Michael P. Lamb

California Institute of Technology

2017 James B. Macelwane Medal Winner

Robert E. Kopp, Michael P. Lamb, Yan Lavallée, Wen Li, and Tiffany A. Shaw were awarded the 2017 James B. Macelwane Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 13 December 2017 in New Orleans, La. The medal is for “significant contributions to the geophysical sciences by an outstanding early career scientist.”


Michael Lamb’s research activities and his influence on other geoscientists are together transforming studies of ­land-​­forming mechanisms and their sedimentary record in terrestrial, submarine, and extraterrestrial landscapes. With his students and postdocs he has opened up new avenues of research by tackling ­head-​­on ­long-​­standing, unresolved questions through theory, field observation, experimentation, and numerical simulation. The results are striking advances in the understanding and modeling of ­landscape-​­shaping mechanisms in mountainous terrain and on alluvial plains and deltas, the seafloor, and extraterrestrial bodies.

Remarkably, Mike has already made fundamental contributions in multiple fields: geomorphology, sedimentology, and planetary science. His work has deepened our understanding of river incision in mountainous landscapes, including the roles of sediment transport, megafloods, and waterfall genesis, with implications for interpretation of landforms on Earth and Mars. He has fundamentally changed our understanding of the transport of large clasts by rivers, demonstrating and explaining the nonintuitive finding that higher fluid shear stresses are required for clast transport on steeper slopes. On continental margins, Mike has significantly advanced understanding of coastal alluvial rivers and their linkage to sedimentation in the nearshore environment and their role in the development of seafloor stratigraphy and bed forms. He has extended his work on sedimentary bed forms to include extreme environmental conditions experienced during Snowball Earth or on Mars; his work augments the capacity to interpret environmental conditions recorded by landforms, sediments, and bed forms throughout the solar system.

The powerful guiding approach in all these advances is the integration of physical insight, critical field observations, innovative experimentation, and numerical simulation with the development of parsimonious theories of the behavior of flows, granular disturbance transport processes, geotechnical material properties, and their geomorphic or sedimentary products. Mike had the foresight and fortitude to build an extraordinary experimental flume—one with the capacity to enable the extreme experiments required to test and elaborate his early theoretical ideas on river incision by suspended particles, erosion by waterfalls, and initiation of motion of large clasts in steep rivers. The risk has paid off handsomely.

Mike is an avid and effective collaborator, generous with his time and in granting credit to others. His creativity is widely felt, is generously shared, and has already begun to generate a stream of inspired and well-trained students and postdocs who have embarked on their own productive research careers. Mike is destined to have a singular impact on the study of landscape evolution on Earth and other planetary bodies.

—Kelin X. Whipple, Arizona State University, Tempe


Thank you, Kelin, for those overly kind words and thanks to Tom Dunne, John Grotzinger, and Alan Howard for your nomination. I am honored to be recognized by AGU and to be part of the generous community of Earth surface processes. It is sharing ideas with students, mentors, and colleagues that renews my curiosity and drive. And it certainly helps to work in a discipline that is realizing major discoveries about Earth’s dynamic surface. There are many people to thank.

It is my good fortune, being Minnesotan, that my local university hired a captivating and ­well-​­bearded instructor, Chris Paola. Chris inspired me to switch majors from engineering to geology and pursue graduate school. He also introduced me to Gary Parker, and I am grateful to Gary for leading me through my first scientific investigation and his continuing mentorship and intellectual generosity. I am indebted to Bill Dietrich, my Ph.D. adviser, for teaching me how to interrogate the Earth with new eyes and giving me the tools to be a scientist. As I was leaving Berkeley, Bill told me, while eating nuts, to be curious, question everything, and take notes, and, Bill, I try my best to do the first two. Alan Howard is my example of a ­modern-​­day explorer, and Jeff Parsons helped me navigate turbulence. I am continually inspired by Paul Myrow, who taught me, among other things, that fieldwork is always fun regardless of itchy skin. And I always find myself trying to mimic David Mohrig, not in wardrobe but in time travel between modern and ancient environments. Acknowledging others requires cheating the word limit: PerronVendittiNittrouerFischerTsaiMcElroyEwing­DiBiaseGantietal.

I enjoy my job, and I feel very fortunate to be able to say that. At the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), it has been a great pleasure to have worked with many brilliant students, postdocs, and colleagues in an extremely engaging, challenging, and fun environment. This award reflects our collaborative work. Brian Fuller brought flume experiments back to Caltech, and John Grotzinger has broadened my thinking and taught me to shoot with both eyes open. I look forward to years to come.

Although my parents still think I am an engineer, I thank them for always encouraging me. And most important, I simply would not have survived the trials of tenure without the love and friendship of my wife, Anna, and hugs from our amazing girls, Evelyn and Rhea.

—Michael P. Lamb, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena