Michael Pisaric from the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies and his colleagues have been presented with the Henry C. Cowles award for their paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Pisaric, M.F.J., Thienpont, J., Kokelj, S.V., Nesbitt, H., Lantz, T., Solomon, S., and Smol, J.P. 2011. Impacts of a recent storm surge on an Arctic ecosystem examined within a millennial timescale. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 108(22): 8960-8965. doi:10.1073/pnas.1018527108). The award is to be given annually in recognition of the best biogeographical publication of the year, honoring either books or papers.
“This award represents a significant accomplishment for my colleagues and I,” said Pisaric. “I was surprised, and we are all very honoured to win the Cowles Award. To have our research recognized by our peers and mentioned in association with one of the leading ecologists of the early 20th century is a great honour and privilege.”
By studying growth rings in shrubs and sediment from lakes, Pisaric and his colleagues examined the frequency and magnitude of disturbance in North America’s largest Arctic delta system, the Mackenzie Delta in northwest Canada. They found that the ecological impact of a massive storm surge and associated salt-water inundation in September 1999 was unprecedented in the past ~1,000-years causing salinzation of soils and crossing ecological thresholds for most plant species growing in the affected region. A large (200 km2) “dead zone” developed and broad sections of these zones remain devoid of vegetation more than a decade later. In the lakes they studied, the authors presented stunning evidence from diatom analyses showing a dramatic and abrupt ecosystem shift in the distribution of algal taxa based on their salinity preferences, with the lake shifting from dominance by freshwater species of diatoms that had dominated for nearly ~1000 years to assemblages tolerant of saline/brackish conditions following the 1999 event. Alarmingly, no similar ecological shifts of this kind were found in the diatom record during the past 1000 years suggesting the 1999 event was truly unique from an ecological perspective.
This research received major attention from both the North American and international media, and was covered by over 40 news services and papers, including the Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette and Globe and Mail, Reuters News Service, Grand Forks Herald, and many more. In fact, various media outlets translated parts of the story into other languages (e.g., Italian, Chinese). The research was also featured in other academic outlets, such as Yale Environment 360. Authors of the study also gave several radio interviews, including on the Radio Canada International program “The Link”, which was broadcast across Canada and to various countries globally on satellite and shortwave radio.