John Smol

Queen’s University

Research Focus: The study of how ecosystems change over long time frames in response to both natural and human-induced environmental change.

John SmolPaleolimnology may not be an everyday word, but the environmental problems it helps solve are. Dr. Smol goes deep below the surface of our lakes and rivers to uncover the secrets of our environmental history, written in the mud and silt.

Key research topics include climate change, nutrient enrichment, contaminant transport and the environmental legacies of acid rain, such as calcium decline in lakes. A large part of his research program is centered on Arctic and alpine ecosystems, which are especially sensitive to climatic and other forms of environmental change.

Water pollution, climatic change, declining fisheries – these environmental problems are at the forefront of many people’s minds. And so are the dreaded diseases like cancer, asthma, autism, that many experts feel are linked to toxic chemicals in our environment, in particular, our fresh water supplies.

Professor Smol’s work has been informing policy discussions and decisions nationally and internationally for many years. His research has enabled policy makers to make knowledgeable, proactive decisions in areas such as agricultural runoff, clearcutting, protection of fish habitats, and air pollution control.

No matter how complicated paleolimnology might sound to you, to John, it’s all about one simple vision: the more we know about our environment, the better decisions we can make to protect it.


Using the past to better predict the future: The challenges of using appropriate time scales in a rapidly changing world

Having data is critical for evidence-based policy decisions and also for reconnecting with our environment in a realistic way. We tend to cherish our natural landscapes, but often forget that ecosystems are not static – they change due to both natural and human stressors.

One of the greatest challenges faced by ecologists, regulators, and other environmental scientists is using appropriate time scales to assess environmental change. Due to the lack of systematic long-term monitoring data, it is often difficult to determine the nature and timing of ecosystem changes. Furthermore, as environmental assessments are typically performed after a problem is identified, critical data regarding pre-disturbance (or reference) conditions are rarely available. Nonetheless, the ecosystems around us have been (indirectly) archiving records of past environmental change in a wide spectrum of sources, and most notably lake sediments.

This presentation will focus on the importance of using appropriate time scales to provide evidence-based policy decisions. Challenges posed by reconciling time scales of environmental change (often measured in decades or centuries) with that of politicians (often based on a few years) and industry (often based on days or “quarters”) will be highlighted.

Sadly, using evidence-based approaches, I believe that a recurring theme in my career has been that we have repeatedly underestimated the environmental effects of most human activities and that, with the addition of multiple stressors like climate change, we are dealing with a far more complex problems than we initially suspected.