Alexander, G N

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Geoff. Alexander


Geoffrey Newman Alexander 1908 (Victoria, Australia) - 1975 (Melbourne, Australia)


Geoff Alexander graduated in civil engineering at the University of Melbourne late in 1929, when to his dismay, he had to join the ranks of insurance clerks in order to gain an income. During the 1939-1945 war, he worked for an Australian Mission on the manufacture of tanks, in the USA – the most significant personal outcome being that he married an American despite his unorthodox approach to the relevant diplomatic procedures.

After the war he undertook general civil engineering work and in 1950, he joined the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, Victoria, to specialise in hydrology related to the capacity of reservoirs and the size of their spillways. From this base, and at a comparatively late stage in his life, he virtually started his main career. With responsibility for water development and management, the Commission had considerable need for better information about water yield and about the occurrence of floods. It was through his work to that end at the Commission that we came to know Alexander and the Commission that he served.

Alexander was one of the first to recognize the basic deficiencies and inconsistencies in the concept of the "maximum possible flood" (MPF) in the design of dam spillways and other works. Alexander maintained that there is no upper flood limit that one could define in basic principle and that efforts in that direction were better recognized as matters of engineering prescription. In 1957, Alexander presented the problem in an evocative paper that became one of his best known, "Flood flow estimation, probability and the return period." He argued with great appeal although without universal acceptance, for a system of statistics that is valid throughout the flood experience and that the notion of a limiting flood is as unnecessary as it is misleading despite its wide acceptance in engineering practice.

R.E. Horton, in Water-Supply Paper 771 (p. 438), had noted in support of a limiting flood that "an ordinary barnyard fowl cannot lay an egg a yard in diameter -- it would transcend nature's capabilities under the circumstances." As Alexander explained to me, Horton had biased his metaphor by limiting the set of hens to those of the "ordinary barnyard" variety.

In more recent years, Alexander was examining the statistical structure of hydrological time series, here again upon the principle that extreme events or sequences could be accounted for under a single consistent set of statistical laws.

Alexander's best influences were exerted through his critical but constructive demands for rigor in hydrological analysis and synthesis. His sharp analytical mind was quick to discern inconsistencies and he was therefore a frequent discusser and critic. He was at bottom a teacher and a constructive critic thereby filling two roles that are rare in current hydrologic research. As exacting of others as of himself, he was a difficult man to know, but nonetheless essential to support.

In 1957--58, Alexander served as a member of the U.S. Geological Survey on leave from the State Rivers Commission. During that time his base of contacts broadened to include many new friends in the United States as well as abroad.

Not the least of his achievements was the contribution he made quietly in Australia, in moulding an interest in hydrology amongst the younger hydrologists. The regular and well attended symposia held by the Institution of Engineers, Australia, owe much of their present vitality to the keen mind, sardonic humour and sense of originality that he gave in the early years of this development.

When he retired from formal duties with the State River and Water Supply Commission in 1973, he became a part-time associate at Monash University, in order to concentrate on a treatise on floods. It is a great pity that his more leisurely activity was brought to an end so soon, but his general contribution will be long remembered.

In recognition of Geoff Alexander’s contribution to Australian hydrology, the National Committee on Hydrology & Water Resources (subsequently the National Committee on Water Engineering) of the Institution of Engineers, Australia created the GN Alexander Medal for Hydrology and Water Resources in 1987. The award is presented to the authors of the best paper in hydrology and/or water resources published in an Institution publication at each Hydrology and Water Resources Symposium.

To honour his outstanding contribution to the water engineering profession, Geoffrey Newman Alexander was inducted into the Water Engineering Hall of Fame at the Water Down Under Conference 2008, held in Adelaide, April 2008.

Hydrological Achievements[edit]

Geoff Alexander was well and widely known for his many significant contributions in the field that has come to be known as stochastic hydrology.

He published more than 100 papers in Australia and overseas journals, and attended many international conferences.

Reference Material[edit]

Source: Langbein, W B, 1975, Obituary: Geoffrey N. Alexander, Journal of Hydrology, 26: 173-174

Source: Institution of Engineers Australia, Obituary [PDF]

Major Publications[edit]

Alexander, G.N., 1954. Some aspects of time series in hydrology. J. Inst. Eng. Aust, 26(9), p.194.

Alexander, G.N., 1963. Using the probability of storm transposition for estimating the frequency of rare floods. Journal of Hydrology, 1(1), pp.46-57.

Alexander, G.N., Karoly, A. and Susts, A.B., 1969. Equivalent distributions with application to rainfall as an upper bound to flood distributions. Journal of Hydrology, 9(3), pp.322-344.

Alexander, G.N., 1972. Effect of catchment area on flood magnitude. Journal of Hydrology, 16(3), pp.225-240.