2023 Israel C. Russell Award

Presented to Donald T. Rodbell

Donald T. Rodbell

Donald T. Rodbell
Union College


Citation by J M Erickson

Dr. Donald T. Rodbell, currently the Jane and John Wold Professor of Geology at Union College where he has taught since 1993, is the Israel C. Russell Award winner for 2023. Dr. Rodbell is an outstanding teacher/researcher whose work over the past thirty-five years has brought the significance of lakes as active repositories of the history of Earth’s landmasses to the attention of a broad range of the scientific community. Throughout this career, lakes as libraries of Pleistocene—Holocene historical details and their sedimentological records have been a focus of his research and a vehicle for his teaching. Most recently, the import of Limnogeology to correlation of baseline climate/paleoclimate conditions in both southern and northern hemispheres has been established by Rodbell’s summary of 700,000 years of paleoclimate history based upon the coring of Lake Junin in the Peruvian Andes. This synthesis of many years of research by himself, his students and his colleagues brings to public attention the many climate changes of our planet emphasizing how sensitive and interactive our global systems really are. Don has built an information database against which many will compare their data and test their queries for years to come.

This has been accomplished as a hands-on educational element of Rodbell’s undergraduate teaching program over thirty years in a manner that should be instructive to all. Further, his willingness to interact with the public and with local communities provides an example of the way the processes of science can involve holistic learning at several levels within multiple learner communities. That teaching/research model no doubt emerged from the first lake sediments Rodbell studied as an undergraduate in a unique learning environment. Don’s life’s work has led to the many successful career accomplishments honored by this award.


Response by Donald T. Rodbell

Thank you, Kirstin, for your reading of Mark Erickson’s nomination letter. I am very honored to be the recipient of the 2023 Israel C. Russell Award. This award is named in memory of a former GSA president, one of the founders of the National Geographic Society, and author of one of the earliest treatises on lakes, entitled Lakes of North America, published in 1895.

Thank you to the Limnogeology Division and to Mark Erickson, my undergraduate professor at St. Lawrence University, for nominating me. He has been one of my exemplars of a dedicated student-centered scholar-teacher at a small liberal arts college.

One of the handful of really good decisions that I have made in my life was to focus my graduate research on paleolimnology. When I acquired my first sediment cores 37 years ago, I had no idea just how important and relevant the field of paleolimnology would become to human society. Today, no other natural archive exceeds lake sediment cores in providing terrestrial-based, pre-instrumental perspectives of ongoing anthropogenic climate and environmental change from virtually all latitudes and altitudes, from the places where people actually live. These perspectives are essential for fully comprehending the unprecedented rate that human-driven changes that are occurring. Perhaps equally— or more— importantly, few endeavors can take one on better adventures to more stunning localities, and leave one with more indelible memories of the colleagues with whom you’ve toiled and laughed, and even the jury-rigged solutions to equipment malfunctions. These memories can help us through life’s difficult times, like Covid lock downs, or worse.

My interest in lakes began at the University of Colorado. I learned of the work of Wibjorn Karlén, who demonstrated the potential of lake sediment cores to document the timing of glaciation in Sweden. I was hooked. In 1986, I travelled to Peru with my advisor, the late Pete Birkeland, to begin a glacial geomorphology PhD. project, and I pushed to also core glacial lakes, which neither of us had ever done. Later, as a post doc at Ohio State University, I began working with Geoff Seltzer, also coring glacial lakes in the tropical Andes. In 1996, Geoff introduced me to a 1-in-a-million lake in the central Peruvian Andes known as Lake Junín. It is the region’s “Goldilocks Lake”, close enough to maximum ice limits to record a remarkable signal of glaciation for the past 700 ka, but far enough to have never been overtopped by ice. We plotted together what would become a nearly 20-year path to elevate Lake Junín to be an ICDP drilling site. Geoff’s tragic passing in 2005 was a crushing blow to me, to the Project, and to the paleolimnology community. Thankfully, I was soon joined by a group of extraordinary colleagues and their students. Most notably Mark Abbott and his team here at Pitt, and Pedro Tapia in Lima Peru, and in 2015 we successfully drilled the basin. Our research vessel was named the RV G.O. Seltzer.

My colleagues in the geoscience department at Union College have been a source of inspiration to me for 30 years. We are each dedicated to the primacy of undergraduate education, and we have each contributed to making the department among the most research active and best instrumented. It has been very rewarding for me to have introduced so many undergraduate students to the magic of the Andes and to the wonders of paleolimnology.

Thank you to my family for their unwavering support and for putting up with my regular, long absences to places where sometimes only satellite phone conversations were possible.

And so, in closing, I would just reiterate that none of my accomplishments have been mine alone: I stand here on the shoulders of those who have taught me, inspired me, worked with me, shared their passion for paleolimnology with me, and sometimes just plain tolerated me.