The 2013 Plinius Medal is awarded to Justin Sheffield for his outstanding research achievements in hydrologic and related aspects of droughts.
Justin Sheffield is a research hydrologist at Princeton University where he has been since 2000. He is a mid-career scientist who has carried out research for the past 20 years in the UK and the US on a wide range of hydrologic and related aspects of drought. He has over 55 peer-review publications in leading international journals, which have been cited over 1600 times.
His interdisciplinary analyses use a broad range of evidence including historical palaeorecords, instrumental data, and remote sensing. In the past, methods of identifying and characterising droughts in a consistent manner have been lacking, notwithstanding that drought is among the costliest of natural disasters. For the most part, droughts have been characterised on a case by case basis, and comparison of drought severities, for instance, across different events has been difficult or impossible. Sheffield has pioneered the use of land surface models to provide consistent regional (and globally) comparable drought characteristics. Through his widely cited work, he has provided projections of changes in the occurrence of drought based on multi-model multi-scenario simulations and a definitive analysis of drought in the 20th century. His research has been key in the hazards, hydrology, and broader climate communities for predicting how drought frequencies, severities, and durations will change as the climate warms.
Among a number of innovative dimensions of his work is the severity-area duration analysis of drought based on a simple but clever transposition of a method used to characterise storm rainfall, and which delivers a standard methodology that those involved with managing the impacts of drought can readily engage with. His global data set has become the standard for global land surface model simulations used for drought simulations, including in the Global Drought Information System being developed at the US Climate Prediction Center. Sheffield’s work on the development of the Princeton Africa Drought Monitor (now installed in a number of African countries through UNESCO) is noteworthy not just for the scientific advances involved, but for its potential to deliver societal benefits to millions. It can provide early warning of drought in space and time, and inform decision-making on the ground on drought management which has been absent in the past.
His 2011 book Drought: Past Problems and Future Scenarios (with Eric Wood) is a significant compendium to date of global drought. It is a remarkably coherent and mature treatise on the subject that is becoming a definitive reference in the field. It weighs a large range of interdisciplinary scientific evidence on drought in a very balanced way with deductions communicated clearly so that they can be understood by non-specialists.
In summary, Justin Sheffield has established himself as a world expert on mapping, modelling and characterisation of global drought by a series of landmark papers on the subject, by setting up a drought monitoring system for Africa, being one of the key scientists in working towards a global drought monitoring system, and by making available invaluable datasets of meteorological forcing and land surface soil moisture and evaporation. For this, he is a worthy recipient of the Plinius Medal.