Utrecht University: Traveller between Earth and Mars wins Vening Meinesz Prize

Tjalling de Haas (Dept. of Physical Geography, Faculty of Geosciences) has won the NWO-Vening Meinesz Prize for earth sciences. He receives the prize of 10,000 euros for his groundbreaking research into debris flows. For this planetary research he makes use of geomorphological comparisons between Earth and Mars. The prize winning ceremony should already have taken place in March 2020 during the Netherlands Earth Sciences Conference but had to be postponed due to the COVID pandemic.

Dr Tjalling de Haas external link(1987) has independently established a laboratory in Utrecht. There he simulates the processes that occur on mountain slopes, such as debris flows, on a small scale, which he subsequently incorporates into a predictive model. In this way, he effortlessly travels back and forth in his thoughts between Earth and Mars, between the Mars of 4 billion years ago and millions of years ago, and the valleys and mountain slopes present on Earth now. The question as to whether life existed on Mars is closely related to the availability of water. De Haas has discovered that over the past millions of years, debris flows were active in impact craters. Identical slopes and alluvial fans occur on Earth, probably even with the same frequency as ice ages and warm periods.

In 2010, De Haas graduated cum laude from Utrecht University, where he also obtained his doctorate cum laude, in 2015. Using satellite photos, he established that liquid water was regularly present on the surface of Mars external linkin the past millions of years. Before that discovery, it was thought that the debris flows were caused by CO2 gas.
De Haas has so far received two NWO grants. In 2016, he obtained a Rubicon grant, with which researchers can gain experience abroad, and went to Durham University in the UK. In 2018, he obtained a Veni grant (video external link). He is using that to investigate in two Swiss debris flow areas why the one flow remains small, whereas the other develops into a highly destructive flow. Being able to estimate the volume of future debris flows could save many lives each year.

During fieldwork, he uses satellite data and drones. He processes the data in the laboratory and subsequently produces predictive models. According to the jury, this is a rare combination of qualities. The jury therefore has high expectations for the future, partly based on other qualities. Tjalling can establish successful international scientific collaborations and is active in the area of communication and knowledge dissemination. He took part in the series “Ware wetenschap” [Real science] published in the Dutch national newspaper De Volkskrant and worked on television broadcasts, for example on the programme De Kennis van Nu [The Knowledge of Today]. Furthermore, he has literally placed the Dutch village of Bunnik external linkon the map of Mars: he managed to have a crater on Mars named after his former place of residence.

NWO Vening Meinesz Prize
The prize external linkis named after Professor Felix Andries Vening Meinesz (1887-1966), one of the founding fathers of earth sciences in the Netherlands and of NWO. In his legacy, he stipulated that NWO should award a prize for young talent in the Dutch earth sciences. NWO awards the prize once every two years. Candidates can only be nominated if they obtained their doctorate less than six years ago.
The prize ceremony should have been held on 12 March 2020 during the Netherlands Earth Sciences Conference (NAC). That meeting had to be stopped external linkbefore the ceremony due to the COVID regulations. Tjalling de Haas has now received the prize on 8 April 2021 at the digital NAC meeting.