Professor wins 2017 Alfred Wegener Medal of the European Geosciences Union

Sivapalan recognized for exceptional international standing in his field

Sivapalan received the 2017 Alfred Wegener Medal, one of three equally top-ranked medals awarded by European Geosciences Union. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Geography & GIScience.)
Sivapalan received the 2017 Alfred Wegener Medal, one of three equally top-ranked medals awarded by European Geosciences Union. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Geography & GIScience.)

Murugesu “Siva” Sivapalan, professor in the departments of Geography & GIScience and Civil and Environmental Engineering, has been awarded the 2017 European Geosciences Union’s (EGU) Alfred Wegener Medal, which recognizes scientists who have achieved exceptional international standing in atmospheric, hydrological or ocean sciences.

Sivapalan becomes the third hydrologist to receive the medal since it was first awarded in 1983. In fact, the 2014 Wegener Medal was awarded to Sivapalan’s PhD advisor Eric Wood, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton University.

“Over Siva’s career, his research has covered many themes with the constant thread of building on a tremendously strong theoretical basis—grounded in fluid mechanics, hydrologic processes, stochastic processes and numerical methods, which has allowed him to explore hydrology’s scientific questions beyond the boundaries of what existed in the literature, or ‘popular thinking,’” said Wood. “In reading Siva’s papers, one is forced to reconsider old approaches and results, and is provoked to think in new ways.”

The Wegener Medal is one of three equally top-ranked medals awarded by EGU, named after Alfred Wegener (1880 – 1931), the German geophysicist and climatologist best known for presenting the “Pangaea” theory—that the Earth’s continents were once a single landmass that drifted apart over the millennia and formed separate continents. Wegener collected matching fossil and rock specimens from each continent to prove his theory, and subsequently changed our understanding of how the continents and oceans were formed.

It is fitting that a medal bearing Alfred Wegener’s name is being presented to Professor Sivapalan, since his work has had a similar impact on the field of hydrology, helping us to understand and make better predictions about water cycles.

In 2012, Sivapalan founded the field of socio-hydrology, a new science that examines the interactions between people and water systems. His groundbreaking theoretical and practical work in this area has helped geographers, hydrologists, and engineers better understand and manage the physical and social processes behind water cycles in a changing world.

Sivapalan’s work addresses one of the major challenges of hydrologic predictions—environmental change, modified by anthropogenic influences, which makes historical records unreliable for future predictions. In the spirit of Alfred Wegener, Sivapalan proposed that past historical records and new observations be “mined” for physical insights about how internal process dynamics and their external controls contribute to observed variability in the water cycle.

Ciaran Harman (PhD, ’11, geography) was one of Dr. Sivapalan’s PhD advisees, and is currently assistant professor of landscape hydrology at Johns Hopkins University. In April 2015, Sivapalan invited Harman back to Illinois to give the opening remarks at his investiture for the Chester and Helen Siess Endowed Professorship in Civil & Environmental Engineering.

“Siva uses simple models to generate deep insights, revealing how shifts in the hydrologic dynamics of watersheds of different scales arises from shifts in the balance between competing forces in that vast network of interactions. Few can pull off this kind of high-wire balance of simple-mindedness and clear thinking, but Siva’s work persuades with an elegance that is above reproach,” Harman said.

The Siess professorship and Wegener Medal are just two of Sivapalan’s many career-defining accomplishments that illustrate his broad reach across theory and empiricism, his envisioning of hydrology as use-inspired basic science, and his leadership in mobilizing the community to move the field of hydrology in new directions.

“When change is happening very rapidly, the past is no longer a guide for the future,” said Sivapalan.

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Matt Cohn, Department of Geography & GIScience