John Smol discusses industrialism’s adverse effects in lecture

By Ashley Berger

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Caught between trips to China and South Africa, Professor John Smol of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, presented a lecture titled “How Far Does Our Industrial Footprint Reach?” at the University of Massachusetts Monday.

The lecture, which was hosted by the Commonwealth Honors College as a part of the Honors Seminar series, addressed climate change in the most remote parts of the world, such as the Arctic region, and specifically examined global environmental change.

Professor Smol is the co-director of the Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Lab (PEARL) in Kingston, Ontario. He has authored around 400 articles and has authored or edited 19 books. In addition to his work with these works, Smol has received more than 25 research and teaching awards and in 2004 was recognized as Canada’s top scientist or engineer. Smol has also earned the 3M National Teaching Fellow award, considered by many to be Canada’s highest teaching honor.

Smol opened his lecture by introducing challenges facing environmental research. He described some, but certainly not all, the factors that contribute to the limits placed on environmental research. The first of these, he said, is the “predisturbance condition.” Smol described this term as, “How the world was before humans existed and before we invented the technology by which to measure climate and environmental data.”

Another factor which creates limits in how far research can go is natural variability, or how the environment, atmosphere, and habitats change naturally. Smol further acknowledged the questions that researchers have when studying climate. These questions are centered around how, how much, and when conditions have changed in any given ecosystem, as well as the entire world as a global ecosystem.

Smol’s research primarily is focused in Canada, close to the Arctic Circle, and his research is primarily concentrated on the study of lakes and rivers and the history of what lies at their bottom. Smol described his method of studying lakes to the audience: Remove a few meters of sentiment from the bottom of a lake and then flatten it out to figure out what minerals have settled at the bottom and when they settled there.

“Everything that comes into the lake is a part of the lake’s history,” said Smol. “When we remove sediments, we are removing the history.”

There are two major stressors related to human activity, said Smol: Recent climate change and the deposition of persistent organic pollutants and other contaminants. Smol addressed the idea that, essentially, climate chance and destruction has occurred since the time humans discovered fire and began burning carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. However, our records of temperature only date back until the 1700s, so our ability to gauge these effects is likely less than accurate.

“The data that we do have presents problems,” said Smol. “There is poor spatial coverage, short time series, and that data is concentrated in urban and densely populated areas. We can assess, though, that within the last quarter-century, the data is completely and significantly different than the previous records in terms of higher temperatures.”

Smol explained that the reason he studies the Arctic is because it is especially sensitive to climate change. Once humans heat the Arctic or melt the ice and glaciers found there, they are forever gone. Within the Arctic region, lakes and ponds are the dominant geographical feature, and ice drives the amount of light let into lakes or ponds, affecting the amount of light that is let in to that ecosystem. Smol has found that all Arctic regions show relatively similar data, and all areas are showing threshold changes.

“Threshold changes occur when ponds dry out. Ecosystems that have been in an area for thousands of years are disappearing and taking the life forms with them.”

Modern pollutants also drive the rapid climate change. There are three main ways pollutants are being transported not only to the Arctic, but to the rest of the world. These are through ocean currents, rivers, and the atmosphere. Smol stressed the fact that even though insecticides or any other toxins may be initially sprayed in one area of the world, they inevitably travel and find their way to other remote locations on the planet.

Smol concluded his lecture with three pieces of advice.

“We can reduce the amount of energy that we use. We can replace the carbon based fuels that we use. Finally, we must continue to research different ways to help try and fix the environment. It is changing whether we like it or not, and we must try to slow down these major changes to preserve the stable climate in which we are used to living.”

Ashley Berger can be reached at [email protected]