Guido van der Werf

LAUREATE Natural Sciences 2017

Guido van der Werf

Guido van der Werf (1972) studied Hydrology (Earth Science) at the Vrije University (the VU) in Amsterdam. After research assistantships at NASA and CalTech in the United States, he completed his PhD at the VU.

After gaining his PhD Van der Werf worked at the VU, with spells in Indonesia and the US. In 2014 he was appointed by the VU as a University Professor, a position reserved for “outstanding scientists who are regarded as future leaders in their field.”

Van der Werf received two personal grants from the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), including a Vici grant of €1.5 million. He also received a Starting Grant of €1.5 million from the European Research Council.

As a promising young researcher in the field of earth science he was awarded the Vening Meinesz prize by the NWO in 2008. In recent years he has repeatedly been one of the 1% most cited scientists in his field.

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RESEARCH FOCUS

Guido van der Werf researches how the global carbon cycle and the climate influence each other.

Burning questions about deforestation

Our climate is warming due to the increased amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere: we now emit more carbon dioxide, for example, than is absorbed from the air by plants.

The biggest culprit is the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, but also the burning of forests and grassland produces greenhouse gases. Once burned, forests give way to lighter vegetation and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is further increased.

Forest and grassland fires are currently releasing about the same amount of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere as the whole of Europe. And there are other serious consequences, such as entire countries which occasionally disappear for months at a time in clouds of particulate matter.

Van der Werf is a global authority when it comes to charting fires and their consequences. Together with American colleagues he built the ‘Global Fire Emissions Database’, a global database of satellite photos and other measurement data received from the US space agency, NASA. Thanks to this database any researcher in the world can follow year on year where on the planet tracts of forest or grassland went up in smoke and the quantity of greenhouse gases thereby emitted.

Partly thanks to this rich, freely accessible collection of data there is increasingly more clarity on the crucial interactions between the global carbon cycle and our climate, and on how changes in land use negatively or positively contribute to global warming.