'Canada's leading ecologist': David Schindler dead at 80

David Schindler, the renowned ecologist known for his outspoken defence of Canada's freshwater systems from industrial harm, is dead. He was 80.

Trail-blazing scientist sounded alarm on acid rain, oilsands contamination

David Schindler died on Thursday at 80 years old. (John Ulan)

David Schindler, the trailblazing researcher widely regarded for his tireless defence of Canada's freshwater systems from industrial harm, has died.

Schindler rose to prominence in the 1970s and early '80s with landmark experiments that sounded the alarm on acid rain and led the federal government to ban high-phosphorus laundry detergents. 

His 2010 research into Alberta's oilsands pushed the government to establish independent oversight of the industry, after he showed it was contributing contaminants to the region's watershed.

A skilled public communicator, Schindler is a recipient of the Order of Canada and numerous scientific awards, including the inaugural Stockholm Water Prize. 

"Dave was Canada's leading ecologist," said friend and colleague Mark Boyce, a professor of ecology at the University of Alberta. "If there was a Nobel Prize for ecology, he would've won it." 

Schindler lived in Brisco, B.C., with his wife Suzanne Bayley. He died Thursday at 80.

Tributes began to flood social media on Thursday night, with colleagues and admirers crediting Schindler with spurring the creation of many of Canada's water protections. 

Schindler joined the University of Alberta in 1989 as Killam Memorial Chair and Professor of Ecology. Before his appointment, he headed the Experimental Lakes Area project in Ontario, which provided evidence of the role of phosphorus in fish-killing algae blooms. 

An aerial photo of the project, which juxtaposed the clear and algae-clouded sides of Lake 226, was credited by Arizona State University biologist James Elser as the "the single most powerful image in the history of limnology." 

During an experiment in August 1973, Lake 226 in the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario is divided by a plastic curtain. The northeast basin, in the bottom of the photo, has a surface algae bloom clearly evident, a result of added phosphorus. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Born in Fargo, North Dakota, Schindler originally pursued studies in engineering physics. But inspired by Charles Elton's seminal work on invasive biology, he transferred into the zoology program at North Dakota State University. He then went on to study under Elton at Oxford University, where he graduated with his doctorate in 1968.

'Playing chess with a gorilla'

But despite the credentials, Vinebrooke says Schindler was not interested in having his work cloistered inside the ivory tower. Instead, he pursued projects, such as Experimental Lakes, that would make ecology accessible to the public, following in the steps of Elton and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, another significant influence. 

"He always put it in some sort of a context where it could benefit greater human society," said Vinebrooke, professor of aquatic ecology at the University of Alberta. 

That commitment to vocal public education often put him at odds with politicians, including a clash with then-Premier Ralph Klein in the 1990s over pulp mill contamination in the Athabasca River. He would go on to criticize the rollback of water protections under Prime Minister Stephen Harper and castigate what he called the disregard for treaty rights in the oilsands, according to his Order of Canada biography. 

But the science was always more fun than the public forays, Schindler told the CBC in a 2010 profile. 

"It isn't in hassling with politicians and that, which is to me rather like playing chess with a gorilla. The game is boring and you know you are going to win, but you have to be prepared to duck once in a while when they get angry and take a swing at you," he said. 

In a three-part reflection authored on the eve of his retirement in 2013, Schindler issued an entreaty to young scientists to take up the cause of preserving earth's biodiversity and to question the "shameless promotion of growth and consumption." 

"So, future scientists, we desperately need your help to show us the way," he said. "The future of our species, our province, our country and our planet are at stake." 

With files from Daniel Schwartz