Wolf Prize Laureate in Agriculture 2023
Martinus Th. “Rien” van Genuchten
Affiliation at the time of the award:
The Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
“for his groundbreaking work in understanding water flow and predicting contaminant transport in soils”.
Martinus Theodorus Van Genuchten, born in Vught, Netherlands, received his early education at the Agricultural U, Wageningen, and his Doctorate in the United States, at the New Mexico State University. Van Genuchten has had an exemplary and influential career, with numerous collaborations across the globe. He further served as co-editor and deputy editor, of nine journals and launched the Vadose Zone Journal, dedicated to the science of the near-surface environment.
The vadose zone is the undersaturated portion of the subsurface that lies above the groundwater table. The soil and rock in the vadose zone are not fully saturated with water; that is, the pores within them contain air as well as water. The movement of water within the vadose zone is important to agriculture, contaminant transport, and flood control. It is intensively used for the cultivation of plants, construction of buildings, and disposal of waste, and crucial in determining the amount and quality of groundwater that is available for human use.
During his 40-year career, Professor Van Genuchten transformed the broad fields of soil physics and vadose zone hydrology, which are central to modern agricultural operations and climate science. He created a much-needed scientific basis for understanding fluid flow and contaminant transport processes in unsaturated soils, including their interactions with the atmosphere above and groundwater below. Contemporary vadose zone hydrology is unthinkable without his many contributions, which established links between agriculture, soil science, geology, environmental sciences, and civil engineering. Particularly important were his studies on the basic processes governing water and chemical transport in soil systems, with his work on the nonequilibrium transport of agricultural chemicals remaining a landmark.
He pioneered the representation of dual-porosity and dual-permeability models considering mobile and immobile liquid regions in unsaturated porous media, derived novel analytical and numerical solutions, and performed some of the most definitive laboratory and field experiments to test the models. His models profoundly improved predictions of complex field phenomena and motivated an avalanche of studies along similar lines to address water and chemical transport in natural soils and rocks. Because of their attractive mathematical properties and their simplicity, the “van Genuchten equations” are now universally used in numerical simulators of subsurface flow and transport processes.
Prof. van Genuchten is awarded the Wolf Prize for reshaping the disciplines of soil physics and vadose zone hydrology. He not only published hundreds of scientific journal papers but wrote user manuals of his many computer programs now being used worldwide. He brought enormous visibility and credibility to the agricultural sciences profession. He facilitated the formation of productive links between theoreticians and practitioners, young students and accomplished scientists, and institutions in developed and less-developed countries. For all his numerous contributions to agriculture, soil science, and hydrology, Prof. Genuchten receives the 2023 Wolf Prize in Agriculture.