Sonia I. Seneviratne

2013 James B. Macelwane Medal Winner

Sonia I. Seneviratne was awarded the 2013 James B. Macelwane Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 11 December 2013 in San Francisco, Calif. The medal is for “significant contributions to the geophysical sciences by an outstanding early career scientist.”


If you have ever wondered why heat waves can last that long and whether future climate change will increase droughts, then you should contact Sonia Seneviratne, a talented young scientist whose research is characterized by vigor, deep insight, and a keen eye for the important research questions. In her young career, Sonia has become one of the world’s leading experts in the field of atmosphere–land surface interactions. She has already contributed a number of outstanding papers to this rapidly growing field, thereby shaping and influencing it in a defining matter. Sonia has tackled important and fascinating problems associated with the exchange of energy, momentum, and water between the atmosphere and the land surface and identified the key role of soil moisture in controlling heat waves and the onset and duration of droughts. Working at the interface between atmospheric, vegetation, and soil sciences and combining models with data analyses, she has written a number of exceptional papers that are not only novel and interesting but also hugely important for many people and institutions that are affected by droughts and heat waves.

Sonia’s research accomplishments are astonishing. In 2006, she published the paper for which she always will be remembered, i.e., her Nature study “Land-Atmosphere Coupling and Climate Change in Europe,” where she demonstrated for the first time how important soil moisture is for the development of heat spells in Europe. Relying on simulations with a regional climate model, she was able to demonstrate that the lack of an evaporative supply of moisture to the atmosphere as a result of dry soils was critical in generating extremely hot conditions over most of Europe, contrary to the prevailing opinion that heat waves are only a result of anomalies in large-scale circulation patterns. Sonia has followed up with a large number of studies where she continued to refine and extend this basic tenet. Her review article in 2010 summarizes the arguments and makes a very convincing case across a wider range of conditions. Moreover, in her more recent research, she also expanded and widened the tools and methods, especially by more deeply integrating observational data. In summary, Sonia has been the driving force behind the recognition of the importance of soil moisture for controlling summer climate, in particular for climate extremes.

She has also contributed a large share of her time to the community, most notably by acting as the coordinating lead author of one of the chapters of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (IPCC SREX). All in all, she serves as a role model for young female scientists in our field, particularly when considering that she recently went through the tenure process with flying colors while becoming pregnant and giving birth to her daughter three years ago. Sonia’s outstanding contributions, her impact on the field, and her scientific leadership make Sonia an excellent and well-deserving recipient for one of this year’s Macelwane medals.

—NICOLAS GRUBER, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland


Thank you, Niki, for this very kind citation. Not only are you generous in your support, you are also an outstanding and inspiring scientist as well as a great colleague at ETH Zurich. I would also like to thank all those who supported my nomination and AGU’s Macelwane committee for choosing me for this great honor. This means a lot to me: The first scientific conference I ever attended was organized by AGU and gave me a lasting motivation to work in science.

I know that I was extremely lucky to cross the paths of many people who enabled me to be where I am right now. I can only mention a few here. Christoph Schär was my Ph.D. advisor at ETH and strongly encouraged me to pursue an academic career. Besides my love for research, it was also his support that helped me find the confidence to apply for a professorship. An early academic visit in the group of Fatih Eltahir at MIT also durably impacted my career and provided me with lasting contacts in the scientific community.

During my postdoctoral time, I was extremely fortunate to work at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center with Randy Koster, a scientist I have learned so much from and who continues to be a role model for me. He taught me the beauty of simple (but not easy) answers to difficult questions. I always appreciated his modesty despite his great talent and exceptional career.

Another great experience was my involvement as coordinating lead author of the 2012 IPCC SREX report, during which I had the chance to get to know a number of exceptional scientists. I am particularly grateful that I had the chance to work with Neville Nicholls from Monash University, a person with so much knowledge and experience and who is also extremely generous and kind. I am also very thankful to Thomas Stocker at Bern University for his trust in giving me this responsibility.

I was blessed with a large number of very talented students and postdocs who have worked in my group over the last few years, in particular Martin Hirschi, Ryan Teuling, Brigitte Mueller, Edouard Davin, Boris Orlowsky, Heidi Mittelbach, Ruth Lorenz, Rene Orth, Benoit Guillod, and Lukas Gudmundsson. Thanks to all of you for your hard work and dedication to research!

I feel very fortunate to work at ETH Zurich. We have a fantastic atmosphere at the Department of Environmental Systems Science, and I have felt constant support from my colleagues. I would especially like to also mention here Ulrike Lohmann, Thomas Peter, Heini Wernli, Dani Or, Nina Buchmann, and Peter Edwards for their support in the last few years.

Finally, I would like to thank my husband, Ludovic, for his constant love and support. His dedication with our little Daphne allows me to find sufficient time to think, the greatest luxury for a scientist. Both Daphne and he also help me remember the important things in life and that our commitment to climate research is essential for future generations.

—SONIA I. SENEVIRATNE, Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science, ETH Zürich, Zurich, Switzerland