Wes Blake

Citation for the 2001 award of the W.A. Johnston Medal

Weston Blake, Jr., who is currently an Emeritus Research Scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada, has worked on Quaternary research throughout his career. Although he has many important research accomplishments to his credit, foremost among these was his proposition that the Innuitian Ice Sheet covered the Canadian High Arctic during the last glaciation, an idea that is now widely accepted after some 30 years of heated debate. He has encouraged and promoted many young scientists who now are well established Quaternary researchers. Moreover, he has been perhaps the most devoted and hard working CANQUA supporter this country has ever had!

If someone asks Wes what he feels his greatest achievement has been, he says that he is especially proud of the accomplishments of the young students and field assistants who went with him to places such as Ellesmere Island. Almost all now enjoy very successful academic/government/research careers, and in most cases they have continued work on a variety of northern Quaternary subjects. Wes continues his arctic research even in “retirement”; for example, last summer (2001) he celebrated his 50th year of arctic fieldwork!

Although Wes seems firm at claiming his main accomplishment has been the encouragement of other, younger scientists to take up Quaternary subjects, his personal scientific research legacy is very strong indeed. In many areas of the Arctic, such as Svalbard, Bathurst, Devon and Baffin islands, there were no 14C determinations at all when Wes began his career, and in other areas, such as Ellesmere Island and northwest Greenland, there were very few dates. When Wes came to the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) in 1962, the radiocarbon lab had just opened the previous year. Wes was instrumental in setting up the high standards of the GSC radiocarbon lab, and directed the laboratory for many years. He worked closely with many colleagues on geochronological problems and techniques. This work resulted in many influential publications, especially those dealing with the poorly studied arctic regions.

Secondly, as a result of his PhD and later work in Svalbard, together with Russian work in nearby Franz Josef Land, Wes reintroduced the concept of an ice sheet over the Barents Sea in 1968. As a result of his work on Bathurst Island in 1963 and 1964, and on southern Ellesmere and Coburg islands in 1967 and 1968, Wes proposed at a meeting in l969 the concept of an Innuitian Ice Sheet over much of the Queen Elizabeth Islands (published in the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences in 1970). There was considerable opposition to both ideas for the next 30 years. As the readers of this journal are likely aware, the consensus today is that there was indeed an Innuition Ice Sheet during the Late Wisconsinan.

Finally, only superlatives can be used to describe Wes’s contributions to CANQUA. It is hard to imagine anyone in CANQUA’s history who has sat on more committees or has done more to encourage the Association’s goals. His list of committees does not need repeating here, nor do his three terms as a CANQUA councillor, but the amount of time and energy Wes has put into this organization is an example to us all. So much of what Wes does is done quietly, behind the scenes. Wes truly believes Quaternary research is important, that it should be vigorously encouraged, and that CANQUA is the vehicle that should be used to meet these ends.

I think we would all agree that such devotion and dedication deserves the gratitude of all Quaternarists, and so we are delighted that Wes is receiving the 2001 Johnston Medal, and what better place to do it than here, in a northern location like Whitehorse.

John P. Smol, Queen’s University
Marianne S.V. Douglas, University of Toronto
Donald Lemmen, Geological Survey of Canada


I am delighted to be named a co-recipient of CANQUA’s W.A. Johnston Medal for 2001. I offer my congratulations to the other medallist, Professor Emeritus Derek Ford of McMaster University, whose work I’ve long admired, and a glance at the list of previous winners of this award shows me that I am in excellent company! I am most appreciative to my nominators, to those colleagues who wrote supporting letters, and to the selection committee itself, all of whom deemed my research and career worthy of this award.

With the exception of a few excursions “southward”, to Labrador, to southern Baffin Island, to the mainland around Bathurst Inlet and to the Kola Peninsula of Russia, all of my field work has been in the northern Canadian Arctic Archipelago, North-West Greenland and Svalbard ‹ north of 75Æ’. Although I have not worked in the areas that W.A. Johnston studied, much of my research has dealt with raised and tilted shorelines, like his on Glacial Lake Agassiz. In my case, I have been particularly interested in raised marine shorelines, displayed so well north of the treeline along Arctic coasts. The other main focus of my research has been on radiocarbon dating and other dating methods, the aim being to establish chronologies of Pleistocene and Holocene events throughout the little studied Arctic areas where I’ve worked.

It is not surprising that the Arctic became part of my lifeblood, so to speak. First, I came from a family of ardent skiers, so I learned to love the outdoors at an early age. Next, as an undergraduate in geology at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, I was enthralled by the annual visits and talks by the famous Arctic explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson. Then, in 1950-1951, I was one of three students to take a new course offering in Polar Geography, taught by Trevor Lloyd and Cmdr. David Nutt. Dartmouth was followed by two fine years at McGill University, where I learned a great deal more about the Arctic, especially at the Geography Summer School in Stanstead, Quebec. In 1952 I spent three months on the Meta Incognita peninsula of southern Baffin Island, as John Mercer’s field assistant. John is best known for his outstanding work in Patagonia and Antarctica, but his Ph.D. was based on Baffin. The geomorphological studies there were followed immediately by a sojourn in Northwest River, Labrador, where I did the field work for my own M.Sc. thesis in forest geography (air photo interpretation of forest cover types), under Ken Hare’s supervision, and supported by the Defence Research Board in Ottawa. Additional field experience in Labrador came the following winter, when I accompanied Dave Nutt on a journey by dog team around Lake Melville, re-occupying oceanographic stations established by his summer “Blue Dolphin” expeditions. The McGill experience was made even more special because I had an office in the “attic” of the Bishop Mountain House, then the Canadian headquarters for the Arctic Institute of North America. The Director was Colonel Pat Baird, aided by Svenn Orvig, and lots of Arctic tales swirled around at morning coffee and afternoon tea!

Service in the U.S. Army’s Transportation Arctic Group gave me a chance in 1954 to spend five months on the Greenland Ice Sheet east of Thule Air Force Base, testing a crevasse detector (it didn’t work, but it was great for skijoring!) and mapping a safe route for heavy tractor trains through the crevassed marginal areas of the ice sheet. On weekend geomorphological excursions I met such luminaries as Børge Fristrup, glaciologist and Danish Liason Officer; Dick Goldthwait, glacial geologist, with whom I later did my Ph.D. at Ohio State University; Nat Rutter, then an undergraduate at Tufts University; Valter Schytt, glaciologist, then working for the Snow Ice and Permafrost Research Establishment (SIPRE); Spence Taylor, glacial geologist, University of Alberta; and Herb Wright, paleoecologist, University of Minnesota.

Following two further visits to North-West Greenland in 1956, to carry out glaciological work (flow rates) on an ice cliff at Red Rock Lake north of Thule AFB with a group led by Dick Goldthwait, I spent several years alternating between graduate studies in glacial geology and geomorphology at Ohio State and the University of Stockholm. In addition, two long seasons of field work in Nordaustlandet, Svalbard (astride the 80th parallel) were carried out with the Swedish Glaciological Expedition (summers of 1957 and 1958), under the leadership of Valter Schytt. The glacial geological studies there led to a Ph.D. in 1962. That same year I joined the Geological Survey of Canada, having learned that there was an opening in the Pleistocene Section from Bert Lee, whom I met at the International Geological Congress in Copenhagen in 1960.

The GSC’s Quaternary Research and Geomorphology Division (as of 1967), or Terrain Sciences Division (as it became in 1971), under the leadership of John Fyles and John Scott, allowed me a great deal of freedom to pursue topics of interest in the Arctic Archipelago. First came Bathurst Island in 1963 and 1964, a joint venture with Bill Kerr, then at ISPG. A return to southern Baffin Island followed in 1965 with Bob Blackadar’s Å’Operation Amadjuak’, where I was helped greatly by Francis Synge of Leicester University/Geological Survey of Ireland. Later cooperative efforts were with Bill Kerr at Cape Storm, Ellesmere Island, in 1967, and with Bob Christie at Grise Fiord in 1968. Tom Frisch provided excellent base camp facilities at Makinson Inlet, Ellesmere Island, in 1977, where I was also joined by Roland Souchez (for the third summer) and Reggie Lorrain from Université Libre de Bruxelles, to continue their investigations into processes operating at the soles of glaciers and ice sheets. Finally, Bob Christie joined me at Cape Herschel in 1982 to provide advice on the origin of erratics along Nares Strait, based on his extensive knowledge of the region.

Most of my time since 1967 has been devoted to southern and eastern Ellesmere Island and North-West Greenland. In this connection I owe a tremendous debt to Fritz Müller, of McGill and ETH Zürich, whose foresight and energy led to the building of stations to study the North Water in the early 1970’s on Coburg Island, at Cape Herschel on Ellesmere Island, and on Nordvestø in the Carey Øer, northern Baffin Bay. Without these well-provisioned stations, and the shelter they provided from some extremely inclement weather, it would have been impossible to carry out our extensive field programs. The land studies were supplemented by two excellent cruises aboard C.S.S. Hudson to northernmost Baffin Bay and the southern part of Nares Strait ‹ led in 1974 by Dave Ross and in 1991 by Ruth Jackson, both of the Atlantic Geoscience Centre (AGC), Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. These cruises gave me a chance to learn details of the bottom topography over vast areas and to acquire cores of marine sediments at selected sites.

Excellent assistance in the field was provided by a succession of students as well as by several colleagues from institutions in Canada and abroad. Several of the students went on to become leading arctic specialists in their own right. Gordon Cox, McGill University, after working with me in southern Ellesmere Island, did a Ph.D. in glaciology at Dartmouth, and then he worked for both CRREL and AMOCO, as well as serving on the Polar Research Board of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Longest serving of all was Rick Richardson, originally an undergraduate at Brock University, who accompanied me for several seasons in the 1970’s, interrupted by travel to Auckland, New Zealand, to do his M.Sc. He moved to the Alberta Geological Survey in 1980, and he is now Alberta’s Provincial Geologist. For several years he devoted part of his summer vacation to working with my field parties at Cape Herschel, Ellesmere Island, and in 1990 and 1991 he was there to carry out his own program, including work on coal with Wolfgang Kalkreuth from ISPG. Rick is an acknowledged expert on what to do if a polar bear leans on you while you are trying to sleep in your Logan tent, or on how to find mud in which to land a Piper Super-Cub!

The extensive program of coring shallow ponds (frozen to the bottom, although one lake on Rundfjeld at 830 m a.s.l. was also frozen to the bottom, with 5+ m of ice) and lakes in east-central Ellesmere Island was initiated in 1978. Although the original aim was to acquire chronological data bearing on the time of deglaciation and the pattern of land emergence from the sea, it quickly became apparent that the cores could yield other information of great value. Hannu Hyvärinen, University of Helsinki, joined us in 1979 and produced the first pollen diagram for the Holocene from Ellesmere Island. Steve Watts, Sir Sanford Fleming College, was with us to work on weathering phenomena later the same season. Svend Funder from the Geological Museum, University of Copenhagen, accompanied us in 1980, in part to join in the work on the Greenland side of Smith Sound, and Otto Salvigsen, from the Norwegian Polar Research Institute in Oslo, contributed his expertise in 1981. Brian McCann, McMaster University, worked on coastal phenomena in both 1981 and 1988.

John Smol, FRSC and Director of PEARL in the Dept. of Biology, Queen’s University, first came to Cape Herschel in 1983, and Marianne Douglas, then John’s graduate student but now teaching in the environmental geology program at the University of Toronto, started her extensive studies of the ponds (leading to both M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees) in 1986. After a hiatus in the early 1990’s, they have continued the program of monitoring the nearly 40 ponds there every three years, so revisits have been made in 1995, 1998 and 2001. Their ongoing study already has meant that changes in water chemistry and the diatom flora at Cape Herschel (78°5’N) have been documented for nearly 20 years ‹ longer than at any other High Arctic site! As with all of my own work earlier on Ellesmere Island, their research is made possible by the excellent logistical support provided by the Polar Continental Shelf Project.

Interspersed with the summers in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and North-West Greenland were several summers in Svalbard: in 1966 a return to Nordaustlandet (this time with helicopter support) with an expedition from the Institute of Physical Geography, University of Stockholm, led by Professors Valter Schytt and Gunnar Hoppe; in 1990 to Nordaustlaudet as co-leader of a small expedition with Professor Wibjörn Karlén, by that time head of the same institute in Stockholm; and in 1995 with Otto Salvigsen, Norsk Polarinstitutt, Oslo, to the north coast of the main island of Spitsbergen. In fact, the overseas contacts, especially those in Fennoscandia, have been of immense value, for they have provided a continual learning experience and a source of inspiration and support for over 40 years. As an example, I probably never would have discovered pumice on the raised beaches of Ellesmere and Devon islands had I not worked with this material earlier in Svalbard! Several of the publications on the Queen Elizabeth Islands were used for a ‘Filosofie doktor’ degree in physical geography at the University of Stockholm, defended publicly in May 1975, the opponents being Jan Mangerud, Hannu Hyvärinen and Bo Strömberg.

Collaboration or assistance in various aspects of the Arctic work with specialists other than those named already has also been of great value: for instance, Bill Barr, University of Saskatchewan; Guy Brassard, University of Ottawa and Memorial University of Newfoundland; Anne de Vernal, Université de Québec à Montréal; Bent Fredskild, University of Copenhagen; Misha Grosswald, Academy of Sciences, Moscow; Dick Harington, Canadian Museum of Nature; Bob Hooper, Memorial University of Newfoundland; Jan Janssens, University of Alberta and later, Minnesota; Karen Luise Knudsen and Marit-Solveig Seidenkrantz, Aarhus University; and Antony Sutcliffe, the British Museum. GSC colleagues Thane Anderson, Jocelyne Bourgeois, Marian Kuc, Sigrid Lichti-Federovich, John V. Matthews, Jr., Bob Mott and Mark Nixon helped out in many ways, either in the field or in analyzing samples in the laboratory. Support by radiocarbon laboratories was essential to my research. First came Ingrid U. Olsson at Uppsala University, followed by Göran Possnert when 14C­dating by accelerator mass spectrometry became feasible. At the GSC, the laboratory was operated, in succession, by Willy Dyck, Sandy Lowdon and Roger McNeely, and since 1983 I’ve benefitted greatly from the expertise of Roelf Beukens at the IsoTrace Laboratory, University of Toronto. Finally, the unwavering support of my family made the long absences in the Arctic possible. Sincere thanks to Ingrid, Erik and Sven, and once again my gratitude to CANQUA for conferring this high honour on me.

Wes Blake