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Research_

Tectonics, landscapes and environment research

Investigating tectonic processes
Understanding the processes affecting the structure of the Earth's lithosphere, its resources, its environment and biodiversity.

Since its creation 4.54 billion years ago, the Earth, including its environment and biology, has evolved under the control of changing tectonic processes. The absence of plate motion made the early Earth a topographically uniform and flooded waterworld.

In the modern Earth however, plate tectonics creates sharp gradients of topography channeling water into river systems that incise the Earth’s surface and transport sediments from mountains to basins and continental margins, where hydrocarbon reservoirs form. At the same time, tectonics controls the Earth’s climate through the impact of topography on atmospheric circulation, and through the impact of the distribution of continents and morphology of the ocean basins on oceanic circulation.

As tectonics creates complex landscapes and a rich range of environments and ecosystems it also drives the evolution of species and promotes biodiversity. Deeper in the crust, the deformation of rocks under changing pressure, temperature, and fluid composition explains the harvesting and concentration of metals and other economic resources into ore deposits. Tectonics also explains the concentration of earthquakes and volcanoes and other geohazards (e.g. tsunamis, onshore and offshore landslides) operating along plate margins.

Our aims

Understanding how tectonic processes control the evolution of our planet, its internal structure, its environment, as well as the biodiversity and resources serving our society.

Our research

Our world acclaimed open-source and cross-platform GPlates plate reconstruction software is an enabling engine to build global plate tectonic reconstructions that we use to constrain mantle convection models. Dr. Sabin Zahirovic, Dr. Maria Seton, Dr. Mallard and Prof. Dietmar Müller investigate the connection between plate motions, subduction, and the evolving mantle structure, particularly aimed at understanding the Earth’s topography and bathymetry in the plate-mantle system. They use this information to gain insights into carbon sequestration and paleoclimate through time.

Earthquakes result from the sudden release of elastic energy stored in the Earth’s crust and underlying mantle in the form of stress. Dr. Vasilis Chatzaras combines field observations with microanalyses to investigate deformation processes in major fault systems. This research aims to better understand the mechanical behaviour of fault zones during the seismic cycle and provide mechanical constraints for computer models of fault zones, subduction zones and mountain belts.

Through computational tectonics, we can now simulate in 3D the mechanical and thermal evolution of complex tectonic settings from subduction zones, to accretionary (e.g. the Andes) and collisional orogens (e.g. the Himalayas) orogens. A/Prof Patrice Rey and Dr. Claire Mallard are using a new generation of computer codes and high-performance computers to explore and understand processes associated with collisional and extensional tectonics.

Through their evolving mineralogy and texture, metamorphic rocks record pressure, temperature, strain and stress changes they experienced during tectonic burial and exhumation. Prof. Geoff Clarke and Dr. Vasilis Chatzaras are experts in decoding this information to gain new knowledge and understanding of tectonic and orogenic processes.

The Archean represents half the Earth’s history, and half the Australian continent is made of Archean rocks. It is during the Archean that the continental crust and vast ore resources (e.g. iron ore and gold deposits) were created. A/Prof Derek Wyman is an expert in the petrology and geochemistry of Archean rocks and associated economic resources. A/Prof Patrice Rey interrogates the Archean geological record to provide constraints into sophisticated computer simulations to understand pre-plate tectonic processes and environments, and how and when plate tectonics started.

The ARC Basin GENESIS Hub (BGH) is a 5-year Industry Transformation Research Hub supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) and 5 industry partners, aimed at developing and applying next-generation computer models to fine-tune our understanding of the structure and evolution of sedimentary basins. The Hub is hosted at the EarthByte research group (www.earthbyte.org) and it is led by Prof Dietmar Müller, A/Prof Patrice Rey, and Dr. Tristan Salles. Our strength is our ability to model the formation of sedimentary basins in a context in which plate tectonics, mantle, and surface processes are coupled.

Over millions of years, surface processes including erosion and river incision conspire to undo surface uplift driven by tectonics and mantle processes. Dr. Tristan Salles is an expert in computational geomorphology. His open source and cross-platform Badlands software drives innovative research in tectonic geomorphology and coastal environments.

Using Badlands coupled to a 3D tectonic code, Dr. Tristan Salles, Dr. Claire Mallard and A/Prof Patrice Rey are able to tap into the power of high-performance computers to simulate the evolution of landscapes in tectonically active settings. This capability offers the unique opportunity to bridge the science of geomorphology to that of ecology and biodiversity. On the broader scale, Dr. Maria Seton’s research on reconstructing the opening and closing of oceanic gateways provides a framework for assessing the spatio-temporal evolution of land bridges through time.