Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor Tom Gleeson, University of Victoria, Canada

Tom Gleeson profile picture

Revising and evaluating the planetary boundary for water

26 Sept - 31 Dec 2018


Tom Gleeson is a groundwater hydrologist interested in groundwater sustainability, regional- to continental-scale groundwater systems, groundwater-surface water interactions and fluid flow around geologic structures. He addresses these varied research interests by integrating disciplines that are not often combined: numerical modeling, spatial analysis, field methods, environmental chemistry, geology and policy studies. After his doctorate at Queen’s University, postdoc at University of British Columbia, and first faculty position at McGill University, he has been part of the starting the new Department of Civil Engineering at University of Victoria, including being the first graduate director.

Prof. Gleeson has a number of high-impact publications, awards, fellowships, editorships as well as public outreach and media experience. He has co-authored over 60 papers including ten Nature publications (Nature, Nature Geoscience, Nature Climate Change and Nature Communications) and also received awards (AGU Hydrology Early Career Award for recognition as “one of the rising stars of international hydrology”; Discover Magazine “Top 100 Science Stories of 2012”; Editors’ Citation for Excellence in Refereeing for Geophysical Research Letters). He has also given prestigious invited lectures (MIT, Columbia, ETH Zurich, National Academies of Science, Harvard University), held research fellowships (William Dawson Scholar, McGill University and Global Scholar, Canadian; Institute for Advanced Research), co-edited a book (Ingebritsen and Gleeson, 2016), started the EGU/AGU ‘Water Underground’ blog, and been interviewed in a number of print, online and radio articles.

Project Summary

Water is a life sustaining resource that is critical to all societies, irrigated agriculture and many ecosystems. Yet water use and overuse is impacting the freshwater systems in a number of different regions around world, to the extent that water is often now considered a global problem. A novel environmental governance concept that is gaining traction at national and international levels is planetary boundaries – Earth’s limits in areas such as climate change and water use. Even though the planetary boundary concept is a significant scientific breakthrough that is important for global environmental policy, the water planetary boundary has been highly criticised because water issues are often considered primarily local, and more complex than a single planetary limit.

The proposed research project which aims to address these issues by a complete overhaul of the thinking and methodology of the planetary boundary for water. The core research question is: what are the best control variable(s) and method(s) so that the freshwater boundary better represents how humans impact the complex, heterogeneous global freshwater systems? The proposed research project will a collaboration with the Water and Environmental Engineering group led by Prof. Thorsten Wagener of the Department of Civil Engineering and scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Centre that have developed the freshwater planetary boundary.

The research will impact both policy and decision makers as well as academics. Since the planetary boundaries are starting to be applied by national and international governments, new thinking and methods for the freshwater boundary will impact various national and international governments. The research will also impact water resource and hydrologic academic communities by providing a new approach for quantifying global interactions between water and humans. These deliverables are tangible steps towards addressing the significant criticisms of the previous freshwater planetary boundary and developing a more holistic framework that includes more of the complexity of global water systems.

During his stay in Bristol, Prof. Gleeson will be hosted by Professor Thorsten Wagener (Faculty of Engineering).