Considered one of Canada’s great ecological scientists and advocates, David Schindler studied some of the most serious environmental blights of his time, including acid rain and dead lakes. A pioneer in the use of whole-lake experiments, he did cutting-edge work and persuasively communicated his findings and proposed solutions to governments and the public.
“He spoke authoritatively and used the science. Dave was an incredible scientist and communicator with a wise grasp of political context,” says Adèle Hurley, director of the Program on Water Issues at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.
Others have called him a “guerrilla ecologist,” because he had a hands-on approach to science and combined his research with advocacy.
Ms. Hurley was in Washington for the congressional sessions on acid rain in the 1980s. The audience was packed with auto-industry executives who wanted to blame Canada’s acid-rain problem solely on Sudbury’s Inco plant, but when Dr. Schindler spoke, “it was quiet,” she said. “You could have heard a pin drop.”
Dr. Schindler was a limnologist, an expert in inland water systems. Working in the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), which encompasses dozens of lakes and their watersheds in northwestern Ontario, he began experiments in 1976 that involved manipulating a lake’s acidity.
He and his team found that increased acidity killed small, vulnerable organisms such as shrimp and minnows, eventually starving the trout that normally feed on them.
Dr. Schindler and his team at the ELA helped prove that sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from cars and fossil-fuel-powered plants in eastern North America were causing acid rain, and that lakes could recover if pollution was reduced.
His data and arguments were key factors that led to amendments to the U.S. Clean Air Act in 1990 and the signing of the Canada-United States Air Quality Agreement in March, 1991.
Before that, his whole-lake experiments showed that an excess of phosphorus from laundry detergents and sewage-treatment plants was killing lakes by increasing the growth of algae and aquatic plants and depleting fish species, a process called eutrophication.
In 1973, Dr. Schindler and his team took a shower-curtain-like membrane and stretched it across a narrowing in Lake 226, which was shaped like an hourglass.
An energetic outdoorsman, Dr. Schindler was one of the divers who secured the nylon curtain to the lake bottom.
The researchers added carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus to one half of the lake and just carbon and nitrogen to the other. The phosphorus basin turned green with algae blooms. Dr. Schindler took an aerial photograph to show the stark contrast; the photo became famous, appearing in news reports around the world.
A U.S. biologist once called it the “single most powerful image in the history of limnology.”
“You show something like that to the government and the public and they totally understand,” says Michael Paterson, senior research scientist at the IISD Experimental Lakes Area (the International Institute for Sustainable Development took over the ELA in 2014 after the Stephen Harper government defunded it).
“He was a brilliant scientist but also a brilliant communicator.”
That experiment, and the image, led Canada and the United States to pass legislation to limit the use of phosphorus in detergents and required it to be removed from wastewater.
Dr. Schindler worked as a professor at Trent University, ran the ELA from 1968 until 1989, and then became the Killam Memorial Chair and professor of ecology at the University of Alberta until his official retirement in 2013, when he moved to Brisco, B.C. He died of heart problems on March 4, at the age of 80.
Over his lifetime, he tackled a range of challenges, including the removal of non-native fish stocks from lakes, measuring the impact of pesticides on mountain lakes and the effects of climate change on water levels in Prairie lakes.
For many years, he worked with Indigenous groups in Alberta, providing evidence about the environmental effects on their lands from the Muskeg River Mine Project and the province’s oil sands.
His 2008 study of the Athabasca River and Peace‐Athabasca Delta showed for the first time that oil sands were contaminating the watershed, which later led to monitoring of the river.
“When he spoke, everyone listened. His words were gospel,” says John Malcolm, interim chief of the Original Fort McMurray First Nation. Mr. Malcolm and his community often looked to Dr. Schindler for data as they worked to protect their lands and the Athabasca River.
“Dave’s breadth of knowledge was just incredible. He worked on so many different problems related to fresh water,” Dr. Paterson says. His understanding of chemistry, physics and the nuances of science beyond limnology contributed to his work.
Dr. Schindler could analyze results and see what was important. “He had the ability to cut to the heart of a problem and understand exactly what it was we needed to know,” Dr. Paterson says.
His former PhD student Diane Orihel calls this his “uncanny X-ray vision to see the story in the science.”
Dr. Schindler was hard-working and prolific. He read extensively on a wide range of topics, and did woodworking and dog sledding.
“He had a lot of energy,” his wife, Suzanne Bayley, says. “He didn’t like to sleep a lot.”
One day in 1974, Dr. Schindler agreed to help firefighters battling fires around the ELA after one of them dropped a bucket into a lake. Dr. Schindler was set to dive for it, but the float plane pilot carrying him crashed into rocks amid the smoke. Dr. Schindler broke his arm, but still managed to help the pilot through the water to safety, as the pilot could not swim.
Dr. Schindler “had at least a crack, I think, in every bone in my body” after the incident, he was quoted as saying in a 2006 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He went to work the next day, saying he hated being in the hospital, and in a foul-smelling pulp-and-paper town to boot.
For his research and advocacy, Dr. Schindler was awarded a myriad of honorary PhDs and many top scientific awards, including the first annual Stockholm Water Prize in 1991, the Volvo International Environmental Prize in 1998 and the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering in 2001. He was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada in 2004.
David William Schindler was born Aug. 3, 1940, in Fargo, N.D., and grew up in Barnesville, Minn., in lake country. He excelled in science in school, but – told that biologists could only become high-school teachers – he enrolled in the University of Minnesota in engineering and physics.
Then he landed a summer research job at a nearby lake with a limnology professor from North Dakota State University. Inspired by the work and the ecology texts he read that summer, he transferred into zoology at NDSU. Dr. Schindler applied for a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University, which he got in 1962. He completed his PhD in ecology in 1966, having done field research at a lake in Minnesota.
While he received job offers from the University of Michigan and Yale University, he opted to accept an assistant professor position in biology at the newly opened Trent University. It was in the kind of small-town environment he was accustomed to, plus it was close to lakes in a geographically interesting environment.
Dr. Schindler and his wife, Kathe (née Dietrich), a Chicago native he met in Fargo years earlier, and their first child, Eva, moved to Peterborough, Ont., in 1966.
Two years later, the Fisheries Research Board of Canada launched the ELA and Dr. Schindler agreed to become its first director. He led his team in establishing a range of whole-lake study protocols – novel at a time when much work in limnology and biology in general was done in test tubes and labs – and began a number of research projects.
Many of his protocols are still in use today, Dr. Paterson says. “For some of these lakes, we have 53 years of data. It’s one of the largest, most complete data sets on freshwater lakes anywhere in the world. It’s one of his greatest legacies.”
The growing Schindler family, which soon included Daniel and Rachel, moved to Winnipeg and spent summers near the ELA research station in a cabin near Kenora, Ont.
“We all learned to split wood and paddle canoes and be involved in science,” Eva Schindler recalls. “Once, I was allowed to help wash a bunch of test tubes in the chem lab. I thought it was the greatest thing at the time.”
Dr. Schindler ignored traditional gender roles when he raised his children and let them explore nature and have fun, understanding ecology, but with no pressure to follow in his footsteps. All of them, however, pursued careers related to biology or the outdoors.
Dr. Schindler and his first wife divorced in 1978 and the children continued to spend their summers at the lakes. Dr. Schindler then met wetland ecologist Dr. Bayley at a conference. “He won me over by talking for three hours about his children,” she recalls. The two married in 1980.
Early on, they made a deal: Dr. Bayley would focus her work on wetlands and Dr. Schindler would not veer into that topic. “He understood the background and we could talk about it, but he would not go public on these ideas. It was a way to manage the balance in our relationship,” Dr. Bayley says.
These were high-profile years for Dr. Schindler, doing ground-breaking research, writing op eds and speaking to policy makers. Dr. Paterson says the fact that Dr. Schindler was a dual citizen and from a small town meant he understood how to talk to all the stakeholders involved in ecological issues, from governments to local citizens.
By the late 1980s, Dr. Schindler became tired of funding cuts and governments not interested in following science. Dr. Bayley had found some work at the ELA, but needed a full-time, stable job related to her expertise.
Both landed jobs at the University of Alberta, taking their growing hobby of raising and racing sled dogs with them to their new home outside Edmonton. Dr. Schindler pivoted to research alpine lakes and advocate for local environmental issues.
He took on PhD students, one of the last of whom was Dr. Orihel, who is now an assistant professor at Queen’s University. She found that Dr. Schindler was highly supportive of young scientists, provided they worked hard.
“You either sank or swam in his lab. Dave’s brilliance as a supervisor was that he led by example and he gave you space and freedom to find your way – up or down, it was up to you,” she says.
He urged her to restart her PhD when she stopped to advocate to save the ELA, warning that if she didn’t she would become “one of the 99.9 per cent of voices that remain unheard.” He encouraged her to pursue her degree with a bigger picture in mind. “The world already has too many specialists that can’t see past the end of their noses,” he said.
He was very much one of those scientists who saw the big picture and had the skills to share what he knew. “He was one of Canada’s science superstars,” Dr. Paterson says. “His impact is enormous. He did science with impact, not just science in a vacuum.”
Dr. Schindler leaves his wife, three children, a grandchild and two step-grandchildren.