Wilfried H. Brutsaert

2015 William Bowie Medal Winner

Wilfried Brutsaert was awarded the 2015 William Bowie Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 16 December 2015 in San Francisco, Calif. The medal is for “outstanding contributions to fundamental geophysics andfor unselfish cooperation in research.”


Besides his outstanding personal contributions in research, Dr. Brutsaert has made a lasting imprint through the unselfish cooperation he embodies in all his activities. First, this is brought out by the professional success of his former graduate students, who have benefited from his generous and devoted collaborative mentorship in research. Second, since the early 1980s, Dr. Brutsaert has been a worldwide leader in bringing together the hydrologic and atmospheric research communities in the planning, design, and operation of large-scale international field experiments. Finally, Dr. Brutsaert has shown exemplary service commitment to his colleagues. Most notably, he has been directly involved in leadership in several organizations, including AGU, the American Meteorological Society (AMS), and the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).

Some highlights of his research contributions can be found in the following areas: (1) Physics of evaporation: Dr. Brutsaert was the first to successfully incorporate the effect of molecular diffusivity in the description of evaporation and heat transfer in the environment. (2) -Land-​-atmosphere interactions: He has largely unraveled the issue of scaling in evaporation, from local scales to various macroscales. (3) Surface runoff: Dr. Brutsaert was the first to provide a realistic description of base flow using groundwater theory rather than by regression or curve fitting. (4) Porous materials: He extended Biot’s theory of poroelasticity to materials containing two fluids, as found in petroleum engineering. (5) Climate change: Dr. Brutsaert is one of the few who have clarified hydrological aspects of global climate change. His 1998 paper in Nature resolved the “evaporation paradox” with evidence of a worldwide accelerating water vapor cycle. Later, he initiated a radically new method to deduce climatic trends from long-term river flow records.

In addition to his articles are his two landmark scholarly books, both international best sellers: Evaporation into the Atmosphere (Springer, 1982) and Hydrology (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Among the many awards he has received, he was elected to the NAE, AGU awarded him the Hydrologic Sciences Award and the Horton Medal, and the AMS awarded him the Jule G. Charney Award and elected him an Honorary Member, its highest award. The Japan Society of Hydrology and Water Resources awarded him its International Award and made him an Honorary Member. The Japan Society for the Promotion of Science gave him the Award for Eminent Scientists.

In conclusion, it is difficult to imagine a colleague more deserving of the Bowie Medal.

Jean-Yves Parlange, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.


President Leinen, friends, and colleagues,

Looking back I have to wonder how it all finally came to this because this outcome really was never in the cards. My early years were certainly not a prologue for a scientific career, what with the vagaries of a bloody, cataclysmic world war in Europe and the severe physical and financial limitations with which our parents had to raise my five siblings and me. Then, my secondary education was mainly directed to the study of classical Latin and Greek as an ideal preparation for a career in law, literature, and philosophy, with only perfunctory coverage of mathematics and physics. In spite of this meager science background, but guided by some youthful idealism, I decided to become involved with problems in the developing world.

This led to a major in agricultural water engineering at the University of Ghent, to acquire the practical skills needed for some admittedly vague objectives. But several turnarounds and milestones took me from an intended hydraulic engineering career to—subtle difference—a life in hydrologic science. Among them, there was a student internship with an anti-erosion organization in Africa, starting my fascination with theories of atmospheric turbulent transport. There was also my interaction with Don Kirkham, whose mathematical approach in soil physics left an indelible mark.

A most notable turning point occurred at the University of California – Davis in 1959, when Don Nielsen insisted that I join AGU. I felt immediately at home. Since then, the atmosphere of both scholarship and comradeship at AGU has broadly shaped the remainder of my professional life.

In light of everything I owe AGU, it’s really difficult here to find the proper words to express my gratitude for this ultimate recognition. So, I will simply say thank you, and in the same breath also include Jean-Yves Parlange, Kuo-Nan Liou, and the letter writers for the nomination, as well as the members of the Bowie Medal Committee for their confidence. And although she doesn’t want me to, I gratefully acknowledge the support of my wife Toyo, my best friend and companion for the past half century. Finally, nobody lives in a vacuum and we are all shaped by our environment. Therefore, this award fills me with great satisfaction because it reflects not just on me, but more so on the many colleagues and students with whom I had the privilege and pleasure to work over the years.


—Wilfried Brutsaert, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.