Dunne Receives 2011 G. K. Gilbert Award

Thomas Dunne received the 2011 G. K. Gilbert Award at the 2011 AGU Fall Meeting, held 5–9 December in San Francisco, Calif. The award recognizes “a scientist who has either made a single significant advance or sustained significant contributions to the field of Earth and planetary surface processes, and who has in addition promoted an environment of unselfish cooperation in research and the inclusion of young scientists into the field.”


dunne_thomasThe emergence of a strong community of geomorphologists in the past 40 years owes much of its existence to the inspiring intellectual leadership of Tom Dunne. At the University of Washington and the University of California, Santa Barbara, Tom has taught generations of students. He has done this through inspiring lectures, field-based class exercises, reading seminars, joyful discussions with individual students and colleagues, and close collaboration in the field on research projects. His deeply penetrating scholarly publications (including no fewer than 18 book chapters and two books, Rapid Sediment Budgets with Leslie Reid and Water in Environmental Planning with Luna Leopold) reach the entire community.

Tom really is responsible for what could be called a school of thought that helped lead geomorphology from the backwaters of Earth science in the 1950s and 1960s to the success and excitement it now enjoys. One can easily keep busy in science. Tom asks us to do something significant, or at least try to, and have fun trying. He asks for good scholarship, fundamental questions, field observations, experimentation (field and laboratory), process understanding, and theory.

Tom discovered and explained saturation overland flow. The process goes by many names, including the Dunne mechanism. Call it what you will, its discovery, quantification, and explanation by Tom constitute a cornerstone of our understanding of runoff hydrology. Tom has now worked with over 35 graduate students on a wide range of topics, including channel networks, weathering, hillslope erosion, sediment routing and sediment budgets, river mechanics, meandering and floodplain depositional processes, and watershed management and river restoration.

For over 40 years, Tom has shaped the field of geomorphology through key discoveries, intellectual leadership, and mentorship of generations of young geomorphologists. For this leadership he is awarded the 2011 G. K. Gilbert Award of the Earth and Planetary Surface Processes Focus Group of the American Geophysical Union.

William E. Dietrich, University of California, Berkeley


Thanks, Bill, for the generous introduction and to those who compiled and evaluated the nomination. It’s a reminder of how helpful we all are to one another in organizations like AGU and how energizing such support is in creating and disseminating new knowledge. I never expected to be linked to Gilbert when I was introduced to his theoretical literature and exotic field adventures 50 years ago in Richard Chorley’s revolutionary geomorphology classes at Cambridge. Chorley used Gilbert to illustrate the goal of developing general theory about landscape evolution through the functioning of surface processes. That interdisciplinary goal led directly to the Earth and Planetary Surface Processes Focus Group.

This new community required a few other developments. The first was guidance from important mentors, such as Ron Shreve, Peter Eagleson, and Jim Smith, who demonstrated how to transform the study of surface processes into a geophysical science formalizing the analysis of entire evolving landforms and landscapes. Our earlier quantitative approaches were learned, for example, from agricultural and geotechnical engineering, which, however valuable, limited us to small scales of time and space and unidirectional causality. Geophysics enlarged our perspective and allowed us to study the coevolution of landscapes and processes but still promoted rigor of theory and method. Then, as geophysics itself diversified by assimilating chemical and biological studies, our field participated. We also profited from technological advances allowing measurements of Davis’s landforming triad of process, material properties, and time. Most important and promising of all, the field is being transformed by young people with modern scientific training entering the field and utilizing novel methods to study the part of Earth that affects people most immediately as well as other planetary landscapes that inspire our curiosity. It’s a wonderful prospect; this community is working very well. Gilbert, the pioneer, would have approved.

Thomas Dunne, University of California, Santa Barbara