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Past Winner
2004 Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering

John Smol

Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change

Queen's University

John Smol
John Smol

The lakes in northern Ontario, upstate New York and across Scandinavia looked beautiful – crystal clear right down to the bottom. They were, in fact, in big trouble. It was the mid-1980s and many scientists pointed the finger at one, hitherto unsuspected, environmental culprit: acid rain. But how to prove this – and set the stage for a clean-up – when coal companies and major industries in the United States and elsewhere could offer up a bevy of alternate explanations, or at least doubts?

Like a player called up from the minors to pinch hit in a pennant game, Dr. John Smol stepped up to the scientific plate. In archetypal fashion, the 20-ish academic had to dig deep for his game-clinching evidence. Way down. Right down to the mucky bottoms of these poisoned lakes.

"Acid rain pushed paleolimnology into the headlines," says Dr. Smol, one of three finalists for the 2003 NSERC Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal. "Until then it was seen as a very esoteric sub-discipline and the science itself was mostly qualitative. Now it's a rigorous science with day-to-day application by watershed managers, and seen as key to research on issues such as climate change."

Paleolimnology is the reconstruction of lake histories based on sediment cores taken from the lake bottoms. This sediment – full of tell-tale dead organisms, especially two groups of algae called diatoms and chrysophytes – is a layered archive of a lake's past. The top 15 centimetres of sediment at the bottom of an Algonquin Park lake catalogue about 200 years of lake life. Core down five metres and you gain a detailed record of the past 12,000 years.

During the past 20 years, Dr. Smol has led the international advance of paleolimnology from a backwater discipline to a dynamic, scientific mini-powerhouse, and pioneered the study of Arctic lakes.

Dr. Smol, his numerous graduate and postdoctoral students and colleagues, have used paleolimnology to explore issues ranging from population changes in Pacific sockeye salmon during the past 2,000 years (critical information for fisheries managers), to the frequency of drought in central and western Canada. He recently co-authored a paper in Nature showing that sockeye salmon can transport pollutants to their isolated freshwater spawning grounds, PCBs that they've accumulated in their fat while growing-up at sea.

Along with groundbreaking research, Dr. Smol has been instrumental in creating a rigorous intellectual, institutional and policy framework for the science. He's the founder and co-director of Queen's University's Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Lab (PEARL), considered by many to be the world's premier paleolimnology training grounds. And he's written, or co-authored, a literal library of articles and books on the subject.

Binding all this together is his contagious enthusiasm for making it clear that old mud can help clear the waters when it comes to present day environmental issues.

"Most environmental assessments today are based on three years or less of information. That's not an appropriate time scale for issues such as acid rain or global warming," says Dr. Smol.

In the 1980s, Dr. Smol's research in Adirondack and Sudbury-area lakes used the 200-year record of diatoms and chrysophytes to reconstruct ecological lake changes with increasing levels of acidity and seal the case that sulphur-spewing smoke stacks were indeed the lake killers.

In the course of two decades of research, Dr. Smol and PEARL members have developed numerous now widely-used paleolimnology techniques including ones for diatom analysis, coring, and interpretation. The lab's extensive work on diatoms and chrysophytes as environmental indicators means that these microscopic algae can now be used to study almost any environmental issue. The relative abundance of each of the thousands of different species of diatoms and chrysophytes is indicative of one of a range of environmental characteristics from pH to salinity to temperature.

Dr. Smol has also pioneered the study of lakes in the Canadian Arctic, spending three weeks of almost every summer for the past 21 years probing these frigid waters. Once again, this northern paleolimnological detective work (often in collaboration with the University of Toronto's Dr. Marianne Douglas, a former graduate student of Dr. Smol's) is showing that microscopic creatures in ancient mud can tell a powerful contemporary tale.

"The Arctic regions are considered to be the Earth's equivalent of the miner's canary – they're supposed to be the first to show signs of environmental change and to the greatest degree," says Dr. Smol. "And what we're showing is that since the 1800s there have been dramatic changes in the Arctic, and we think they're related to climate change."


Founded by Dr. Smol in 1991, Queen's University's Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Lab (PEARL), is considered by many to be the world's premier paleolimnology training grounds. As co-director, Dr. Smol leads a group of about 30 graduate and postgraduate students and visiting researchers, drawn to the lab from around the world, who are studying aquatic issues ranging from the impact of sewage and fertilizer run-off on lakes and rivers to the impact of increased ultraviolet radiation on freshwater life, and climate change.

Dr. Smol is an ardent popularizer, equally able to engage high school students and senior policy-makers with his contagious enthusiasm for the environmental insights paleolimnology provides. In 2002-03, he gave the inaugural Miroslaw Romanowski Environmental Science Lecture Tour, a cross-country series of public lectures sponsored by the Royal Society of Canada. Dr. Smol also works closely with federal and provincial policy-makers advising and lobbying on issues ranging from climate change legislation to the importance of Arctic research.

With his down-to-earth personal style and effort to clearly communicate, Dr. Smol is one of Queen's University's most respected teachers. In addition to other teaching prizes, in 2001 he won the W.J. Barnes Teaching Excellence Award, the top teaching prize from the university's Arts and Science Undergraduate Society. He has mentored more than 40 graduate students, including 26 Ph.D. candidates, and 15 postdoctoral fellows.

Dr. Smol's yen for communicating his science extends to his prolific authoring and editing of books and articles that have helped lay the global foundation for the study and application of paleolimnology. In 1986, Dr. Smol was asked to be the founding editor of the international Journal of Paleolimnology. And after 30 volumes, and growing success, he remains as co-editor-in-chief. His 13 books (with two more completed) range from detailed taxonomic volumes such as the co-authored Atlas of Chrystrophycean Cysts, to his most recent book, Pollution of Lakes and Rivers: A Paleoenvironmental Perspective, which after six years of Dr. Smol's weekend and late-night writing provides scientists and watershed managers with a guide to diagnosing and dealing with water quality problems.

Biographical Overview

Dr. Smol was born in Montreal on October 10, 1955. He initially studied present-day aquatic ecology, receiving a Bachelor of Science in marine biology from McGill University in 1977. However, thinking that the present was too close a focus for deep insight, Dr. Smol turned his attention to the past, receiving a Master of Science degree, with a focus on paleolimnology, from Brock University in 1979. In 1982, he received his Ph.D. from Queen's University for a thesis entitled: Postglacial Changes in Fossil Algal Assemblages from Three Canadian Lakes. Since 1990, he has been awarded about 20 research and teaching awards and fellowships. In 1996, he was elected a Fellow (the youngest one at the time) of the Royal Society of Canada (RSC), Academy of Sciences. Dr. Smol is currently the Director of the RSC's Life Science's Division.