David Schindler, fierce defender of freshwater lakes, passes away

David Schindler Photo courtesy of The Star

Those of us who love Canada’s freshwater lakes had a kindred spirit in David Schindler. Schindler, the highly respected limnologist (don’t feel bad, I had to look it up too: it means someone who studies the biology, chemistry, and physical features of lakes) passed away March 4 at the age of 80, leaving behind an incredible body of scientific research and a long legacy of fierce advocacy for our lakes. 

Schindler served as the original director for what was then known as the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a one-of-a-kind research area composed of fifty-eight freshwater lakes in Kenora District, Ont. 

“It’s hard to list all the ways that our country has benefitted from Dave’s research,” says Michael Paterson, current head scientist at the ELA. Paterson pointed to some particularly impactful work by Schindler, which includes whole-lake experiments that demonstrated the role of phosphorus in driving algal blooms. Because of this work, the Canadian government banned high-phospate laundry detergents. “His studies on lake acidification provided strong evidence for the role of acid rain in causing declines of fish populations and other impacts and this research provided critical data to support changes in the Clean Air Act,” Paterson added.

What’s more, Schindler sounded the alarm early on the impacts of climate change and changes in the ozone layer on freshwater lakes. Schindler, says Paterson, was “exceptional at explaining the results in ways that were easily understood by the public, managers and politicians.”

His work at the ELA was, he said in an interview with Canadian Geographic, one of the things he was most proud. He also told Canadian Geographic magazine that he hoped his work made clear that we couldn’t “press the Earth any more than we’re pressing it now.”

Schindler was the recipient of most of the world’s top environmental science awards, as well as, in 2004, receiving the Order of Canada for his work protecting freshwater lakes.

Accolades poured onto social media from many of his friends and colleagues at the news of his death. Michael Paterson notes that “Dave showed how to do science that has an impact and brings about real change.”

We cottagers who cherish our lakes owe him a deep debt of gratitude. 

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