Marine Geosciences Division – M.J. Keen Medal – Ali Aksu

M.J. Keen Medal

The Michael J. Keen Medal 2014 Recipient: Ali Aksu

Winner of the 2014 Michael J. Keen Medal, awarded annually to a scientist who has made a significant contribution to the field of marine or lacustrine geoscience, is Dr. Ali Aksu, of Memorial University.

Nomination of Ali Aksu for the MJ Keen Medal

I hereby nominate Dr Ali Aksu of Memorial University for the 2014 Michael J. Keen medal, awarded to a scientist who has made a significant contribution to the field of marine or lacustrine geoscience.

This nomination is supported by Dr Jeremy Hall and Dr John Andrews, both of whom have provided letters of support.

Dr Aksu has a well-established international reputation, for his major contributions to three main issues. In each, he has taken a poorly understood but important problem, develop a paradigm shift on the understanding of the problem, and then moved on, leaving others to do some of the less rewarding clean up work. These three issues are centred around the paleoceanography offshore northeastern Canada, the late Pleistocene–Holocene history of the Marmara Sea gateway, and the collision tectonics of the eastern Mediterranean.

His early work, starting as a graduate student, on the history of ice cover in the seaways off eastern Canada and the adjacent continental shelves provided an important foundation for modern studies that link the paleoclimate record from Greenland ice cores to the workings of the Labrador Sea in influencing meridional overturning circulation in the World Ocean and its impact on the entire climate-ocean system. Subsequent researchers, such as Dick Peltier on the origins of 7 ka cycles in the Labrador Sea and Claude Hillaire Marcel on the paleoceanographic record in the Labrador Sea build on the intellectual foundation provided by Dr Aksu. Ali’s thesis work in Baffin Bay still remains the most comprehensive understanding of the Late Quaternary of that critical area and led to important collaborations, mostly with US researchers, that showed the importance of North Atlantic Drift water reaching high latitudes. The classical CLIMAP reconstruction of the Labrador Sea predicted 100% sea ice cover during the last glacial maximum: Ali’s work showed that this was an artefact of the dissolution of the microfossils used to make such reconstructions. Today, his evidence for important ocean circulation in these high latitude seas is universally accepted and the foundation for much detailed paleoclimatic and paleo-oceanographic work. I would also mention his 1980′s early work on Orphan Basin and the Baffin Slope, which provided models ahead of their time on slope failure and mass-transport deposits on glaciated margins, that have only been followed up by others in the past decade.

From his early work in eastern Canada, Ali learnt that advances in marine geoscience were made through the creative combination of seismic-reflection profiling of the seabed and taking long cores in critical locations to groundtruth the age and character of the sediments. He and I did some early work together in the 1970′s on the way in which deltas built on rapidly subsiding continental shelves. This early work has been an important contribution to the understanding of the current hot topic of “shelf edge” deltas (see the review by Porebski and Steel, 2003 in Earth Science Reviews). He and I were the first to use stacked delta sequences tied to the global eustatic sea level record as a way of assigning ages to buried Quaternary deltaic successions to deep to sample, a technique now widely used throughout the world. But this is by way of introduction. Ali applied his intellectual understanding of how deltas worked and interacted with sea level changes to one of the most important oceanographic gateways in the world, the Black Sea – Mediterranean connection. His meticulous seismic and coring work showed that the notion that the flooding of the Black Sea created the Noah’s Flood myth was not supported by the complex record of sea-level change in the Sea of Marmara on which he and his team worked. They provided a more reasonable and less catastrophic interpretation of the long history of the Black Sea water flow into the Mediterranean, supported by studies in the Aegean Sea and Black Sea. This paradigm shift in the understanding of the Black Sea – Mediterranean gateway was written up in a series of widely cited papers published in Marine Geology in 2002 and subsequent work in Sedimentology and other journals. Teams from France, the U.S.A. and Turkey are now mopping up the details of the story.

Dr Aksu’s third main contribution has been in studies of tectonics of the eastern Mediterranean. How the final stages of the destruction of oceans works is critical for understanding the details of mountain belts, such as the Appalachians of Newfoundland on which his department at Memorial University built its reputation in the last century. There are few places in the world where we can see this process in action today, with the area from Papua-New Guinea to Indonesia and the eastern Mediterranean being the two best examples. The overall pattern of collision in the eastern Mediterranean, at the level of individual tectonic plates, is well known; but how deformation took place in the various small blocks between the vise of Africa and Turkey had been grossly misunderstood from poor quality marine data. Ali worked with Jeremy Hall to collect cutting edge quality seismic profiles from critical areas in the eastern Mediterranean. Important contributions have been published in the last decade (many in a 2005 issue of Marine Geology and two others in 2009 and more in press). The level of detail of understanding of how collision works in the eastern Mediterranean, and its impact on regional structure and sedimentation, is better known than in any other analogous environment in the world, and Ali’s work provides a template and a challenge for similar work elsewhere.

I emphasise to those government scientists who may be on the selection committee that it is very difficult to be a field-based marine scientist in a Canadian university. There is no national pool of sea-going equipment and the dollar amount allocated by NSERC for university shiptime is pitifully low. Cutting edge, internationally competitive marine geoscience needs access to research vessels capable of handling large equipment and working offshore on a 24-7 basis. To maintain the equipment, ship-time funding, and logistics is an enormous challenge for a university-based scientist and to do all of this and keep focussed on the scientific issues is a remarkable accomplishment. How many GSC marine research scientists have a forklift license.

At an anecdotal level, I would add that Ali seems to be a great inspiration to his students. I have worked with students who had only one course from him, those who did an honours thesis with him, and those who have been graduate students. Without exception, the reports have been enthusiastic. I know students who have known other professors in his department and students who know other marine geology professors elsewhere in the country, and have not heard of any as consistently well regarded as Ali. On the basis of this unscientific poll, I would emphasise the role that Ali has played in educating the next generation of Canadian marine scientists.

Ali has pulled his weight in the national marine community. I remember him as a driving force behind an NSERC sponsored meeting in 1997 on how universities could collaborate better to deliver marine science. In a sense, this was a precursor of ArcticNet. And he served on NSERC committees, including the Ship Time Allocation Committee and the Grant Selection Committee and on the Canadian National Committee for SCOR.

In summary, Ali has seen important problems relating to two of the biggest geoscience issues of our times: the record of paleoceanography (which provides a means to test hypotheses on the workings of the climate system) and large scale tectonics (which tell us how our Earth was built). He has demonstrated a knack of working persistently on a problem and making major advances in thinking. His international standing is not just because he has found problems outside Canada: he has worked on international-calibre problems and has gained widespread recognition in his field for this work. It is a commentary on the rather cliquish character of Canadian geoscience that his accomplishments are not better recognised in Canada, that he is better known east of Cabot Strait than west of Cabot Strait. To me, he is the most successful sea-going marine geologist currently in any Canadian university and the best known internationally. He has made broader contributions and made more important progress on issues than for example Reinhard Hesse, now retired from McGill; or Paul Hill and Dave Scott at Dalhousie. While I am not a great fan of bibliometrics, after writing these “gut feelings” I did check on Scopus for citations and found that they supported this statement. I believe all this evidence demonstrates that Dr Ali Aksu would make a very worthy recipient of the Michael J. Keen medal.

Yours sincerely
David J.W. Piper



Letter in support of nomination of Dr Ali Aksu for Michael J. Keen Medal
Ali Aksu has made outstanding and seminal contributions to several issues of global significance in his marine geological research: paleoclimatology and paleoceanography of the Arctic Ocean and linking seas (Baffin Bay and Labrador Sea); evolution of deltas in microtidal settings; Quaternary water exchange between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea; Neogene tectonics of the active convergent plate margin in the eastern Mediterranean; and the source-to-sink linkage between the uplifting orogenic plateau of the Anatolides and the subsiding forearc basins of the eastern Mediterranean; among others.
Over the last 40 years, Ali Aksu has participated in 40 marine geoscience research cruises, 75% of them as chief or co-chief scientist, spending about 120 weeks at sea, supervising around 80 undergraduate and graduate students, accessing over $7 million of research funding, publishing 120 papers in peer-reviewed international scientific journals, and presenting a large number of papers at scientific conferences. To have maintained this high level of activity through a period when support of marine science by the Canadian government has become paltry is testimony to Ali’s scientific leadership, energy, enthusiasm and the political ability to collaborate effectively with international colleagues.
So much for some of the bald facts! Here I want to focus on the special relationship I have with Ali, based on my collaborations with him over the last 25 years in our eastern Mediterranean project. This all started from a brainstorming session around 1989 with John Malpas and Tom Calon, who had both been involved in mapping the Troodos ophiolite in Cyprus. We sensed that there was an opportunity to use Ali’s links with his former alter mater in Izmir, Turkey, to establish a marine project to map the Mediterranean seafloor around Cyprus to better understand the active convergent plate margin on which Cyprus sits, explaining why, among other things, Cyprus is an island. Cyprus sits on the edge of the upper (Aegean-Anatolian) plate above the underlying African plate.
Ali established an excellent working relationship with the Institute of Marine Sciences and Technology (IMST) at Dokuz Eylül University in Izmir, to mount our multi-channel seismic systems on their research vessel, RV K. Piri Reis, and to undertake a series of surveys to map with reflection profiling the deformation zones associated with the plate motions and to establish the Neogene history of the forearc basins that sit atop the upper plate.
In six cruises between 1991 and 2010, we acquired around 18,000 km of multi-channel reflection seismic profiles along and across the Cyprus Arc from the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean about 1000 km west to the transform margin that separates the Cyprus Arc from the Hellenic Arc. To put this in perspective, we have acquired about twice the total seismic reflection profile length that was acquired during the whole of the national LITHOPROBE project. In acquiring, processing and interpreting these data, we have explained the change from a prevalent regional Miocene contractional deformation to a more complex transpressional/transtensional deformation today, related to the change in plate convergence as the Cyprus Arc subduction slows and ceases due to incipient continental collision as microcontinental blocks on the northern edge of the African plate become docked in the subduction zone. Cyprus is an island because of the local uplift of the upper plate edge caused by docking below Cyprus! Our numerous publications on the area are co-authored by other members of our group, including Tom Calon, several colleagues from IMST, a number of our students, and Cenk Yaltırak, a structural geologist from Istanbul Technical University. Apart from our contributions to the wider plate story of the eastern Mediterranean area, our group has become the de facto experts on the Miocene and later geology of this extensive marine area, with our knowledge sought by academics and oil companies alike. Our students find ready employment in the oil exploration industry.
While this explains our project and its principal conclusions in brief, it does not portray the enormous effort involved in such surveys, which would not have succeeded without Ali’s inspirational efforts. We have to maintain and develop our seismic hardware here—air guns, gun frames, towing umbilicals, a compressor, a multi-channel streamer, streamer birds, recorders, shooting electronics—with very limited resources. We have to pack a couple of containers, arrange customs clearance, ship the containers to Turkey, get them out of customs, hire a truck and crane to transport them to the ship and install the equipment. Much of this Ali will do himself with modest help from the rest of our group. While surveying, we have to keep watches, and maintain the equipment ourselves. We cannot afford to take technical help: when our guns fail, it’s Aksu and Hall who climb into the gun frame wielding wrenches on a heaving stern deck in 30-40°C and 90% humidity! That we do all this while being monitored, and occasionally oppressed, by the military of nearby countries, just adds to the mix! It’s exciting science. There’s nothing quite like watching the unprocessed data printing on an EPC chart recorder as we survey: NSERC still call their individual research grants “Discovery Grants” and that’s what Ali and I have been doing in the eastern Mediterranean for over 20 years.
I have no doubt that the same infectious enthusiasm marks Ali’s contributions to his other projects. His work on the connections between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean is also based on collaborations with IMST and with a variety of other international collaborators from the USA and UK, as well as his MUN colleague, Rick Hiscott. Again this work has global significance not least in critiquing the hypotheses advanced by others that sudden connections between the seas may be the origin of the biblical Noah’s flood.
All this tells us that Ali has made major contributions to Canada’s visibility in the international world of marine geoscience, while working extremely hard to achieve what others might have given up on. He is surely a worthy recipient of the Michael J. Keen Medal.

Yours sincerely,
Jeremy Hall
Letter in support of nomination of Dr Ali Aksu for Michael J. Keen Medal
It is a distinct pleasure to write a strong letter in support of the nomination of Professor Ali Aksu for the GAC M.J.Keen medal. My connection to the nominee goes back to 1980 when I was asked to be the external examiner on his PhD dissertation from Dalhousie University. This dissertation was a truly significant piece of research that I, and many others, still cite. Aksu’s dissertation research was a comprehensive study of the Quaternary history of Baffin Bay, archived in a series of marine piston cores. It has taken until 2008-2014 for significant advances to be made over and above this early pioneer study. A series of publications stemmed from the dissertation and treated a number of issues that are still important in any effort to understand the Quaternary history of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. These papers included issues concerned with paleomagnetic excursions, dissolution cycles, and detrital carbonate events. It was largely on the basis of this dissertation, and work by Piper and others, that the Ocean Drilling Program ventured north into Baffin Bay to ODP Site 645—one of the first truly “polar” ODP sites in the Northern Hemisphere. Aksu continued work in the Labrador Sea and around Newfoundland with a focus on slope processes and climate history, but his research also took a significant departure in the last two decades or so when he started research projects on the history of the Black Sea. In 1996-1997 I enlisted Ali’s expertise and, together with other colleagues, we re-visited several of his key cores, housed in Dartmouth, NS, and further refined his original chronology of the detrital carbonate events so evident in the Baffin Bay sediment records.
In my opinion Ali Aksu’s contributions to the Quaternary history of Baffin Bay and the Labrador Sea have been truly significant and recognition of this, plus his other research interests, merits serious consideration for the award of the M.J. Keen medal.
Yours sincerely
John T. Andrews, DSc,
Professor Emeritus Geological Sciences, Senior Fellow INSTAAR



Recipients of the Michael J. Keen Medal may be a Canadian or a non-Canadian who have made a contribution in Canada or with a distinctively Canadian flavour. For more information please see:

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