this article. I would like to touch on 3 points: 1) the fundamental science of climate change; 2) the role (and abuse) of the IPCC; and 3) the science of the anti-warming movement.

The “theory” of our atmosphere warming is based on very fundamental (high-school level) physics. The balance of gases that comprise our atmosphere are in a delicate balance that permits the right amount of sunlight to enter our atmospheric system so as not to fry us at the surface; and, more importantly keep just the right amount of radiation in our atmosphere to keep our planet’s temperature just right so that humans and their friends can thrive. This delicate balance of input and output is governed by the presence of certain gases in our atmosphere that trap this “just right” amount of radiation and prevent it from escaping to space. These key gases are called “greenhouse gases” (due to the analogous role of the glass in a greenhouse), the most important of which are carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. The simple physics here are “radiative absorption” — not a theory, can’t be argued — a gas will absorb radiative energy at a specific wavelength, and as it does the molecules that make up that gas get excited and move around more, and as they do they bump into each other and the gas gets warmer. So, the more of these gases we add, the more they absorb, and so on — makes sense right? It’s simple physics — no politics or money.

Now, we already know that our climate has varied significantly over the history of our planet due to natural variations in these key atmospheric gases. You will not find any climatologist, or atmospheric scientist, who doesn’t understand this. Hence, the main challenge in climate change. Understanding what we are seeing happening in our atmosphere under current conditions within the context of the long-term (i.e. hundreds of thousands of years) climate record.

The second bit of basic science comes with understanding how these key gases may change in the atmosphere. Now, if I was to touch on all of the possible natural and human-caused alterations in just these three gases we could fill several pages so forgive me if I gloss over them and focus on carbon dioxide. You will often hear arguments right off the bat with the climate community’s focus on carbon dioxide, when nitrous oxide and methane are actually more potent greenhouse gases. 

The reason for the focus on carbon dioxide is that it is the most abundantly produced by a vast range in natural and human-created processes, the most important of which are fossil fuel combustion and the removal of surface vegetation — two activities, which we again cannot argue have not increased over the past hundred years or so. 

Consider the example of cutting down a forest. From a climate point of view, there are two main implications for cutting down a forest. First, you are removing large plants that take a lot of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they photosynthesize. As long as they are alive, trees store that carbon in their tissues, where it cannot be converted to carbon dioxide or methane. Second, once these trees are felled and either burned, left to rot, or mulched and placed in a garden, they decompose and release their stored carbon as carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. So, without going further I think you would agree there is a plethora of ways we are contributing to increases in carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

Now let me “connect the dots for you”. We know that these gases absorb radiation and warm the atmosphere (the physics I described above), and, we know that there are ways that we are increasing the concentrations of these gases in the atmosphere, over and above an array of natural processes. So, in all likelihood we are impacting our climate in some way. The analogy I like to use with my undergraduates is this one: Suppose you visit your doctor for a regular checkup and they say that you have a lump in your lower abdomen that based on all of his training and basic medical knowledge looks suspicious (the basic science presented above). But you say you recently moved a piano and maybe this is just a hernia (long term climate variability). Would you say, “Doc, do some tests and let’s make sure” (plant an extra tree, become a one SUV family, etc) or would you just assume that OHIP was looking to make some extra money?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, despite the way it is typically portrayed in the media (especially those with a right slant), was not formed as a political entity charged with setting environmental policy, let alone economic policy. For the past two thousand years, science in any discipline has thrived as a collaborative effort. Progress is made when great minds come together and are forced to defend their ideas to other great minds. The bigger the scientific challenge or issue, the larger the group needed to work on it. So, about two-decades ago now as more and more scientists were starting to detect signs of a warming atmosphere, and starting to understand more about the processes of greenhouse gas cycling, the scientific community realized that this has the potential to be an issue of global importance. It was also becoming apparent that our best way to deal with this emerging issue was to better refine our weather and climate models, which requires a better understanding of how the atmosphere works. As these models become more refined we can then use them to test our current observations and understanding against historical records, and then make predictions of future conditions. Now given the complexity of the atmosphere (or earth system as a whole) and our emerging appreciation for the long term climate history of our planet it quickly became evident that this would necessitate massive collaboration. Hence, the impetus for the IPCC. It was not until some time later that big business, through their hands in politics, decided that they had better use this group, and emerging information, in some way before it is too late and it begins to impact their practices. 

And in some strange way I agree with some of the points the article is trying to make regarding the role of Al Gore and others. While he is an excellent advocate for environmental responsibility — he has solid grasp of the scientific issues, and more importantly, is one of few politicians who understands that despite the economic and political implications, this is an issue that we cannot afford to take a chance on reacting early enough to — the real issue of a changing climate is so fundamental that in some cases the sensationalism often employed by the environmental movement in many ways cheapens the issue, putting it in the same sphere of public opinion of the seal hunt, etc.

Finally, I would like to address the article’s “us versus them” approach to the climate change and alternate theories debate that is so often employed by both sides of the debate in the media today, which really trivializes the challenges that the scientific community faces in trying to understand what is really happening to our planet. 

While there are some crackpot theories out there to present alternate theories there are also some good ones. And as I touched on earlier, this type of debate is what drives scientific progress and is embraced by the scientific community, regardless of their theories. It is when this natural scientific discourse is politicized that the apparent “fight” begins. You will not find one scientist on the IPCC that will not admit that their greatest challenge is trying to differentiate the human-induced climate-warming trend from the long-term climatic variability. Further, any writer owes it to themselves and their readership to attempt to understand and convey the real scientific issues and challenges and not just perpetuate same old clichŽs from the popular and right-wing media. Along those lines, I can save a future letter to your paper in the depths of winter by pointing out that it is well documented and understood that the most significant effect of a warming planet is going to be more climatic variability — colder winters and hotter summers, more extreme weather, etc. Another basic principle of physics s that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, so the energy shift caused by a warming atmosphere will have to be taken up by more extreme and dynamic weather, and redistribution of heat energy across the globe — some places may actually get colder while other warmer.

However, what worries those of us in this field, regardless of our specific expertise and position on this debate, is how misinformation like this can lead individuals to believe that we are not at a point in our planet’s history where we all need to think and act responsibly, and how any issue of climate change is not something to be taken lightly or for granted. There was no fossil fuel combustion, or rapid land use change in other points in our past when similar climatic trends were observed so we don’t really understand how much of the current trend we are responsible. 

But again, given that this is based on such fundamental science do we really want to spread the misconception that we don’t need to be more responsible in our combustion because “we don’t know for sure” if it is humans that are causing this most recent trend? I don’t think so; and I would hope that at some level those such as our “forerunner” don’t as well, at least at some level.

While I am not advocating any kind of environmental radicalism, I am saying that politicizing the science of climate change is incredibly dangerous for all of us. When it comes to anything this important is it not better to err on the side of caution? Especially when there is such strong, basic science demonstrating that we must exerting some degree of influence? I hope that we all become better able to separate the basic facts from propaganda as this issue becomes ever more important and the debate continues. Articles such as that in this week’s paper will certainly not help create a more informed, responsible public.

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Richard M. Petrone, Ph.D., is the Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Director of the Cold Regions Research Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University