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Smol awarded International Ecology Institute's top prize

[John Smol]
John Smol (Biology) has been awarded the ECI Prize from the International Ecology Institute. (Supplied photo)

Throughout his career John Smol (Biology) has won numerous awards for his work in the field of ecological history. So the fact that his latest recognition has him visibly excited must mean that it is particularly special.

Dr. Smol is this year’s recipient of the International Ecology Institute’s (ECI) top award, the ECI Prize, for his “leadership in bringing palaeolimnology to bear so effectively on urgent environmental problems.”

The award comes with 6,000 euros in prize money and the opportunity to write a book that will be distributed worldwide, but what really excites Dr. Smol is the list of names he will be joining.

“The award has been given out for a couple of decades, and when I look at the list of awardees it's some of my ecological heroes,” he says. “I look at the list and I see people like E. O. Wilson, who is a name everyone (in ecology) knows. I see Gene Likens, Steve Carpenter, Ramon Margalef. If you look at the list it includes some of the top ecologists, people I've read since I was a student basically, and then all of a sudden you are on the same list as they are. It felt kind of nice.”

The other part that excites Dr. Smol is that the award also recognizes his particular area of study – ecological history. Dr. Smol and his team use the information gathered from core samples of lake sediments to map out the ecological history of an area. To date it often hadn’t been considered part of mainstream ecological studies. The ECI Prize changes that, he says.

“In some ways it was nice to see the acceptance of the field into a mainstream ecological prize. Whenever I win something, it’s work done by a very dedicated group of graduate students and post-docs. So in many ways it is a group prize,” he says. “But it is also nice for the subject area to be recognized. In some ways it’s recognizing that paleoecology has something quite significant to offer.”

As Dr. Smol explains, one of the biggest challenges for the field of ecology is that there is a lack of long-term monitoring data. For example, there was no one monitoring for acidification of lakes 100 years ago. Søren Sørenson only introduced the pH scale in 1909, he adds.

However through paleoecology, Dr. Smol and his team are hoping to change that.

“We don't have temperature readings going back more than 100-200 years in most areas. We don't have water chemistry. The only way we can get back in time is using the paleo-ecological record to provide that historical context,” he says. “There are 35 people in our lab who are able to push the record back in time using a whole variety of methods.  This information tells them what the environmental conditions were like in the past and where we're going. It reminds us of what we did right, it warns us of what we did wrong.”

Dr. Smol will travel to Germany, where the ECI is located, to receive his prize in October.