Princeton hydrologist wins the 'Nobel Prize of water'

Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- Princeton hydrologist Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe has been selected to receive the Stockholm Water Prize, a $150,000 award known informally as the "Nobel Prize of water."

Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe


King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden will present the award on behalf of the Stockholm Water Foundation at a ceremony in the Stockholm City Hall on Aug. 15.

The Stockholm Water Foundation, which has given the award annually since 1991, selected Rodriguez-Iturbe for his many contributions to the basic understanding of how water cycles between the oceans, the atmosphere and the continents. His work has ranged from discovering principles that govern the shape of all river basins to explaining the forces that drive cycles of floods and droughts.

"The cycle of water dramatically impacts all human activities," said Rodriguez-Iturbe, who holds the Theodora Shelton Pitney Professorship in Environmental Sciences. "From the water we drink and depend on for survival; to the rivers that provide clean and renewable energy; to the beauty of nature we enjoy in so many ways; to the weather that affects our lives -- and so many other things -- all are inseparably linked to hydrology."

The Stockholm Water Prize is given to scientists in a wide range of disciplines related to water, from marine chemistry to water management policy. According to the Stockholm Water Foundation, the prize "recognizes outstanding research, action or education that increases knowledge of water as a resource and protects its usability for all life." The recipient can be an individual, institution, organization or company.

"It is a wonderful prize and I am honored to receive it," said Rodriguez-Iturbe, who has joint appointments in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Princeton Environmental Institute, where he currently serves as acting director.

"Professor Rodriguez-Iturbe is widely recog-nized by his peers as the worldwide intellectual leader of the field of surface water hydrology," said Peter Jaffe, chair of civil and environmental engineering. "He is an incredibly creative person who is knowledgeable over the whole scientific field. His research combines superb mathematical expertise with deep scientific knowledge, practical experience, imagination and originality. And he has an ability to reach across disciplines, such as geology, biology and physics. He also is a very warm person and great colleague."

Rodriguez-Iturbe joined the Princeton faculty in 1999 after holding positions at several institutions in the United States and in his native country of Venezuela.

In the decades since he received his 1967 Ph.D. from Colorado State University, Rodriguez-Iturbe has focused much of his work on discerning and explaining patterns in complex water systems. He helped establish, for example, that river basins, despite their infinite variety of shapes and forms, have a common structure in their two- and three-dimensional organization.

That research is among his most gratifying discoveries, Rodriguez-Iturbe said, noting that "understanding the dynamics behind this organization is of great importance for a truly scientific management of a river basin and of the resources it embodies."

He has applied his expertise in service to private and government agencies throughout the world, including leadership of an agency in Venezuela that balances environmental considerations with demand for hydroelectric power for one of the largest dam projects in the world.

Another key finding was the discovery that self-reinforcing cycles of moisture between land and air cause a tendency for weather systems to become stuck in extremes of drought or flood. Such concepts are valuable in predicting weather and climactic patterns. "These wet and dry modes tend to be persistent, and thus, the longer a drought has been going, the more likely it is that it will persist even longer," he said.

In all his work, a driving force has been simple curiosity. "The strongest motivation is a profound desire to understand how nature works," he said. "When I walk through forests or savannas in different ecosystems, or see the drainage network of a river from an airplane seat, or sense that a dry spell seems to go on longer than anyone expected -- I ask myself, 'Why? What is behind all this?'"

Most recently, Rodriguez-Iturbe has begun to investigate how hydrology interacts with plant and animal life, helping to define the emerging field of eco-hydrology. Once again, he has begun to find patterns that may help to answer critical questions about the global environment and its all-important water resources.

He also has worked hard to convey the excitement of discovery to students. At Princeton, he created a course called "The Fractal Beauty of Landscapes" in which he introduced non-scientists to the concept of patterns that occur in nature.


April 1, 2002
Vol. 91, No. 21
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Page one
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Economic crisis supplies Goldberg with project fodder
Students earn scholarships for study in England
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Princeton hydrologist wins the 'Nobel Prize of water'
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