Reconstructing environmental histories

Leading environmental researcher John Smol discusses climate change and his widely-acclaimed lake research


Biology and Environmental Studies professor John Smol conducting fieldwork in the High Arctic. Smol’s award-winning studies of lakes have huge implications for climate change research. (Supplied)

There isn’t much room left to stamp Queen’s professor John Smol’s passport.

One of the leading environmental researchers in Canada, Smol’s studies on lake systems and the Arctic have taken him to almost 60 countries.

“As of January I’ll have been to all seven continents,” he said. “I travel a lot and do research in many of these places, but my research on lakes is mostly in Canada, the United States and Europe.”

Smol, a biology professor cross-appointed with the School of Environmental Studies where he holds the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change, completed his undergraduate degree at McGill University in Marine Biology and his masters of science in Limnology at Brock University in 1979. Three years later, he received his PhD from Queen’s. After his post-doctoral work in the High Arctic with the Geological Survey of Canada, he returned to Queen’s as a professor in 1984 where he’s been teaching for the last 25 years.

Since 1990, Smol has received more than 25 national and international research and teaching awards, authored about 400 journal publications and book chapters and written 16 books, including the textbook Pollution of Lakes and Rivers: A Paleoenvironmental Perspective. He has also received two honourary doctorates: one from St. Francis Xavier University and the other from the University of Helsinki.

Smol received recognition in the 1980s from the United States government for his study on the acidity of lakes, a pioneering area of research that has allowed him to draw detailed environmental histories going back centuries.

“The biggest question in the 1980s was how acidic the lakes were and by how much,” he said. “Lakes have always been acidic, but the PH-scale method wasn’t invented until 1901, so the only way you can show how lakes acidified from the 1800s is by studying the different organisms found in lakes’ sediments.”

In 1991, Smol founded and currently co-directs the Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Laboratory (PEARL). It’s a research unit in the biology department home to 30 graduate and postdoctoral students who use lake sediments to reconstruct environmental histories, which provide a tremendous amount of insight into how they’ve changed.

“Sediments fill the lakes 365 days a year,” Smol said. “Our job is to peel back the history layer by layer and look at how things change over time.”

Smol, along with two scientists from Queen’s and fellow researchers from the Universities of Colorado, Alberta, Buffalo and Massachusetts recently gathered groundbreaking data on climatic change in the Arctic. Using algae and aquatic insect fossils in the sediment core retrieved from the bottom of Baffin Island, Smol and his team were able to reconstruct climatic and environmental conditions of the past three warm periods between the last two ice ages.

When they compared this data with the human-influenced warming today, Smol said they discovered the human impact was far greater than anyone realized. Smol’s environmental history reconstruction method has been applied extensively in the Arctic.

The Arctic is especially sensitive to the effects of climate change because of the amount of snow and ice on the ground, Smol said. The scientific term for this is albedo, and it explains the rapid environmental change seen in the polar regions of the earth.

“White ice and snow acts like a reflector. As you warm the Arctic, you get less of this albedo or whiteness. So less of the sun’s energy is reflected back, and more warms the ground and water. So things change very quickly in polar regions,” Smol said.

Smol said his area of research wasn’t as popular when he started teaching 25 years ago.

“Now we have close to 100 graduates and they’re all employed,” he said. “Many universities have someone like us. People realize we need a long-term perspective.”

Although not everyone reads scientific journals, Smol said he’s proactive about getting his work out there.

“I try to speak to politicians, especially on environmental issues,” he said. “We have this idea that politicians aren’t informed or are misinformed, but many of them are interested in science.”

Smol said the government has put climate change on the agenda.

“Not too long ago, people didn’t even recognize climate change as a problem,” he said. “I think even the most conservative government is saying something needs to be done.”

Research is a large part of his career, but Smol said it wouldn’t be the same without teaching. Having received six teaching awards, including the 3M National Teaching Fellowship—Canada’s top teaching award—Smol said finding a good balance between research and teaching is important.

“I feel what I’m doing is important, especially the results,” he said. “It shows where researching and teaching can blend.”

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