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Matt Lees receives AGU Outstanding Student Presentation Award

Lees has paved the way for understanding how the complex relationship between groundwater levels, subsurface structure and subsurface properties leads to the sinking of the Earth’s surface.

Matt Lees and AGU logo
Photo courtesy of Matt Lees

Stanford Earth graduate student Matt Lees has been selected to receive an Outstanding Student Presentation Award (OSPA) from the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

The prestigious award is given to promote, recognize and reward undergraduate, Master’s and PhD students for quality research in the geophysical sciences. Typically, only the top 3 to 5 percent of student participants who present their research at the annual AGU Fall meeting are awarded an OSPA.

Lees presented his research, "Understanding the Link Between Changing Head Levels and Land Subsidence: A Field Experiment in California's San Joaquin Valley," at the 2020 fall meeting in December, which was on a virtual platform.

“I'm absolutely thrilled that the final product was so well received,” said Lees, a PhD candidate in the Geophysics Department at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

His research explores how declining groundwater levels in California’s San Joaquin Valley leads to land subsidence, which causes damage to critical infrastructure, such as canals and aqueducts, that cost millions to repair. Lees helped develop computer models to simulate how the complex relationship between groundwater levels, subsurface structure and subsurface properties leads to land subsidence, or the sinking of the Earth’s surface.

By investigating the depth at which subsidence originates and for how long subsidence continues even after water levels stop falling, the research team found that most subsidence originates in the deeper part of the groundwater system and that some also occurs in the shallower zone.

“We also saw that some subsidence occurring today is the result of groundwater level drops which occurred decades ago,” Lees said.

Because the AGU fall meeting was held online, Lees was among the participants who recorded a virtual presentation – a first for him, and a process that took a lot of practice to perfect.

“I had to say ‘hydrostratigraphy’ on my first slide, and I stumbled over that word more times than I can count,” Lees said. “I still have a whole folder on my computer of outtakes.”

The project is part of groundwater mapping research led by geophysics professor Rosemary Knight, Lees’ doctoral research advisor. The work is becoming increasingly important for water managers as climate change reduces the amount of water available from snowpack and intensifies the extremity of the state’s droughts.

“Matt’s AGU presentation was a compelling combination of fascinating science and a challenging societal issue,” Knight said. “On top of that, Matt excels at being able to explain complex material in a way that is accessible to a broad audience – important when you are working on interdisciplinary research.”

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