John M. Wahr

2006 Charles A. Whitten Medal Winner

University of Colorado, Boulder

John M. Wahr was awarded the Charles A. Whitten Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting honors ceremony, which was held on 13 December 2006 in San Francisco, Calif. The medal recognizes outstanding achievement in research on the form and dynamics of the Earth and planets.


It is a pleasure and an honor to present the citation to John M. Wahr for the Charles A. Whitten Medal, which is an award for outstanding achievement in research on the form and dynamics of the Earth. John has made fundamental advances in many areas of dynamics, including time-variable gravity, Earth rotation, Earth and ocean tides, interaction of the atmosphere and ocean with the Earth, postglacial deformation, and nutation. He has published papers in geodesy, geodynamics, seismology, geomagnetism, hydrology, cryospheric sciences, oceanography, atmospheric sciences, planetary sciences, and even general relativity.

John is a major intellectual leader in much of geophysics with a heavy emphasis on global-scale problems involving the fluid envelope. John broke new ground with his work in the application of geodetic data to geophysical problems, including global tides, barometric response of the oceans, and Earth rotation. His unique contributions came from developing the theory, and modeling Earth tides, nutations, and various other types of rotational and deformational motion. Both the Earth tide model and the nutation model served as the adopted international standards for almost 20 years. His cutting-edge work on time-variable gravity has enabled him to blaze a new trail for interdisciplinary geodesy.

s chair of the U.S. National Research Council Committee on Earth Gravity From Space, I know well the strengths of his insights, and his tremendous ability to work across disciplines with great collegial enthusiasm. The committee’s report, “Satellite Gravity and the Geosphere: Contributions to the Study of the Solid Earth and Its Fluid Envelopes,” contains an unusually large amount of original research that has application to a broad range of disciplines, including solid-Earth geophysics, oceanography, glaciology, meteorology, and hydrology. His hard work and creativity contributed greatly to an exceptional report and to the selection of a dedicated satellite gravity mission (the first one in over two decades!).

He is truly a role model for the AGU motto, “unselfish cooperation in research.” John has been a ‘guiding light’ for GRACE [Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment] applications and a ‘prime mover’ in bringing to bear the remarkable new data and spreading the good news to our sister fields including hydrology, glaciology, and oceanography. With 25 coauthored GRACE journal articles, he along with his colleagues have measured mass loss in Greenland and Antarctica and examined global ocean mass and terrestrial water storage variations.

John’s achievements have been recognized by a number of medals and awards. His work and his potential were noted quite early in his career; he is the recipient of both the prestigious AGU James B. Macelwane Award and the International Association of Geodesy (IAG) Bomford Prize for geodetic research. He is both an AGU and IAG fellow; in 1998, he was the first recipient of the Vening Meinesz Medal from Utrecht and Delft Universities. Subsequently, the Vening Meinesz Medal was established by the Division on Geodesy, European Geosciences Union (EGU), as an award for distinguished research in geodesy; in 2004, John received the Vening Meinesz Medal again, this time from the EGU. In addition, John has mentored 17 Ph.D. students and seven postdocs who have carried forward his research and have enlarged its effectiveness and influence.

John Wahr is a true pioneer in the global geophysical community and richly deserves the Whitten Medal. His achievements in research on the dynamics of the Earth and planets are remarkable and have enabled entirely new fields of interdisciplinary investigation. His name adds luster to the fine list of previous recipients and truly enhances the prestige of the medal itself.

—JEAN O. DICKEY, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena


I am delighted to receive the Charles A. Whitten Medal. I am indebted to Jean and others who took the time to do this, and to those who, especially early in my career, made sure I was on the right path.

I pretty much stumbled into geophysics by accident. I was a first-year physics graduate student at Colorado, trying to decide what sort of physics to do, and trying desperately to avoid teaching freshman physics recitations. So I took a temporary research position with Pete Bender to work on a proposed Mercury orbiter mission. Pete introduced me to the world of geophysics, which looked to be a whole lot more fun than whatever it was I had in mind at the time. He eventually directed me across campus to work with Martin Smith on modeling tides and nutations and other solid Earth things.

Martin was an exceptional and generous advisor, who gave me all the tools I needed to solve my problem, and then let me take all the credit. Afterward he sent me on to Princeton where I was a postdoc at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. There I got to interact daily with many exceptionally talented people, especially Tony Dahlen and Bram Oort, and where I discovered that the more fluid parts of the Earth were interesting too. From there I got to go back to Colorado, where it’s wonderful (just as many people suspect) and where I am today.

There are many great things about having an academic career in science. The most satisfying thing for me has been the opportunity I’ve had over the years to work with so many talented and energetic students and postdocs. To them, and to the many collaborators and colleagues I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the past couple decades, I’d like to say that, at least for me, it’s been a lot of fun. And I thank them for that.

—JOHN M. WAHR, University of Colorado, Boulder