David A. Seekell

Umeå University

2016 Science for Solutions Award Winner

David A. Seekell received the 2016 Science for Solutions Award at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 14 December 2016 in San Francisco, Calif. The award is for “significant contributions in the application and use of the Earth
and space sciences to solve societal problems.”


One of the major goals for modern societies is to secure access to enough resources that can be used to produce a sufficient amount of food to feed the growing and increasingly demanding human population while eradicating undernourishment and limiting the impact on the environment. Two of the main challenges in doing so are as follows: (1) In many countries the population has grown so much that the land and water resources locally available are not sufficient to produce all the food they need. Therefore, these countries depend on trade. (2) The environmental response to increasing human pressure may be nonlinear. Ecosystems may be susceptible to abrupt and highly irreversible changes to unwanted alternative states. It is still unclear how the resilience of global food systems is affected by the globalization of food through trade and the presence of alternative stable environmental states. Research in these areas is crucially important to the future of the global society. David Seekell’s scholarly work has contributed to major advances in both directions.

His research on early warning signs of state change in lakes has moved ecological theories forward while providing new tools for ecosystem management. David focused on transitions between alternative stable states in bistable ecosystem dynamics and developed methods that can be used to recognize incipient conditions of regime shift. His work has developed some “leading indicators” based on the use of conditional variance as a precursor of transitions between eutrophic and oligotrophic conditions. Through theory, numerical simulations, observations, and experimental manipulations, his work has advanced our current understanding of regime shift in ecosystems and identified early warning signs that “work” even when the other leading indicators either fail or are ineffective.

David Seekell is addressing research questions relevant to social-environmental systems with a focus on food security, inequality, and globalization. His work is connecting the dots between water use and inequality theories. His research on the global inequality of water use has investigated the major biophysical factors contributing to inequality in access to water and clarified the extent to which it is affected by trade. His recent work has also highlighted how the resilience of the global food system strongly depends on the presence of redundancies (e.g., yield gaps, uncultivated land, and grain reserves), the structure of the trade network, and the degree of trade dependency. Collectively, these areas of activities connect fundamental research questions with issues of immediate societal relevance.

—Paolo D’Odorico, University of Virginia, Charlottesville


I am honored and humbled to receive the Science for Solutions Award. I would like to thank Paolo D’Odorico for organizing the nomination and AGU for recognizing and supporting the efforts of ­early-­career researchers.

I consider myself first and foremost a limnologist and aquatic ecologist with a focus on lakes. Few features of the Earth system are untouched by human activities, and lakes reflect human activities particularly strongly. The human–­ecosystem connection is strong to the extent that even the most fundamental questions are not fully evaluated without considering them within the human context. Increasingly, this includes international teleconnections such as climate change and international trade. Patterns of international trade, for example, can be strongly related to changes in ecosystem mass balances but are rarely evaluated because limnological studies tend to have a more local focus. I expect that developing an understanding of these types of connections will be an active area of research for my generation, and I am encouraged that AGU supports this through both the Science for Solutions Award and the development of the journal Earth’s Future.

The Earth science community comprises smart, kind, and supportive individuals. Collaborating with members of this community has made my career in research a worthwhile and enjoyable endeavor. The group of researchers I have had the pleasure of working with is too large to list in this response, but I am particularly grateful for the support and encouragement of Michael Pace and Jan Karlsson, who were my doctoral and postdoctoral advisors. I am also grateful for mentoring and opportunities provided by Paolo D’Odorico, Stephen Carpenter, and Jon Cole. Finally, I would like to thank the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation for its support through the Wallenberg Academy Fellows program.

Thank you for this award. This recognition is motivation to continue my efforts in addressing these fundamental questions.

—David A. Seekell, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden