Soil scientist Markus Flury takes soil samples at the Hanford nuclear reservation, studying movement of radioactive compounds.
Soil scientist Markus Flury takes soil samples at the Hanford nuclear reservation, studying movement of radioactive compounds.

For more than 20 years, Markus Flury has studied how the soil and water under our feet interact, influencing the food we eat and the water we drink.

Now, the Washington State University soil scientist’s achievements have earned him a prestigious accolade from the Soil Science Society of America: The Don and Betty Kirkham Soil Physics Award.

“Soils can protect groundwater from many contaminants, from chemical runoff to radioactive particles,” said Flury, professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. “But soil isn’t a perfect barrier.”

Based at the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center, Flury studies the physics of soil and water in the vadose zone — the region between the ground’s surface and the water table.

Working in the lab and at field sites including Washington’s Hanford nuclear reservation, Flury discovered that water and water-borne contaminants move faster than previously thought using pores and channels in the ground. His research into this process, dubbed preferential flow, helped lead to tighter chemical restrictions in the European Union.

The Kirkham Award, which includes a bronze medal and a $2,000 prize, recognizes soil physics achievements by scientists in the midpoint of their careers.

“I am very honored to receive this award,” said Flury, “and proud of the recognition for my group’s work over the past 20 years. I’m inspired to continue our research into diverse and important aspects of soil physics.”

Flury received the award during the society’s annual meeting, Oct. 24 in Tampa, Fla. The honor is named for Don Kirkham, a distinguished soil physicist regarded as the founder of mathematical soil physics, and his wife Elizabeth.

“Soil physics has historically been a pillar for agriculture, providing fundamental principles for irrigation, drainage and other important processes in the soil,” said Flury. “Don Kirkham was a pioneer in irrigation and drainage. We can continue his work by investigating the many physical processes that remain less understood.”

Encouraged by the award, Flury hopes to pay it forward through mentorship of students and visiting scientists.

“I’ve benefited from excellent mentors, students and collaborators throughout my career,” he said. “I hope to pay back some of those contributions by following their example.”

Learn about the Soil Science Society of America at https://www.soils.org/.