Memorial Tributes: Volume 27
IsNew No
Membership Directory

Search this Publication

  • ERIC F. WOOD (1947-2021)



    ERIC FRANKLIN WOOD, a leading figure in the hydrologic sciences for four decades, died Nov. 3, 2021, at the age of 74.

    Eric was born in Vancouver, Canada, on Oct. 22, 1947. He studied civil engineering at the University of British Columbia, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1970. He then came to the United States for graduate studies in civil engineering at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, earning his doctorate in 1974. While at MIT, his research focused on systems analysis and decision analysis for water resources. After completing his Ph.D. at MIT, he spent two years in Laxenburg, Austria, as a research scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

    In 1976, Eric began what would become a 43-year career as a professor at Princeton University, retiring in 2019 as the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Early in his Princeton career, Eric contributed pioneering work on hydrologic modeling, advancing the fundamental understanding of hydrologic processes and developing methods that have become widely used in addressing the societal challenges of droughts and floods. This included early work on data assimilation for hydrologic modeling, coupling observations with theoretical dynamic models for the purpose of characterizing uncertainty and informing initial conditions for prediction. He also introduced the concept of a “representative elementary area” and quantified the minimum area needed to resolve watershed hydrologic responses. And, with his long-time collaborator, Dennis Lettenmaier (NAE 2010), he developed the so-called Variable Infiltration Capacity, or VIC, model, which has become a widely used (in over 65 countries at last count) tool for hydrologic prediction in large river basins, including many studies of the water-related effects of climate change.

    As NASA began to look more closely at Earth in the 1980s, Eric took a leading role in planning for the NASA Earth Observing System satellites, including his membership on the Earth Observing System Science Steering Committee as well as many other committees’ working groups. This early work opened satellite remote sensing as a source of valuable data in the field of hydrology, leading to the 1990s being a decade of significant advancements for the entire field of hydrology. This included the emergence of the fields of hydrometeorology and hydroclimatology. Eric himself became a world leader in hydrologic remote sensing, contributing major scientific advances and practical tools for solving real-world problems — problems that increasingly focused on drought. His drought work was recognized in 2014 when he was the co-recipient of the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water. More generally, by combining his research programs in hydrologic modeling and remote sensing, Eric became a widely recognized leader in climate modeling and analysis over the final decades of his career. Among other things, his work has been instrumental in the development of land surface models, including global water and energy cycles, which have become integral components of climate change assessments.

    Eric’s impact was felt not only through his research but also through his professional service to the global scientific community. From 2013-14, he was the president of the Hydrology Section of the American Geophysical Union. Additional positions included chair of the Hydrology Committee of the American Meteorological Society, chair of the Hydrological Applications group of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Global Energy and Water Exchanges project, involvement in numerous mission science teams for NASA’s various Earth observing systems, and involvement in many National Academies committees.

    Eric always considered one of his greatest strengths as an educator to be his role as a mentor to more than 30 Ph.D. students, many of whom have assumed leadership positions in the hydrologic community. In his own assessment, his most important legacy will be the contributions of the students and postdoctoral researchers who worked with him during his career at Princeton.

    Eric was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2015 “for development of land surface models and use of remote sensing for hydrologic modeling and prediction.” Among his many awards are the signature prizes of the major societies in his field, including the Robert E. Horton Medal of the American Geophysical Union (2017), the Alfred Wegener Medal of the European Geosciences Union (2014), the Jule G. Charney Award of the American Meteorological Society (2010), and the John Dalton Medal of the European Geosciences Union (2007). Eric was a foreign fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was also awarded a doctorate honoris causa from the University of Ghent in 2011.

    Eric worked tirelessly to advance the science and engineering of water resources and hydrology but always found time to enjoy his family and friends, including traveling back to British Columbia for annual fishing trips, always returning to Princeton with a great catch that he would share with many. He was a proud Princetonian and was dedicated throughout his career to serving the university and fostering academic excellence in the areas of water resources and environmental engineering.

    Eric is survived by his siblings, John, Elizabeth, and Peter; former spouse, Katharine; his children, Alex and Emily; and four grandchildren.