John England, the Canadian scientist who this week won the $50,000 Weston Family prize for northern research, compares the Arctic to a "great behavioural bath" — in which immersion can help one shed the accumulated "barnacles" of modern life.

"You get out on the land, into that simplicity, and what really matters comes into focus so sharply and so cleanly, in that silence," he said.

England, who's based in Edmonton, has been regularly immersing himself in that "silence and simplicity" for six decades now, and in the process he's helped bring the real impacts of climate change into focus.

John England

A younger England, at work in the field. 'You first fall in love with the land, and then you fall in love with the science,' he said. (Submitted by John England)

His research work has largely focused on the history of ancient ice sheets, ocean and lake sediment, ocean currents and sea levels, and has helped provide a long-term perspective on changing global climate.

It's like watching a time-lapse movie, he says, and it's made one thing crystal clear to him — "what we're seeing now is pretty unprecedented."

He points to the ice sheet off Ellesmere Island, which he's studied extensively over the years.

"It's been there for — we know — at least 12,000 years, and it's starting to melt," he said. "There are many, many examples [where] you could say, 'this is not the same old, same old.' This is brand new and it's urgent."

'Baffin just set me free'

England remembers his first trip North, more than 50 years ago. He was a student at the University of Windsor and was unexpectedly chosen to be a field assistant on a four-month research trip to Baffin Island, in May 1965.

"I had no idea about Baffin Island," he recalled, saying he was a "quasi-confused teenager who was making the mysterious transition toward adulthood." 

The trip would set his course in life.

"Baffin just set me free," he said. "I say it's like Elijah being swept off the planet in a fiery chariot. The Arctic made me realize just how enormously meaningful life could be.

"You first fall in love with the land, and then you fall in love with the science."

The science took him all across the High Arctic, doing pioneering research on Ellesmere Island, Banks Island and other far-flung places. He's published scores of research papers and in 2015 was named one of the country's 100 greatest explorers by the Canadian Geographic Society.

He was also instrumental in the creation of Quttinirpaaq National Park on Ellesmere Island — Canada's northernmost national park, and its second largest.

"When you look around the globe, at increasing urbanization and pollution and turmoil and conflict, the Arctic is a pretty remarkable place," he said.

"I think I've been very fortunate, because my career has been 25 per cent work, and 75 per cent marvellous opportunity."

Mentor, friend and father

England's daughter, Jennifer England — now with the Yukon government's Women's Directorate — says one of her dad's big achievements has been his mentorship and friendship to countless students he got to know through his teaching at the University of Alberta.

She remembers Friday night parties on her family's 40-acre parcel of land in Edmonton, with cookouts and hockey games in the winter.

"There was always this cadre of amazing young graduate students all around my dad, and there were always stories being shared about crazy adventures in the Arctic," she said.

John England

England says the environmental changes being seen in the Arctic today 'are not the same old, same old. This is brand new, and it's urgent.' (Submitted by John England)

"I saw basically generations of scientists come through our family, and become very close."

As a teenager, she hitched along as a field assistant on a some of his research trips, and became "completely influenced and absorbed" in her father's work. She came to understand that his scientific curiosity and rigour co-exists with a deeper spirituality.

"That connection to the silence has helped him really know who he is, and bring his gift to the world," she said.

'This game is not over yet'

John England just turned 70 this year, but he's still as active as ever, writing papers, sitting on committees and advisory boards, and working with a graduate student. He was recently teaching at Norway's University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS).

He also figures he has enough of his own research material to keep him writing for the next five years, as well as "a zillion diaries that I haven't dealt with."

England admits to being alarmed by Donald Trump's election in the U.S. ("disturbing in the extreme"), fearing what it might mean for climate research and environmental initiatives, but he's not a pessimist by nature.

In fact, he made news this past week by suggesting the need for compromise and "reconciliation" in the debate over climate change. A few days later, though, he qualified those statements.

"It's one thing to be civil, and listening, and fair," he said, but "when push comes to shove, you've got to have that — you think of Bob Dylan's song Hurricane — you've got to have that willingness to stand up, roll up your sleeves and say, 'I've had enough, we have to insist on this.'"

For England, that means insisting that ice sheets are melting at an alarming and unprecedented rate, and the end results — particularly with respect to rising sea levels — are likely to be catastrophic.

But again, he refuses to wallow in despair or hopelessness. He points to moments of unexpected, pivotal change — the fall of the Berlin wall, the end of apartheid in South Africa — and hopes humankind may yet turn another corner.

"There are these moments when we jump forward in a way we never anticipated. And I just feel that this game is not over yet," he said.

"We're going to hit the rapids maybe, and maybe we'll go over a waterfall. And maybe we need to go over the waterfall, to get to a smoother place downstream."

John England

Still active at 70. 'When you look around the globe at increasing urbanization and pollution and turmoil and conflict, the Arctic is a pretty remarkable place.' (Jennifer England)

 

With files from Loren McGinnis