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Dick Peltier awarded Killam Prize

April 3, 2013

Earth systems scientist a pioneer in our understanding of Earth’s past, future

TORONTO, ON – Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to physi­cist Dick Pelti­er is the win­ner of one of five 2013 Kil­lam Prizes, giv­en in hon­our of his career achieve­ment in sci­ence.

The $100,000 prize from the Cana­da Coun­cil for the Arts rec­og­nizes his pio­neer­ing schol­ar­ship, which has shaped our under­stand­ing of Earth’s inter­con­nect­ed systems—and of the threat we face due to glob­al warm­ing.

Pelti­er has been a leader in the estab­lish­ment of the inter­dis­ci­pli­nary field of Earth Sys­tem Sci­ence.

“The field grew out of efforts that began about 20 years ago, when we began to under­stand that the Earth func­tions as a com­plex sys­tem of many inter­act­ing com­po­nents and that the com­part­men­tal­iza­tion of the study of its behav­iour was hold­ing back progress,” he said.

As such, his own work has spanned tra­di­tion­al dis­ci­plines: he’s inves­ti­gat­ed every­thing from plan­e­tary inte­ri­ors to ocean cur­rents to how the atmos­phere behaves. One cur­rent focus is the glob­al ther­mo­ha­line circulation—the ver­ti­cal over­turn­ing of the oceans, which is influ­enced by the behav­iour of both the atmos­phere above and the heat flux enter­ing the ocean from the earth below.

“This is per­fect exam­ple of a phe­nom­e­non which is not strict­ly oceano­graph­ic, though it’s focused in the ocean,” he said. “It’s a nice exam­ple of the sort of phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy that lies at the heart of Earth Sys­tem Sci­ence, because it involves all of the com­po­nents of the earth sys­tem work­ing togeth­er.”

Much of Peltier’s research, includ­ing his study of the glob­al ther­mo­ha­line cir­cu­la­tion, has sharp­ened our under­stand­ing of Earth’s cli­mate his­to­ry.

Work by Pelti­er and his stu­dents has recent­ly shed light on the Younger Dryas event, a 1,000 year peri­od of Earth’s his­to­ry that began about 12,800 years ago and had not pre­vi­ous­ly been under­stood. Their work showed that it was caused when a mas­sive deglacial flood of fresh­wa­ter entered the Arc­tic Ocean through the Macken­zie Riv­er out­let into the Beau­fort Sea.

“Pro­fes­sor Peltier’s research career has spanned a remark­able range of issues,” said Pro­fes­sor Paul Young, U of T’s vice-pres­i­dent of research and inno­va­tion. “It is this inte­gra­tive approach that has allowed him to make such remark­able advances in our under­stand­ing of our plan­et, and I’m delight­ed that the Cana­da Coun­cil has rec­og­nized his con­tri­bu­tions.

“We need sci­en­tists like him to arm us with the infor­ma­tion required to tack­le some of our most press­ing glob­al prob­lems.”

Peltier’s explo­ration of Earth’s past has also allowed him to con­struct mod­els that pre­dict what is like­ly to hap­pen in the future as a result of human-induced glob­al warm­ing. He sees his com­mit­ment to out­reach and edu­ca­tion as a nat­ur­al exten­sion of his sci­ence.

“It’s incum­bent upon sci­en­tists like myself who are deeply involved in the dis­cus­sion of cli­mate change to do as much out­reach as pos­si­ble,” he said. “It’s extreme­ly impor­tant that peo­ple under­stand that glob­al warm­ing is a con­se­quence of us. We con­tin­ue to burn fos­sil fuels, and that process is adding car­bon diox­ide to the atmos­phere. The fact that increas­ing car­bon diox­ide lev­els in the atmos­phere cause warm­ing on the sur­face of the earth is some­thing that’s been under­stood for over 100 years.”

The Kil­lam Prize is the lat­est in a col­lec­tion of acco­lades Pelti­er has amassed in the past decade. He was the win­ner of the 2002 Vetle­sen Prize (often called the Nobel of Earth Sci­ences), the 2010 Bow­er Prize and the 2011 Herzberg Gold Medal from the Nat­ur­al Sci­ences and Engi­neer­ing Coun­cil. The uni­ver­si­ty has award­ed him the Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sor des­ig­na­tion, the high­est hon­our the insti­tu­tion bestows on its fac­ul­ty. At U of T, Pelti­er is direc­tor of the Cen­tre for Glob­al Change Sci­ence and sci­en­tif­ic direc­tor of SciNet, Canada’s largest super­com­put­er cen­tre.


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