Jim Teller

Acceptance speech for the 2011 W.A. Johnston Medal

It’s a great honour to receive the W.A. Johnston Medal from CANQUA. My thanks to CANQUA, and to John Clague who advanced the nomination for the Johnston Medal and to those 14 esteemed colleagues who supported the nomination and wrote letters of their own (Wally Broecker, Matt Boyd, Lee Clayton, Don Forbes, Paul Karrow, Alan Kehew, Jim Kennett, Bill Last, Mike Lewis, Dave Leverington, Nat Rutter, Harvey Thorleifson, Brian Todd, and Herb Wright).

Academia has been a great place to pursue my love of life – geology. With NSERC’s generous support, I’ve been able to investigate exciting aspects of Quaternary science. To top it off, I’ve been able to tell students, colleagues, and the public about the wonderful geological world we live in, arms waving with the passion I have for my chosen profession. Collaborations with many people over the years, including my students and postdocs, have been very enriching, and any contribution to science I’ve made must be shared with them. Particularly important in my career has been my wife, Kathy, who has been understanding of my 24/7 approach to geology and has steadfastly supported me for nearly 50 years.

Like all of us, I owe a debt of gratitude to my advisors, who inspired and encouraged me in my efforts to become a professional geoscientist. I began as a math major at the University of Cincinnati in order to become a meteorologist. Along the way, I took an intro geology course from Richard Durrell, who was a great teacher, and a glacial geologist – this changed my life and career path. His slides and knowledge of the geological world are what particularly impressed me, plus his assertion that with practice “You can identify rocks in an outcrop while driving by at 50 mph”.

Next, it was on to Ohio State University, where Dick Goldthwait (one of the deans of the Quaternary at the time) accepted me as a grad student. After I mapped the geomorphology, stratigraphy, and pedology of Clinton Co., Ohio, Doc G (who was the director of the Byrd Polar Institute at OSU) gave me the opportunity to go to Antarctica as a member of a team of 6 to study the late Paleozoic clastic sequence, which included the Gondwana tillites, and Cenozoic glacial sediments. We camped on the Reedy Glacier at 86.5° S latitude, where no humans had ever trod before, and got to the outcrops >16 km away by Polaris snowmobile and then by climbing the 400-m-high escarpment to where the outcrops were located. What a great day, after 2 months, when a team of Navy UH1B helicopters arrived to help with the logistics; our previous 2.5 hour trek to (and from) the outcrops became 15 minutes. I was honoured some years later to have a 11,550-ft-high peak in the Transantarctic Mts., where I had landed in a helicopter in 1965, named Teller Peak.

A 3-year stint in offshore oil exploration in Texas and Louisiana with Atlantic Richfield Co. was a great experience, but an NDEA Fellowship offer at the University of Cincinnati summoned me back for my PhD. Under the direction of Durrell, Goldthwait, and Wayne Pryor, I completed my study of the mineralogy of pre-Illinoian tills and the history of glaciation in SW Ohio, SE Indiana, and N Kentucky in 1970.

During my long career, I’ve had the good fortune to work with and interact with most Johnston Medal recipients. Let me mention some of my encounters with those exceptional Quaternarists, some of whom greatly influenced my research, and also mention several turning points and highlights in my career that impacted on the course of my research.

I first met a future W.A. Johnston Medal recipient at a meeting the year I graduated with my PhD – Paul Karrow, who was a rising star with the OGS. Paul offered important insight about applying for a job, and we’ve been friends ever since. Job opportunities were good in 1970, and I received offers from the Ontario Geological Survey, Quebec Survey, two oil companies, and two small colleges, plus the offer from the University of Manitoba that I accepted. I chose the academic appointment because, although I’d loved oil exploration, I’d left that industry to get a PhD so I could teach. I was the first glacial geologist employed in Manitoba, although others had worked in the province, including W.A. Johnston himself, Warren Upham, John Elson, and even J. Tuzo Wilson, who confided to me in my early years that he’d done some glacial geology work in northern Manitoba in his early career. To entice me to Manitoba, I was given a start-up grant of $1200 to fix-up a lab, and another $1000 to “buy books and journals in Pleistocene geology for the library”. Ah, the good old days. Oh, my starting salary was $12,500/yr, similar to what the oil patch was offering then.

I was introduced to the Quaternary geology of the Canadian Prairies by John Cherry (groundwater geologist in my Department at that time), Lee Clayton and Steve Moran (North Dakota Geological Survey and Geology Dept. at the University of North Dakota), John Elson (McGill), and Earl Christiansen (Saskatchewan Research Council).

Early in my career, I sought the advice of my co-recipient John Westgate. I had read some of John’s excellent papers on till characterization just after I arrived in Manitoba, so contacted him for advice when I was starting a project on till stratigraphy. At that time, he was a young prof at U of A, and he kindly provided insight into my proposed project in Manitoba. In the ‘70s, I received help from Jim Ritchie (at U of T), the 1999 Johnston Medal recipient, who guided me toward important data on the mysterious topic of pollen in lakes in Manitoba. Further insight about pollen was received from Jan Terasmae, 3rd recipient of the Johnston Medal, who I had first talked with in 1970 about a job opportunity in the newly formed department at Brock University.

Vic Prest and Aleksis Dreimanis, the first two recipients of the W.A. Johnston Medal, were icons in the 1970s, and I had the good fortune of knowing them and interacting with them throughout much of my career. In 1986, I spent 4 days with them and a dozen others on an INQUA Commission glacial geology fieldtrip in Glacier Bay, Alaska, which was organized in honour of my advisor, Dick Goldthwait. We did geology by day and slept on the boat “C’est si bon”, with many of us sleeping on deck under the stars and rain. In the mid-80s, I led an effort with Aleksis, Paul Karrow, Nat Rutter, Jerry Osborne, Steve Hickock, and others to get NSERC to regularly include a Quaternarist on the Grants Selection Committee. While all of us had been successful in getting NSERC grants, we felt that years passed when there seemed not to be a person on the Committee who had a “sympathetic” or “understanding” ear about Quaternary science. We were successful, and in 1989, NSERC divided the Earth Sciences division into 2 divisions, “Solid” and “Environmental”, with most of what we Quaternarists do falling into the latter, along with others like pedology, groundwater, paleo-atmospheric science, paleoclimate, and oceanography. I served on the first “Environmental Earth Sciences” Grant Selection Committee, with Derek Ford joining me during my last year, and Nat Rutter succeeding me – both W.A. Johnston Medal recipients.

Art Dyke, the 2009 recipient of the W.A. Johnston Medal, and I have long shared an interest in continent-scale issues, and we’ve published a couple of papers together. Recently, I’ve been collaborating with John Smol, another recent Medal recipient, and his colleagues at Queens on cores I collected from Lake of the Woods. John Clague, 1995 recipient of the Johnston Medal, and I have been friends for years, and we’ve worked together all over the world in the past 8 years in relation to meetings of INQUA Council, on which we’ve served together.

A major turning point in my career was when I went into the field to study the eastern outlets of Lake Agassiz in 1980, in the area north of Thunder Bay. It was serendipitous that it was “the second worst fire burn year in Ontario history”, so I was told, which meant that never-before-seen flood-scoured topography and boulder fields could be seen. Just a year or two before that, I had been on a field trip to the Channeled Scabland in the northwestern U.S., and my fieldwork in NW Ontario brought a “déjà-vu” feeling for the geology west of Lake Nipigon. I invited my friend Lee Clayton, and later, Norm Lasca, to come into the field to verify my conclusions about the catastrophic origin of overflow from Lake Agassiz into Lake Nipigon, and the rest is history after presenting my interpretations at the annual GSA meeting in Cincinnati in 1981 (“The catastrophic draining of glacial Lake Agassiz”). Harvey Thorleifson became a grad student with me that year, and we worked together on the eastern outlets of Lake Agassiz and then on a chapter for the 1983 “Glacial Lake Agassiz” book (GAC Special Paper 26), which Lee Clayton and I edited, that brought together new ideas and researchers after the GAC symposium we organized in Winnipeg in 1982.

A few years later, another turning point in my career occurred. Bill Ruddiman and Wally Broecker had just gotten interested in the Younger Dryas cooling (which few in North America knew much about then), and also had read some of my Lake Agassiz publications, so they invited me to tell the Lake Agassiz story (and comment on the remarkable coincidence of its catastrophic overflow with the Younger Dryas) at a meeting at Lamont-Doherty on “Was the Younger Dryas triggered by a diversion of meltwater from the Mississippi to the St. Lawrence?”. In 1989, we published in Nature the outrageous hypothesis that Lake Agassiz overflow was responsible for changing thermohaline circulation and causing the YD. Subsequently, my career moved into international circles.

I’ve had many enjoyable, stimulating, and productive sabbatical leaves away from the University of Manitoba, when I tried to expand my knowledge of Quaternary systems beyond the glacial regime. I commonly chose warm places.

My first overseas sabbatical was at ANU in Australia in 1977, where I worked on a late Quaternary sequence of evaporites and clastic sediments in a large playa lake (Lake Tyrrell) with Jim Bowler, for which we won the Stillwell Medal of the Geological Society of Australia. That experience greatly expanded my understanding of the Quaternary world and lacustrine sedimentology. In 1983, while on sabbatical, I cored a lake in Tahiti with John Flenley (a palynologist, then at Hull in the UK), which was supported by Earthwatch and the French Polynesian Marines. That same year, we cored the three volcanic crater lakes on Easter Island, a project that was funded by the Cercle d’Etudes sur l’Ile de Paques Project on human colonization of the South Pacific, Earthwatch, and several airlines. Stimulating sabbaticals or extended visits in the School of Geography at Oxford University, Marine Sciences Institute at the University of California (Santa Barbara), Department of Geography at Royal Holloway College (London), and the Department of Geology at the University of Cincinnati were great experiences and helped in my research in Canada.

A project in the United Arab Emirates with Ken Glennie, Ashok Singhvi, and Nick Lancaster on paleolakes and dunes led to several publications, one of which posed the idea that the postglacial marine transgression across the Persian Gulf, which had been dry for many thousands of years, displaced people who had lived there until ~8000 yrs ago when the basin was flooded. We suggested that this may have been the basis of various flood legends in that region, including Noah’s Flood. Well, this interested the media, just as had catastrophic outbursts from Lake Agassiz, and one of the media calls I got was from Channel 4 in the UK. “We’d like to interview you for a program we’re producing about the displacement of people along coastlines of the world at the end of the last Ice Age”, they said, “and we’ve learned about your research”. After more elaboration, I said OK, then went to tell my post doc Dave Leverington about it. After explaining, Dave wanted me to tell him more. “We’ll, they said they’d follow in the footsteps of Graham Hancock to see the effect on civilization 5-10,000 yrs ago as sea level rose”. “Who’s Graham Hancock?”, Dave asked. “Oh, I guess he’s the producer or narrator, but I really don’t know”, I replied. A few hours later, Dave called me saying that I’d better check out ”. It turned out that Graham Hancock had written several best-selling novels on how Martians had settled along the Earth’s coasts, and had gone back home when flooded out by rising postglacial sea level. I concluded that being part of a program that said “Dr. James Teller says that rising sea level forced Martians to flee global coast lines and return home” might have been an unfortunate turning point in my career, and immediately telephoned Channel 4 and told them I wouldn’t be available for the interview.

A favorite sabbatical project was in 1983-84, when I did research on interdune lake basins in the hyperarid Namib Sand Sea of Namibia with Nick Lancaster, who was at the University of Cape Town at that time. We were based out of the remote Desert Ecological Research Station at Gobabeb in the Namib Desert, and lived in tents in the interdune corridors while doing fieldwork. A year after this, I think at the first CANQUA meeting in Lethbridge in 1984, over several beers, Nat Rutter (1997 Johnston Medal recipient) and I began to design a follow-up research project with Nick Lancaster to try to better understand the paleohydrological history of SW Africa. A year later, we spent the Christmas holiday in the Namib desert.

This was the beginning of a long and continuing friendship with Nat that has included fieldwork in many places around the world, as well as on various international committees. We’ve shared the last scraps of food around campfires in various deserts and in the Himalayas, where we couldn’t tell if the pot contained goat, entrails, dog, or snake, spent Christmas in Swapkopmund, Easter in Mauritania where we travelled in a Landrover in the Sahara with Nanny & Billy goat, who would become our next meals, and shared a meal of long noodles on a train in China on my birthday.

Canada and the Quaternary community have supported me for more than 40 years in my professional activities. I’ve benefited from your wisdom and am grateful for this special award. My thanks to all of you, fellow Quaternarists, for that support and for listening to this long personal history.

Jim Teller