Church Receives 2017 G. K. Gilbert Award

Michael Church will receive the 2017 G. K. Gilbert Award in Surface Processes at the 2017 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, to be held 11–15 December in New Orleans, La. The award recognizes a scientist who has made “a single significant advance or sustained significant contributions to the field of Earth and planetary surface processes” and “also promoted an environment of unselfish cooperation in research and the inclusion of young scientists into the field.”


Given Grove Karl Gilbert’s legacy of high-caliber fieldwork, coupled to process-based studies, there can be few more deserving recipients of the G. K. Gilbert Award than Prof. Michael Church of the University of British Columbia. Primarily a field scientist, his extensive investigations on Baffin Island, his backbreaking work establishing necessary sampling criteria for gravel bar sedimentary studies, and other works on gravel bed river dynamics have been complemented by flume experimentation and computational studies on process dynamics.

In addition to statistical rigor, three other great attributes of Mike’s research are mechanical insight, as exemplified by work with Rob Ferguson on grain settling velocity; an ability to critique and interrogate foundational concepts, as shown in his groundbreaking work with Olav Slaymaker on how equilibrium scaling for specific sediment yield breaks down when a postglacial sediment pulse is working its way through a landscape; and a keen reflective and philosophical strand to his thinking, with particular focus on the nature of scale, associated phenomena such as allometry, and the history of the discipline.

Mike has also been a pivotal figure in the education of professional and academic geomorphologists in Canada and farther afield. His undergraduate hydrology course, with the requirement to deploy calculus, graphical techniques, and conceptual reflection in order to succeed, left a deep impression on me on how such classes should be devised. At graduate level, that Mike’s numerous students themselves have gone on to make significant contributions to the field is testament to the way in which Mike helped hone their critical and technical faculties while they worked with him.

I am sure that a great many colleagues from around the world will join me in expressing their delight that AGU has seen fit to award the 2017 G. K. Gilbert Award to Mike.

—Christopher Keylock, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, United Kingdom


Ah, if one could but believe such an encomium. But one implication of it unquestionably is true: I have consciously attempted to emulate the scientific method of G. K. Gilbert. Geomorphological insight must be preceded by fieldwork—detailed, usually strenuous, field (or laboratory) work—and must be followed by careful and extended thought.

There are three things I wish to say about this unexpected but much appreciated award. First, sincere thanks to Chris Keylock for the nomination and to the anonymous members of the focus group who selected it. Coming as it does from my immediate colleagues, it is the most valued of recognitions.

Second, this is not really a personal award. “Michael Church” is simply the corporate signature of about 10 generations of remarkable students, both graduate and undergraduate, and, as Chris has noted, two or three senior colleagues. It would be unfair to mention only some names, and tedious to mention all. You know who you are; the achievement is yours.

Third, I would like to reflect on the fact that I am not an American. It is nevertheless entirely in the character of AGU that I should receive this award (consider the names on the honors list for this or any other year). From its beginnings (in 1919) as a semiofficial focus for American national and international activities in the then nascent field of geophysics, the Union has grown to be the authoritative international leader of the much expanded field. And it has welcomed us all, from anywhere on the globe. It is an outstanding example of American scientific leadership. Thank you for that.

As for my work, it will be of value only if it gives rise to better work (paraphrased from a letter of Alexander von Humboldt to Charles Darwin, September 1839).

—Michael Church, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C., Canada