Benjamin L. Preston

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

2015 Charles S. Falkenberg Award Winner

Benjamin Lee Preston received the 2015 Charles S. Falkenberg Award at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 16 December 2015 in San Francisco, Calif. The award honors an “-early- to -middle-​-career scientist who has contributed to the quality of life, economic opportunities, and stewardship of the planet through the use of Earth science information and to the public awareness of the importance of understanding our planet.”


Dr. Benjamin Preston fully embodies the spirit and focus of the Charles S. Falkenberg Award. Ben has been a tireless leader in climate change research and raising societal awareness of the challenges posed by climate change. He has published research that spans experimentation, analysis of Earth system observations, and physical/ecosystem modeling. His research leadership also extends into the social sciences. This depth has enabled Ben to become an internationally recognized innovator in both fundamental and applied research regarding the assessment of climate change vulnerability and risk, including probabilistic analysis of climate projection ensembles, evaluation of exceeding climate thresholds in natural and human systems, and the use of risk management in guiding climate adaptation decision making.

For over the past decade, Ben has been working on the analysis of the spatial and temporal dynamics of climate risk to human settlements, including spatial integration of heterogeneous biophysical data on climate, topography, and land use from Earth system models and remote sensing. He has integrated these data with socioeconomic data such as land values, population, and infrastructure in order to translate changes in the Earth system into societal vulnerability and adaptive capacity to climate and global change. It is this commitment to understanding how climate risk research is used by society that really sets Ben apart from others.

Ben is well known for his skills in communicating with various audiences about climate change, the underlying science, and ways in which society can manage climate risk; he has participated in congressional Climate Science Day, met with Tennessee and Virginia congressional staff, given invited talks at the Chattanooga Engineers Club and Knoxville Rotary Club, participated in a discussion of climate change on local public radio, and talked to high school students about climate change and the rewards of a career in science. He has also been the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report coordinating lead author on Working Group II’s “Adaptation, Opportunities, Constraints, and Limits” chapter and lead author on the IPCC Synthesis Report and was highlighted in the video accompanying the release of the IPCC Working Group II report.

I believe that Ben is emerging as an exceptional and important leader in the AGU and climate community and fully embodies the personal and professional qualities represented by the Falkenberg Award.

—Jack D. Fellows, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tenn.


Almost 20 years have elapsed since I first began my graduate studies in environmental science. Throughout that time, I have sought to identify ways in which science can be applied to address practical environmental challenges. Despite being warned by multiple advisers about the potential pitfalls of dabbling in policy or public engagement, I believe there is a growing demand for scientists who, regardless of the stage of their career, are committed to pursuing quality science with direct social impacts.

Therefore, it is indeed an honor to receive the Charles S. Falkenberg Award. I am grateful to both AGU and the Earth Science Information Partnership, not only for this individual recognition but also for their support of the Falkenberg Award, which acknowledges the value of public engagement and science communication. I also owe much to a long list of mentors—Vicki Arroyo, Jack Fellows, Bill Glaze, Gary Jacobs, Jay Gulledge, Bill Hooke, Tony Janetos, Roger Jones, and Terry Snell, to name but a few—who have helped me along what has so far been a rewarding career path.

The advances I have witnessed over the past 2 decades in computing, remote sensing, visualization, and understanding of Earth system processes are clear indicators of the benefits generated from investments in science. Nevertheless, challenges remain in making Earth science information accessible, interoperable, and useful for society. We must constantly reevaluate how we can do a better job of putting that information to work for societal benefit. In so doing, we will likely discover a need to better understand humans as the dominant agent of global change. We are extensively documenting how, when, and where we are affecting our planet, but questions of why are more elusive. By coupling our knowledge of Earth system dynamics with knowledge of human system dynamics generated by social, behavioral, and policy sciences, we can accelerate our capacity to use science to enhance the well–being of human and natural systems alike.

The Earth scientists of the future may therefore be trained quite differently than those of the past. We are already seeing opportunities for interdisciplinary education and careers expanding rapidly. Research organizations, including my own, are actively integrating knowledge and capabilities to address questions at the forefront of Earth science but also relevant to different stakeholder communities and their objectives. These trends are part of the legacy of Charles Falkenberg. Hopefully, that legacy inspires us all.

—Benjamin Lee Preston, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tenn.