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The University of Southampton
Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton

Evolution of plate tectonics and mantle dynamics


The motion of tectonic plates is a fundamental control on long-term variations in Earth’s climate, ocean circulation, and speciation of the planet, and in the short term, causes hazards such as earthquakes. The motion and modification of the plates is heavily modulated by deeper mantle processes such as mantle flow and melting, which commonly modify the Earth’s surface through processes such as volcanism and uplift.  We, in the Geology and Geophysics group, develop and use cutting edge geological and geophysical techniques to image, model and understand deep mantle processes and coupling with tectonic plates, as well as to explore the rifting process at the start of the tectonic plate cycle through to subduction zone and arc structure and processes at the end of the cycle (e.g., Cooper et al., 2020). We combine scientific drilling with geophysical analysis in continental rifts and subduction zones to explore how structural development, magmatism, sedimentation and environmental changes can interact (e.g., McNeill et al., 2019). We also use quantitative methods to forecast environmental hazards (e.g. earthquakes, tsunamis) associated with plate motions (e.g., Farolfi et al., 2020).

Siegburg et al., 2020
Figure 1. Siegburg et al., 2020

Key Questions:

  1. How do plate boundary deformation zones evolve in space and time? – Is it highly dynamic with complex links between Earth structure and fluids, as some of our recent work suggests?
  2. How do deep mantle derived fluids such as melt interact with plates and plate boundaries? – Is the plate thickness altered by small scale convective processes and/or melt, and how does that impact the driving forces of plate tectonics?
  3. What is a tectonic plate and how do plates evolve through their life cycle? –Although temperature plays a first-order role in controlling plate thickness, many observations suggest the presence of volatiles and melt, which if present would also define the plate. In addition, mantle dynamics and flow may play a larger role in determining the evolution of the plate than previously thought?
  4. How can we improve the methods for imaging both the shallow and deep Earth? – Can new technologies and methodologies be leveraged to improve the resolution at which we can image the Earth?
  5. How can we use our constraints on plate deformation in space and time to forecast natural hazards?
Agius et al., 2021
Figure 2. Agius et al., 2021
  • Figure 1: 3D model of the Boset-Berichia volcanic complex in Ethiopia where Argon-Argon dating of Holocene lava flows places constraints on the rate of fault slip in the East African rift (Siegburg et al., 2020).
  • Figure 2: We image the Earth beneath the oceans to understand mantle flow and how new crust is created (Agius et al., 2021

How do we do it?

  • In the Geology and Geophysics Group we develop and use cutting edge marine geophysical equipment and techniques to image and monitor the shallow and deep Earth beneath the oceans at un-precedented resolution. We also develop methods for land-based geophysics to image the continents and earthquakes within them.
  • Subsurface geophysical imaging of faulted sedimentary sequences is integrated with geological data (e.g., drilling, climate and sea-level records) to quantify deformation and interactions between tectonics, sea-level and climate change in active tectonic environments. Such experiments are commonly done in collaboration with the IODP and ICDP.
  • To investigate the nature of plate tectonics, melt and fluid migration in the mantle and crust, and mantle flow we use integrated geophysical observations including, potential fields, controlled source electromagnetics, magnetotellurics and seismology along with predictions from sophisticated numerical models of the Earth’s dynamics. 
  • In our group, we develop and use cutting edge methods in artificial intelligence, and inversion of multivariate datasets to link plate deformation to forecast the locus and timescales of hazards, and resource identification. We also build the complex datasets that are used in these computations, and have a strong commitment to making such datasets publicly available for the common good.

Links to other Research Themes

Volcanic and magmatic processes

How fast does climate change?

Staff MemberPrimary Position
Prof. Lisa McNeill Professor of Tectonics
Prof. Jon Bull Associate Dean Research
Prof. Tim Henstock Professor of Geophysics
Prof. Tim Minshull Professor
Dr Catherine Rychert Associate Professor in Geophysics
Dr Nicholas Harmon Associate Professor in Geophysics
Dr Derek Keir Associate Professor in Geophysics
Dr Tom Gernon Associate Professor in Earth Science
Dr Esther Sumner Lecturer in Sedimentology
Bhargav Boddupalli Postgraduate research student
Ben Chichester Postgraduate research student
Michael Dale Postgraduate research student
Emma Horn Postgraduate research student
Gareth Hurman Postgraduate research student
Vanessa Monteleone Postgraduate research student
Rhiannon Rees Postgraduate research student
Dr Adam Robinson Research Fellow in Seismology
Prof. Dave Sanderson Professor of Tectonics and Geomechanics
Dr Fiona Simpson Senior Research Fellow in Electromagnetic Geophysics and Space Weather
Duncan Stevens Postgraduate research student
Emma Watts Postgraduate research student
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