Queen’s professor wins Vega Medal for climate change detection research

Dr. John Smol wins big

Image supplied by: John Smol
Smol received the award in Sweden on April 21.

John Smol is uncovering how lakes and rivers around the world have changed over time because of climate change.

Smol, a distinguished Queen’s professor in the Department of Biology, was the 2023 recipient of the Vega Medal for his research in the field of paleolimnology. The award is considered a geography equivalent to a Nobel Prize. Smol was awarded the medal by the King of Sweden on April 21.

Smol and his team of 35 graduate students and colleagues have been recording the history of lakes and rivers.

According to him, lake and river sediment stores centuries of information on environmental changes in ecosystems, providing researchers insight when looking at human impact on aquatic ecosystems.

“[My research] is like a black box in an airplane. It’s recording what’s happening casually [in lakes and rivers], we have to figure out ways to interpret history that’s meaningful, and interesting,” Smol said in an interview with The Journal.

“It’s like forensics, we’re like detectives.”

Smol’s team have reconstructed how the earth’s climate has changed over centuries. His research brought him to the high arctic, where his team was the first to show lake transformation due to climate change.

“We can show how changing ice covers are affecting these lakes [in the High Arctic] how it is affecting the whole biology,” Smol said. “By knowing how [climate change] affects lakes, you can start predicting how future climate change will affect [ecosystems].”

Scientists worldwide are urging world leaders to take action against climate change. Smol is no stranger to the climate crisis, highlighting climate change as a serious issue throughout his career.

“Going back to when I started my career I [ researched] mainly acid rain. Now, you don’t hear much about acid rain. […] That was a classic example of how you had to show the environmental problem before people wanted to take action,” Smol said.

Lake and river research by Smol showed how seabird populations changed overtime due to human impact.

He reconstructed the amount of seabird defecation in lakes to show how population changed over centuries.

Smol recently returned from Sweden where he received the Vega Medal. Smol shared a celebratory glass of champagne with the King after receiving the award.

“It’s a shared award in many ways,” Smol said. “My work is totally dependent on highly enthusiastic and skilled graduate students and other colleagues—it really is a group effort.”

Paleolimnology research led by Smol continues, he’s coming up with new projects for himself, and his lab team to tackle.

“We need to know what these lakes were like before,” Smol said. “If you’re dealing with the environment, there are a lot of things to do.”


geography, Research, vega medal

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