Interview with Peter van der Beek

Interview with Peter van der Beek

Peter van der Beek, Professor at the University of Grenoble, France, has recently been elected the new president of the EGU GM division. In order to introduce himself to the community, Peter has kindly agreed to answer a couple of questions regarding his ideas for the future of the GM section:

1) Dear Peter, congratulations to the Division Presidency! Would you please tell us a bit about yourself and let us now why you wanted to get involved in the GM division?

“I am Dutch and did both my undergraduate and PhD studies at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. After my PhD, I did a two-year post-doc in Australia and then moved to Grenoble, where I have been since 1998, first as an assistant professor and since 2006 as a full professor. I am interested in the links between tectonics, climate, erosion and relief development in mountain belts (Alps, Himalaya) and elsewhere. I study these processes using a combination of methods allowing to infer erosion rates over different timescales (cosmogenic nuclides, thermochronology), and numerical modelling.
I have been involved with the GM division for several years as a program officer. I find that the GM division represents a particularly vibrant community and I have always very much enjoyed the GM sessions at EGU. This is also a very exciting time given the favourable context for GM and the new opportunities that are arising, including the E-Surf journal, the possibility of strenthening links with other geomorphology societies and the new thematic Galileo conferences that EGU is instigating. Finally, it is extremely interesting to get involved in EGU, find out how the union is run and develop contacts with a very wide range of geoscientists in the broadest sense of the term.”

2) What are the things you want to change running the division in the coming years, and what are the fields you would rather leave as they are?

“I see my coming term very much as consolidating and building upon the achievements of the previous presidents (Andreas Lang, Niels Hovius and Colin Stark) who have done a tremendous job of building up the division to where it is now. I feel that further progress can still be made in streamlining the GM division programme at the EGU general assembly and developing even stronger links with other divisions through co-organised sessions. The division should also continue reaching out to and developing collaborations with other international groups and societies in geomorphology, in particular the recently established AGU Earth and Planetary Surface Processes focus group and the International Association of Geomorphologists. Such collaboration could take the form of jointly organised or sponsored sessions at different international conferences or, more ambitiously, jointly organised topical conferences.
A major achievement of the last few years has been the establishment of E-Surf, the interactive open-access EGU journal in the field of Earth-Surface Dynamics. The strong investment of the editorial team of this new journal should be applauded and the division should strongly support all initiatives focused on its growth and development. Likewise, the division should support and initiate events like summer schools and topical conferences in its field, for which there is now a platform at EGU, in the form of the Galileo Conferences.”

3) What, in your opinion, are the major research fields of geomorphology today and where do you see geomorphology in the coming years?

“I think there are four main developments that are particularly exciting for geomorphology now and in the coming years:
The first is the fact that very high-resolution topography data is becoming more easily available every day, not only from satellites, but also from lidar, drones, etc. The recent rapid developments in range-imaging techniques (e.g., structure from motion, etc.) will mean that soon everyone will be able to make his/her own Digital Terrain Model in pretty much the resolution you want. This will open in particular very exciting research avenues in monitoring surface processes in much greater spatial and temporal detail than has been possible before.
Second, and somewhat related, I feel that numerical modelling tools are also now at a stage where we can see a rapid development. Landscape evolution (or surface-process) models have been around for 2 decades now, but have suffered from a disconnect between the scales of processes operating on the landscape and the resolution of the models, mainly due to insufficient computing power. The ever-increasing computational capacity together with smarter and smarter algorithms are now rapidly bridging that gap, so that we will see truly predictive models emerge in the near future.
Third, I think that we have not seen the end of the development of geochemical and geochronological techniques and tracers to study landscape evolution and the links with tectonic and climatic drivers. Material fluxes at the surface of the Earth are extremely important in the global geochemical cycles that are at the heart of the Earth System, and understanding the role of surface processes in driving these fluxes will remain a major focus of geomorphological study in the near future.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I strongly feel that geomorphology will really develop and prosper by integrating with other (Earth Science) disciplines, such as the biogeosciences, tectonics/geodynamics, hydrology, climate science, cryospheric sciences, or even seismology … Geomorphology is the study of interfaces by excellence, and therefore progress requires cross-disciplinary research. A major challenge will be to assess the geomorphic response to anthropogenic climate change, for instance, which will require input from many of the fields above.”

4) The ESURF journal that has been started by members of our division seems to be received very positive by the community. Is open access publishing the future of our division?

“I am very pleased with the success of ESurf, which is rapidly finding its place as a key journal in geomorphology / Earth surface processes. I do not have a strong opinion on open access publishing though. I’ve been editor in chief of a “classical” journal (Basin Research) for several years and have seen open access publishing develop from that perspective too. I feel that EGU is taking a very interesting path with its open-access journals. I don’t think that all the issues have been resolved and that open access is the answer to all problems. I do think that the scientific community in general is moving toward the open-access publishing model, and EGU is positioning itself strongly in that moving stage.”

5) As early career scientists we are particularly interested in your ideas to encourage and support young scientist in our community. Where do you see potential for improvement regarding this issue?

“The GM division has been in the front line of developing activities and support for young scientists, and several initiatives of the young scientists in the GM division (e.g., the “meet the master” session, the young scientists night) have spread to other EGU divisions. I strongly feel that it should be the young scientists themselves (rather than a not-so-young-anymore division president) to come up with initiatives; I will be very supportive of those!”

6) Did you always consider yourself as Geomorphologist or did your research lead you to this field of the Geosciences?

“I trained as a structural geologist and did my first fieldwork in Precambrian metamorphic terrains! Then, during my thesis, I worked on mechanisms of rift-flank uplift and started working with thermochronological methods to date the “uplift”. I soon found out I wasn’t dating uplift at all, obviously, but I was recording the erosion of the rift flanks and rifted margins I was studying. From that point on I became interested in erosion, topographic evolution and relief development, which has been my field ever since.”

7) Finally, we’d like to ask you to complete the following sentences:

A) The world needs (more) Geomorphology/Geomorphologists because… “Hmm, not sure the world needs more geomorphologists … I can say that geomorphology is such a cool field of science because (a) it is so multidisciplinary, (b) with respect to other earth-science disciplines, it has a pretty strong philosophical / epistemological basis, and (c) it’s object of study is always surrounding us; everywhere you look (except when you’re in a Dutch polder maybe!) there is geomorphology.”

B) The scientist that most inspired me and my work is… “Peter Molnar (a seismologist turned geomorphologist/paleo-oceanographer/atmospheric scientist, and who has published ground-breaking work in all these fields…)”

C) My favourite location for lunch at the EGU general assembly is… “the restaurants out at the Danube canal (but you have to accept missing the first couple of talks of the afternoon, because service is slow!)”

D) The thing I miss the most at the EGU general assembly is… “a nice terrace café would be great (but may lead to even more afternoon talks missed …)”

E) If I could revolutionise science I would start with… “Wow, that’s a hard one! Probably at this stage, making sure that there are real opportunities for more young scientists to get into the system and make a living out of science.”

Thank you very much for this interview!

Jan Blöthe is currently working as a Post-Doctoral Researcher in the Geomorphology and Environmental Systems working group at the University of Bonn, Germany. His primary research interests are in the field of sediment dynamics, natural hazards and geomorphometry. During his PhD he worked on valley fills and large landslides in the Himalayas.

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