Iris van Zelst

Iris van Zelst is a PhD student at ETH Zürich in Switzerland. She is working on the modelling of tsunamigenic earthquakes using a range of interdisciplinary modelling approaches, such as geodynamic, dynamic rupture, and tsunami modelling. Current research projects include splay fault propagation in subduction zones and the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake. Iris is Editor-in-chief of the GD blog team. You can reach Iris via email. For more details, please visit Iris' personal webpage.

Why there should (not) be more women in geodynamics

Why there should (not) be more women in geodynamics

Nowadays, equality is cool. Everyone is always going on about how women and men should get the same opportunities. In science, and hence, geodynamics, women are still a bit behind men for both historical (women only recently started graduating more in exact sciences) and unconscious-bias reasons. Therefore, there are lots of programs in order to stimulate women to go into science and, more importantly, stay there.

However, no one really considers the negatives of having more women in geodynamics. And that’s why I’m here. Let me present to you a very comprehensive and entirely unbiased list of reasons why there should not be more women in geodynamics:

  • There would be a queue for the ladies toilet during coffee breaks at conferences.
  • None of our male colleagues would be able to focus on work any more, because we are distractingly sexy.
  • Ultimately, peer review would be less strict, because men would be afraid they might make us cry with their criticism.
  • More posters would be pink or purple (so mine won’t stand out any more).
  • The science would be better and there would be more discoveries, and who wants that, really?
    • And now the floor is yours: I hope I initiated a healthy discussion (without a weak seed! Or potato!) – surely you agree there shouldn’t be any more women in geodynamics, right? Leave a comment below!

      PS: For those less trained in sarcasm or irony: I mean the complete opposite, of course – these are all silly reasons! I also wanted to highlight some recent comments on women in science that reached the media, to show that there still is a significant bias against women in science. There should be more women in geodynamics! Although I would be devastated about the toilet queue.

The Venus enigma: new insights into ‘Earth 2’

The Venus enigma: new insights into ‘Earth 2’

Apart from Earth, there are a lot of Peculiar Planets out there! Every 8 weeks, we look at a planetary body worthy of our geodynamic attention. This week Richard Ghail, lecturer in Engineering Geology at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom, discusses Earth’s sister: Venus.

Geologists have long held the view that they only have the results of one experiment: Earth. The growing list of Earth-like planets around other stars (exo-Earths) means that such a view is no longer valid, even if we have limited knowledge of those worlds. Surprisingly, perhaps, our own Solar System boasts two exo-Earths: and the other one is not Mars, as you might think, but Venus. Our nearest planetary neighbour is also the most similar to Earth: at about 80% of its mass and 95% of its radius, and orbiting arguably within our Sun’s habitable zone, Venus would be recognised as an Earth-like exoplanet if it were in orbit around another star. Yet the results of these two experiments could not be more different: Earth may not quite be Eden, but Venus is certainly the closest place we know to hell. Its dense global shroud of sulphuric acid clouds hides a surface on which a person would be simultaneously roasted (at 450°C), crushed (at 90 atmospheres pressure), poisoned and asphyxiated (its atmosphere is 95% CO₂), and corroded (not by sulphuric acid, which decomposes under the extreme conditions, but by HCl and even HF!). The armoured Soviet Venera landers survived only a couple of hours on the surface, but still managed to return tantalising pictures of a barren rocky landscape bathed in an orange light.

A geodynamic surprise: Catastrophe or not?
NASA’s Magellan mission (1989-1994) revealed that geodynamically too, Venus was a surprise. A wealth of volcanoes, rifts and mountains cover its surface but there is little evidence for the spreading ridges and deep trenches that characterise plate tectonics on Earth. More perplexing was the realisation that the 950 or so impact craters – implying a youthful 500 Ma average age – were distributed apparently at random. Had the whole planet been somehow catastrophically resurfaced in one go, half a billion years ago? As strange as it might sound, there appeared to be good reasons to think so: that 450°C surface temperature is enough to stop the crust subducting, effectively shutting down plate tectonics. Without that safety valve, the interior of Venus must be getting ever hotter at the same time that exterior cools and thickens the lithosphere. Such a situation is inherently unstable and calculations showed that Venus should ‘blow its top’ every 500 Ma or so – explaining both the lack of plate tectonic features and the crater distribution. The Venus enigma was solved.

Or was it? The theory divided the community into bitterly opposed sides for the next decade or more. One group could see a global sequence of events in its geological features that seemed to confirm the theory; while the other could see an array of geological complexity at odds with it. ESA’s Venus Express mission (2005-2012) focussed on the planet’s atmosphere but it revealed a remarkably dynamic and changeable system that must somehow reflect geodynamic activity below. It even found tantalising hints of recent volcanic activity. Understanding both the geological evidence and the crater distribution turns out to depend on the very thing that set Venus apart from Earth: its extreme surface conditions. The high temperature not only makes the crust buoyant, but weak, especially so at about 10 km depth, where it is able to shear relative to the mantle below. In this new geodynamic view, plate tectonics does operate on Venus much as it does on Earth, but under 10 km of crust, not 5 km of ocean (Ghail, 2015). As well as explaining the large-scale features of Venus, including its geoid, calculations show that this subcrustal rejuvenation, as it is called, is able to maintain the heat balance on Venus). No catastrophic events are required.

If the crater distribution is not the result of a global catastrophe, what caused it? Mechanically, the basaltic crust of Venus behaves much like Earth’s granitic continental crust, and is similarly broken into many small plates, or terranes, on the order of 500 to 1500 km across, characterised by low strain interiors and highly deformed margins, similar to terrestrial continental blocks. On Earth these terranes are driven by far-field plate tectonic stresses but on Venus they are driven by subcrustal rejuvenation stresses that jostle the terranes against one other but do not move them far across the surface. Impact craters are preserved in terrane interiors but rapidly destroyed at their margins, so that the average crater spacing is similar to the size of terranes. The preserved terrane-interior craters are only destroyed when the terrane is itself destroyed, most likely by interaction with a subcrustal plate boundary (rift or collision), which by inference is something that occurs on average every half billion years. This new geodynamic understanding refines our appreciation of how the geochemistry and geomechanics of the outer few kilometres of the planet profoundly influence stagnant-lid behaviour, promising new insights into early-Earth geodynamics and the nature of newly-discovered exo-Earths.

Welcome to hell Venus. I want you to explore it!
Credit: Pixabay

Exploring Venus
So our views of Venus have changed; our Solar System’s second experiment is, geodynamically, rather more similar to Earth than once imagined. Even so, these ideas have yet to be tested, and our nearest neighbour retains many secrets. Almost nothing is known about its interior, its rates of activity, or even how Venus maintains such a hostile atmosphere. A new phase in Venus exploration is called for, and within Europe the most promising is the proposed EnVision mission, which is currently undergoing evaluation by ESA. EnVision will use an advanced Earth Observation heritage interferometric radar to measure and monitor geological activity over a 5-year period and obtain images at up to 1 m resolution – sufficient to locate and track the Venera landers, providing the precise geodetic control needed to measure terrane deformation. A radar sounder will probe the near subsurface and an IR/UV emission spectrometer will map geochemistry and follow volcanic gases from their source to the upper atmosphere. NASA has proposed landers that could probe interior seismicity, and in the future balloons may directly sense cloud chemistry and dynamics. Unlike the Moon and Mars, these missions will be exploring a world that is – in a geodynamic sense, at least – very much alive.

Ghail, R. (2015). Rheological and petrological implications for a stagnant lid regime on Venus. Planetary and Space Science, 113, 2-9.

NetherMod Day 4 & 5 – Secret Summary

NetherMod Day 4 & 5 – Secret Summary

I hear you exclaiming: “Why merge day 4 and 5 together? What happened to the secret summary of day 4?” Well, I have to admit, apart from being your daily NetherMod reporter, I also needed to present my poster, so apologies for the delay and merge.

Day 4 started with a keynote talk from Dave Stegman with a surprise topic (He had never handed in his abstract. Apparently this is a possibility. Probably only tolerated for keynote speakers though). Dave presented a symphony in four movements about the inconvenient truth of the possibility of a molten lower mantle in the early Earth. We were also very lucky to see the one and only picture of the moon forming impact: truly impressive. Steering the discussion towards politics, Dave introduced two great slogans:

The geodynamics liberation front


Viva la subducción

Talking about subduction, Fanny Garel had a great keynote talk about modelling subduction zones, followed swiftly by a talk by Yury Podladchikov on resolving ductile strain localisation and porous fluid channeling due to thermo- and hydro-mechanical coupling (a “scary talk” according to chair Dan Bower) and Manuele Faccenda’s talk on coupled geodynamic and seismological modelling of subduction zone dynamics. During the final discussion with everyone, Carolina Lithgow-Bertelloni imposed on us the scary truth that

Models are only useful if they fail

I think that’s particularly encouraging for every ECS, although we might be talking about different flavours of model failing…

Day 5 (the final day! how time flies when you’re having fun!) was an excellent day for your NetherMod reporter, because of the incredible amount of bad jokes, puns, and food related analogies in the talks. Thanks! I can work with that!

Paul Tackley kicked of Thursday morning with an interesting talk on the influence of melting on the Earth’s evolution. One of his animations caused the most seasoned scientists to giggle. Unfortunately, I can’t comment more on that; in fact, I have been specifically asked by Dave Stegman to refrain from quoting him on this subject. Indeed, I am a classy girl and this is a classy blog, so I won’t go into details, but props to those who know what I am talking about!

Next, Carolina Lithgow-Bertelloni talked about the carbon compensation depth and she once again had a great comment on modelling etiquette (I see a pattern here):

The goal of a study should be defined before the tools are chosen

Clint Conrad discussed how we could infer dynamic topography from bathymetry and plate motions. He noticed that the degree 1 net motion characteristics of plate velocities all seem to point towards North Korea. Interesting point, isn’t it? I won’t make any (political) remark about that, because, you know, I like my home nuke-free. A lovely quote from Dan Bower during the subsequent question round was that

One person’s observation is another person’s model

Think about it. Keep it in mind.

Things really started to get spicy when Louise Kellogg discussed comparisons of different models and chemical geodynamics for mantle convection. She gave a very nice introduction about the concept of modelling (which was open for debate, of course) and particularly hastened to broaden René de Borst’s previous statement about the fact that the devil is in the boundary conditions: the devil is also very much present in the initial conditions and perturbations. There is no escaping him, really. Louise also added several (chemical) spices in our mantle dynamics curry by looking at the Earth as a chemical factory with several reservoirs connected by fluxes.

Now that we have had potatoes, sausages, and a dynamical curry at NetherMod, the desert was served by Louise when she compared the Earth to a marble cake. I will leave you this time with that delicious idea for a dinner party. NetherMod 2017 finished after a splendid party until the wee hours. Next time it will be in Italy (with a masked ball? Can we please make sure that happens? Like Romeo & Juliet? Pretty please?), and maybe I will report that as well.

For now though, I leave you with the suggestion that we should get together soon for a dinner party. Anyone who would like to volunteer to cook the potatoes?

NetherMod Day 4 – A typical day

NetherMod Day 4 – A typical day

Today, Ági Király, postdoc at CEED (Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics) at the University of Oslo, Norway, is sharing her experience of NetherMod.

After the wine tasting and karaoke party of yesterday evening, this morning’s keynote speakers had quite a difficult job to shake up the sleepy audience. Dave Stegman even dropped in a promise of a free beer for the most awake student (won by  René Gassmöller, cheers!). But what really helped to wake up our little community was the cutting edge science that Dave and later Fanny Garel presented. Dave shared some new modelling results about early earth dynamics, showing the necessity of having a liquid lower mantle to reproduce the Archaeans strong magnetic field. Fanny Garel then showed us results on subduction modelling, reminding us again that “every model is wrong but some are useful”. In the afternoon Yury Podladchikov first talked about how to solve ductile strain localization and porous fluid channelling due to thermo- and hydro-mechanical coupling using parallel computations. It was followed by the talk of Manuele Faccenda showing results of combined geodynamics and seismological modelling to calculate olivine lpo and sks anisotropy in subduction systems. Manuele drew our attention to the artifacts on seismic tomographic models, which can be present due to the mantle anisotropy and the way earthquakes sample the Earth’s interior.

And now about my favourite part in these meetings! A. K. A. why should students always come to meetings and workshops like this. First of all, it’s a relatively small/medium sized meeting, where everyone is staying, eating, drinking, laughing, and brainstorming together all week. So, young scientists have plenty of possibilities to meet fellow young and senior scientists, and do some serious networking. Furthermore, every day we have a half an hour long session where students meet with the keynote speakers during which students and early career researchers have the opportunity to ask questions and discuss with the keynote speakers of the day, without the judging eyes of the other senior participants. This is the place and time where we can ask the seniors to clarify things we didn’t understand, but also to get some more insight into where science is going; what we have to keep always in mind; and what are the biggest challenges in our community. While in the plenary discussion students usually don’t speak up, during this session they can challenge the seniors and exchange ideas.

A typical day at NetherMod. Note the discussions dedicated to students!


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