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New Centre of Excellence – geoscience

Towards a fourth geoscience revolution

The Earth’s mantle, a deep layer of its interior, affects the movement of the tectonic plates. At the Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics (CEED) in Oslo, researchers are working to develop a model to describe this process and put the centre at the forefront of a fourth revolution in the geosciences.

The study of the Earth’s plate movements and deformations has undergone three scientific revolutions. The first was the theory of continental drift proposed in 1912. Then, in the 1960s, two breakthroughs in rapid succession came to shape the entire field: the theory of seafloor spreading, which within a few years gave rise to the all-encompassing theory of plate tectonics.

Brings together expert research environments

“Plate tectonics describes how the Earth’s plates move but not the forces behind this,” says Professor of Geology Trond Helge Torsvik, who heads the Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics (CEED) at the University of Oslo. “We want to link plate tectonics with processes in the deep mantle such as plumes and mantle convection. In this way we could explain how the liquid mass in the Earth’s interior is connected with Earth’s surface plates, and, in turn, with processes in the atmosphere and biosphere.”

Photo: CEED Trond Helge Torsvik (Photo: CEED) “By explaining these relationships we can take a leading role in bringing about a fourth revolution in the geosciences,” says Professor Torsvik. “We can accomplish this by bringing together expert research environments in Norway and abroad.”

The ambitious new centre originates from the research environment at the Physics of Geological Processes (PGP) centre, which concluded its period as a Centre of Excellence in 2012. The PGP developed top-notch expertise in large-scale volcanic processes and climate and environmental change. Professor Torsvik has supplemented that University of Oslo group with several of his research colleagues from the Geological Survey of Norway (NGU) who have international backgrounds in plate tectonics and mantle processes.

Revealing the mysteries of plumes

Using mathematical models, CEED researchers will look a billion years back in Earth’s history, a period with a number of super-volcanos – enormous volcanos that may cause the breakup of the continents and have caused most of the mass extinctions of life and rapid climate changes known to science.

 “In order to reconstruct the super-volcanos,” says Professor Torsvik, “we need to know where the plates were at the times of eruption. So we are developing a method to reconstruct the continental plates far back in time.”

Some 250 million years ago, nearly all life on Earth was wiped out with the eruption of a super-volcano in Siberia and subsequent spread of toxic gases. The volcano eruption was caused by plumes from the Earth’s interior reaching the Earth’s surface.

“Plumes play a key role in the Earth’s development,” explains Professor Torsvik. “Our hypothesis is that plumes arise from two stable reservoirs in the deep mantle located beneath where the Pacific Ocean and Africa currently are. These plumes explain the distribution of hotspots, large igneous provinces, and kimberlites that bring diamonds to the Earth’s surface. The plumes also affect the movements of Earth’s tectonic system.”

Super-volcanos on other planets explain climate variations in Earth’s distant past

Earth is the only planet known to have moving surface plates, a phenomenon that has erased nearly all traces of Earth’s early development. By contrast, other planets and moons still exhibit clear traces of early planetary evolution. Thus CEED researchers also gain insight into the Earth’s early history from studying super-volcanos on Mars and other planets.

Knowledge about processes in the mantle and plate movements also provides vital clues to understanding the Earth’s climate variations throughout history and explaining both slow-developing and rapid, dramatic climate change.

Illustration: CEED FIVE AREAS: CEED research activities are structured across five thematic research areas to study the Earth from its core to its atmosphere, also drawing other planets into this research. Dynamic earth is the CEED research area dedicated to building a plate tectonic model for the past 1.1 billion years. Earth crises researchers study the role that super-volcanos (large igneous provinces, LIPs) have on global climate changes and mass extinctions. Deep earth research focuses on understanding the relationship between the Earth’s surface and the deep mantle, the source layer of plumes. Virtual earth researchers develop tools and databases that integrate plate reconstructions with geodynamics and climate modelling, while Earth and beyond activities study similarities and differences between the Earth and other terrestrial planets. (Illustration: CEED)

“Super-volcanos may explain rapid climate changes,” continues Professor Torsvik. “When magma flows into organic or salt-rich sedimentary basins, there are major climatic repercussions. We are working on creating models for both the slow and the rapid climate variations.”


Centre funding allows basic research

The new centre encompasses a broad range of expertise from the natural sciences. As was the case at the PGP centre, geologists are again collaborating with physicists. In addition, chemists and mathematicians will be involved in CEED research activities. Specialists in high-performance mathematical calculations are needed to develop the advanced models upon which the research is based.

Many CEED researchers have experience working closely with the petroleum industry. “We could probably triple our revenues by doing research for industry,” says Professor Torsvik, “but then, of course, we would have to tailor our research to industry needs. The funding from the Research Council of Norway’s Centres of Excellence initiative (SFF) is critical for enabling us to focus on the fundamental geological processes that may revolutionise knowledge about the Earth. An ERC Advanced Grant and an ERC Starting Grant represent other important funding for our basic research.”

Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics (CEED)
  • Objective: To develop a model that explains how the mantle of the Earth’s interior affects the motion of tectonic plates and triggers large-scale volcanic eruptions. Throughout the Earth’s history these events have brought about changes in climate and the environment.
  • Centre director: Trond Helge Torsvik, University of Oslo
  • Partners: Over 20 researchers from various institutions in Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Russia, South Africa, the UK and the USA.
  • Annual allocation from the Research Council: NOK 15.5 million
  • Total person-years: minimum 30
  • No. of doctoral degrees planned: Preliminary plans include six doctoral fellowships in 2013.


Written by:
Christian Lund/Else Lie. Translation: Darren McKellep/Carol B. Eckmann
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