Geoscientist wins award for young scientists

AMHERST — A University of Massachusetts Amherst geosciences assistant professor has won one of the field’s most prestigious awards for those early in their career.

The American Geophysical Union’s Earth and Planetary Surface Processes Focus Group announced in late June that Isaac Larsen had won the Luna B. Leopold Young Scientist Award for 2017.

“I was surprised and felt honored,” Larsen said Friday.

Others, however, may have been less surprised.

“This is the top early career award in geomorphology in the country and the most competitive,” Julie Brigham-Grette, chairwoman of geosciences, said in a statement. “Isaac’s influence on the geosciences is skyrocketing.”

Larsen won the award because of his widely recognized work, which includes research on how forest fires affect soil erosion, the role that Ice Age megafloods played in eroding landscapes and the role of agriculture on erosion and the implications for soil productivity.

“My research sort of spans going back in geological time up to the present,” Larsen said.

That research is essential for understanding the current era, which geologists have proposed calling the Anthropocene epoch because of humans’ significant impact on the planet, whether through pollution, climate change, intensive agriculture or other influences.

“Geologists are essentially studying our home planet, Earth, how it functions, its history,” Larsen said. That understanding, he said, is “critically important for our understanding how Earth will change going forward.”

Given his knowledge of erosion, Larsen said that if agricultural practices continue as usual, his outlook on the fate of the planet is pessimistic.

“We are certainly eroding soil faster than it is forming, but on the other hand, there are agricultural techniques and different ways of farming that are much less detrimental to the soil, and it’s possible to actually rebuild soil over relatively short time scales,” he said. “We have a path forward — it’s just a matter of getting it to be adopted.”

Geology, Larsen said, will play a large part in making sure that path forward is clear.

“My view is that policies should be based on the best data that are available, and for a lot of issues where geology and society intersect, we don’t have a lot of information, he said. “So what I’m trying to do is to gather that information and put it out in the public arena.”

Author: Going Green

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