surface processes

The Earth and Planets Section is concerned with understanding the processes that drive the Earth system, and in the formation and evolution of solid bodies within the Solar System. Our research ranges from the study of the taxonomy of fossil organisms to the mineralogy and compositions of dust grains condensed in giant stars and preserved in meteorites.

Despite its breadth, our research is complementary - research on the internal dynamics of the Earth has implications for the tectonics of Mars and Venus, surface processes on Earth are used to interpret the processes that formed martian landforms, and studies of terrestrial microfossils are being used to evaluate the likely form of life on other planets.

Research areas

Internal Structure and Dynamics

Mantle temperature at 100 km depthWe study the dynamic interiors of the Earth, Mars and the Sun.  For this we collect high-quality geophysical data, develop new tools for their analysis and interpretation, complemented by numerical modelling.

Our interests span a wide range of topics including tectonics and structure of the Earth's crust and lithosphere, seismic hazard, dynamics of plates and plumes, studying magnetism numerically and on synthetic and natural samples for geological applications, chemical heterogeneity of the mantle, water storage in the mantle and helioseismology.

See the Geodynamics: Core to Surface group pages for more details.

Recent project topics include:

  • inversion structures in the English Channel
  • Seychelles/Indian rifted continental margins
  • dynamics of subducting lithosphere in a passive mantle
  • deep mantle structure below East Africa
  • plate tectonic processes during the formation of Laurentia
  • spherical seismic and physical structure of the Earth and Mars
  • geomagnetic field history
  • emplacement temperatures of pyroclastic deposits
  • Mediterranean tectonics and seismic potential

Hydrothermal Systems

Hydrothermal SystemsResearch in Hydrothermal Systems focuses on the leaching, transport and deposition of metals by aqueous fluids in the Earth's crust and their subsequent dispersion from these systems in the surficial environment.

Metal leaching in modern hydrothermal systems provides insights into global geochemical budgets.  Field and geochemical studies of modern and ancient hydrothermal systems are critical for understanding how ore deposits form.  Research on plant uptake, and on anthropogenic and atmospheric dispersion, reveals how metals are subsequently distributed within the surficial environment.

A multi-collector ICP-MS laboratory provides an important tool for this research. Research in hydrothermal fluids is conducted primarily by the LODE group.

Projects currently being carried out include:

  • the behaviour of thallium in submarine hydrothermal systems
  • determination of the speciation of copper under porphyry ore-forming conditions using synchrotron X-ray absorption spectroscopy
  • development of laser ablation IC-PMS for the determination of metal transport and deposition in ancient ore deposits
  • use of Fe, Cu and Zn isotopes as tracers of ore-forming and surface dispersion processes
  • fractionation of Cu and Zn isotopes during plant uptake .

Surface Processes

Death ValleyWe are interested in the interactions that take place through the surfaces of Earth and Mars, and in particular the coupled system of rock exhumation, weathering and erosion, landscape evolution, sediment transport and deposition in sedimentary basins, and submarine processes on continental shelves.  We are especially interested in how surface process systems are influenced by active tectonics and changing climate.

We use a combination of direct field observation, indirect sonar imaging at sea, laboratory analysis and numerical modelling.  We are keen to understand how surface process systems function today, and how they have operated in recent and deep Earth history.

See the Geodynamics: Core to Surface group pages for more details

Current projects include:

  • the role of catastrophic flooding on Earth and Mars
  • an evaluation of extreme climate change in deep time
  • acoustic imaging of coral reef collapse
  • the evolution of erosional and depositional landscapes in regions of extensional and contractional tectonics.

Impacts, Astromaterials and Cosmochemistry

Impacts, Astromaterials and CosmochemistryResearch in Impacts, Astromaterials and Cosmochemistry addresses a wide range of fundamental planetary science questions from the origins of the Solar System, the formation of asteroids and planets, to the numerical modelling of meteorite impacts.

We are interested in the characterization of the processes and materials that dictate the nature of planetary bodies. 

IARC - the Impacts and Astromaterials Research Centre - works jointly with the Natural History Museum in this field.

Current projects include:

  • calculations of impact rates on Earth and Venus
  • cosmochemical analyses of non-traditional stable isotope and extinct radionuclide systems
  • the simulation of impacts on the Earth, moon and icy satellites of Jupiter
  • analyses of interplanetary dust particles
  • the Chicxulub impact
  • meteorite collection in the Antarctic, Sahara and Australia
  • organic matter in extra-terrestrial materials
  • mechanisms for volatile loss from the inner solar system
  • the resurfacing of Venus.

Life in the Cosmos

Haliestes dasos, a Silurian arthropod reconstructed in 3DOur research concerns the origin, evolution, distribution and extinction of living organisms.  Records of life in terrestrial rocks reflect interactions between the biosphere and geosphere throughout geological time, and similar records may be present elsewhere in the Solar System.

We use a fusion of cutting edge and classical computational and geochemical methods to decipher records of life entombed in rock. The outcomes of these investigations are detailed reconstructions of past life and its environment.

Our research provides an insight into how life and planets interact. It reveals the workings of global systems both in the past, at the present day and, by extrapolation, into the future.

Current research projects cover areas such as:

  • organic matter in meteorites
  • life detection on Mars
  • visualization of soft bodied fossils
  • bias in preservation through time
  • evolution of major fossil groups
  • circulation of ancient oceans
  • records of mass extinctions and environmental change.