Tectonics and Structural Geology

Tectonics and Structural Geology

Mind Your Head #4: Job uncertainty in academia – know your strengths and possibilities!

Mind Your Head #4: Job uncertainty in academia – know your strengths and possibilities!

Mind Your Head is a blog series dedicated towards addressing mental health in the academic environment and highlighting solutions relieving stress in daily academic life.

In the three previous blog post of this ‘Mind your head’ series, we discussed the importance of communication with fellow ECS, time management, and a healthy relationship with your advisors. However, there is one big source of stress which we haven’t addressed yet: the insecurities regarding your future career, especially if you wish for an academic career. Unfortunately, this is also one of the most challenging stress factors to tackle.

How to decide if you are up for a career in academia, and if not, what to do next? And how can you increase your chances for a future academic position if there is often someone who has more experience, more publications, or simply better connections? And more often than not, this would involve a transfer to another country for a job, which can be a stress factor in itself – particularly when having a partner and/or a family to take care of.

Success rates in academia
To start with, let’s face reality. A study done by Nature last year has shown that worldwide, 75% of the PhD students think that it is likely that they pursue a career in academia. However, the large majority of these Early Career Scientists will end up somewhere else. In the United Kingdom for example, only 3-4% succeed in landing a permanent position at a university.

You probably already realized that the academic environment is very competitive, but numbers emphasize that it is in fact extremely difficult to maintain a career in academia. So how do we explain this apparent misconception that Early Career Scientists have? Why do so many wish to pursue a career in academia, despite the low success rates?

One important factor is probably the lack of examples of alternative career paths: in universities and research institutions we are only exposed to the academic success stories. Our advisors are senior scientists, or professors, who have successfully established their scientific career. Our colleagues might be post-docs, who have managed to find a position after their PhD that they like, or researchers who have written a successful grant proposal, which ensures them to work independently on their projects for several years.

However, where do the people go who do not find that post-doc after their PhD, or who write grant proposals which get rejected, maybe even more than once? Or the people who simply choose to leave academia after doing a PhD, after one or more post-docs, or even after tenure?

Transferable skills
Of course, where these people end up are excellent choices as well, even though there will always be people telling you that academia is the only path. Not choosing academia doesn’t mean failing! Besides having an academic career, there are many possibilities for people who obtained a PhD degree. And some of these careers might fit you even better than an academic career; you just have to know that they exist and how to make the switch! There are many articles that discuss the different career possibilities for Early Career Scientists, an excellent example being this EGU blog post. It introduces several current and former geoscientists who ended up outside academia, and who share their experiences.

Whether you’re already considering leaving academia, or whether you just want to have a back-up plan in case your desired academic career does not go as planned: it is important to know your possibilities, but more importantly your strengths, and how these can be useful in other careers. Are you aware of the many skills you acquire during a PhD that are extremely valuable to your future employers? All ECS have them! In sectors like industry, or consultancy, the exact topic of your PhD is usually of minor importance. It is the additional skills that you acquired that make the difference between hiring someone with a Master’s degree, or someone who obtained a PhD.

Examples of such transferable skills are your ability to work independently on a long-term project, problem-solving, time-management, communicating within an international community, or efficiently obtaining and transferring knowledge, through articles or oral presentations. When exploring future job possibilities, take a moment to identify your (strongest) transferable skills, and in which environments they might be most valuable.

Many companies and institutions work with competencies, also called ‘key competencies’, or ‘core competencies’. These are specific personal qualities that recruiters use as benchmarks to rate and evaluate possible candidates for a job. There are many lists online, that display all different types of competencies, often grouped in categories like ‘dealing with people’, or ‘self-management’. Also the book ‘Competency-Based Interviews’, by Robin Kessler, features a list of core competencies and explains how they are used for job interviews. Using such an overview to identify your core competencies might be easier than trying to come up with them from scratch.

In the end, knowing  your core competencies and using them to ‘sell yourself’ (during an interview, in a motivation letter, or on your CV), will be useful for any type of career, also in academia! To learn more about increasing your chances in academia, check out this article about marketing for scientists.

Mind your head!
So, to wrap up this series: many Early Career Scientists are very passionate about pursuing an academic career and are willing to work very hard to achieve what they want. Of course, you shouldn’t let yourself be scared off by the statistics; if an academic career is what you really want, go for it! Be prepared for the hard work and strong competition, but don’t forget to have fun! In order to do that, it is important to know yourself, your strengths as well as your limits, to manage your time wisely and… to communicate with your colleagues and advisors!

If it turns out that academia is not for you, don’t panic! There are many wonderful careers outside academia, where you and your skills will be highly valued. However, it is important to get out of the ‘academia-only’ bubble and broaden your horizon. Alternative careers can provide many benefits, such as job certainty, more teamwork, short-term and diverse projects, and an office in the right geographical location! Explore other careers that might suit you, and identify your strengths that will help you land your dream job, inside or outside academia!


By Elenora van Rijsingen
Written with help and revisions from Anne Pluymakers



2nd workshop of the Marie Skodowska-Curie ITN project CREEP: Discussion sessions between senior- and early career scientists focused on reducing stress levels in academia.

PhD management training by Marie-Laure Parmentier from Belpaeme Conseil, France. 

Mind your head #3: A healthy relationship with your advisor

Mind your head #3: A healthy relationship with your advisor

Mind Your Head is a blog series dedicated towards addressing mental health in the academic environment and highlighting solutions relieving stress in daily academic life.

Besides the professional environment in general, the relationship between early career researchers and their advisors also plays an important role in the degree of stress researchers might experience. This relationship does not only depend on the type of advisor you have, but also on your own personality type. A tough supervisor for one person, might be a very good supervisor for someone else. The success of a healthy relationship therefore lies in the expectations you have for each other, and how you respond if those expectations are not met.

Different types of advisors
There are many different types of advisors, as there are many different types of people. A famous one is the ‘superbusy’ type, but also the ‘over-confident’ (“of course this never-tried method will work!”), or the ‘micro-manager’ (someone who checks every detail of your work), are common types.

The ideal advisor would be a supporting one, who cares about your future career, tries to teach you how to become an independent researcher and encourages you to do your work in a way that works best for you. The opposite would be someone who is interested in their own career and only sees you as someone who will simply take on some of their workload, whilst all the time keeping control on how you do that.

Generally speaking, advisors will fall in between these two extremes, and depending on their own stress levels, they might be easier to work with at some times than at others.

Expectations in both ways
The good news is that you can steer a little as well! So, how to make sure your situation will approach the ‘ideal’ situation, rather than the opposite? The first thing you need is probably a bit of luck; a good fit of characters might already be enough to obtain a healthy relationship.

If you’re not so lucky, then communication becomes key! Take the time to figure out what your advisor expects from you as an early career scientist and to think about what you expect from him or her. Advisors are all different, but students are too! Make sure to tell your advisor what you need in order to do a successful job. For example, does your advisor expect you to write your drafts mainly independent? Or does he or she prefer to work on it together, and check it after each section you’ve written? You both might have different preferences for this and it is important to discuss these and find a compromise.

If necessary, make an appointment once a year to simply discuss the process of decision-making and discuss what the best way of communication is for both of you. For example: some people prefer lengthy emails, some short, and some people you need to catch in person in order to work together. If you make it a habit to figure out what the best mode of communication is, it will definitely speed up any cooperation!

Most conflicts between PhD-students and supervisors arise in the final year of the PhD, since this is the point that the student thinks most independently. – Marie-Laure Parmentier (occasional consultant for Belpaeme Conseil)

When conflicts arise
When expectations are not met, a conflict may arise. An example is the case of the ‘superbusy’ advisor, who never has time to talk, whereas you would prefer to have regular short discussions (once in two weeks for example). This could lead to frustration on the students’ part, and even to giving up on trying to communicate at all.

A contrary situation could be an advisor who checks up on you daily to see how you are doing, probably with all the best intensions, whereas you prefer to work independently, and will only call your advisor when you are stuck. This situation could lead to the feeling of not working hard enough and not meeting expectations, which most likely is not the advisors intension.

Eventually these types of frustration will build up and slow down your work, so it is best to simply avoid it all together by discussing expectations clearly.


Albert Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 Rule of Personal Communication. Credit: www.rightattitudes.com


When a conflict arises, the most direct and understandable response is an emotional one; frustration, anger or quiet worry eating away at you. People often directly confront the person causing such an emotional response (which is very human!). However, as you probably know, this is not the smartest, nor the most professional way to deal with frustrations.

So, take a step back and calm down first, count to 10, briefly go to the gym, sleep on it, or go to a friendly colleague to shout out all your frustration; anything that works for you. Reflect on the situation, figure out what the main issue is, and then find a quiet moment during which you can discuss the problem in a calm and rational way. This will ensure your message is received and taken seriously.

In a direct conversation, the impact of your message is mainly determined by body language, while the contribution of the actual words is very little (only 7%). If your movements, space occupation, intonation and volume shout out your anger or your sadness, your conversation partner is likely to respond to the emotion, rather than the message, even if you manage to find the right words straight away.

To conclude: even when you have a different opinion than your advisor, when you are able to express your arguments carefully and clearly, it is much more likely that you’ll find a solution which works for both of you. Communication is key in becoming a better scientist, and will benefit you in any type of collaboration during your career!

By Elenora van Rijsingen
Written with help and revisions from Anne Pluymakers



2nd workshop of the Marie Skodowska-Curie ITN project CREEP: Discussion sessions between senior- and early career scientists focused on reducing stress levels in academia.

PhD management training by Marie-Laure Parmentier from Belpaeme Conseil, France. 

Minds over Methods: Linking microfossils to tectonics

Minds over Methods: Linking microfossils to tectonics

This edition of Minds over Methods article is written by Sarah Kachovich and discusses how tiny fossils can be used to address large scale tectonic questions. During her PhD at the University of Brisbane, Australia, she used radiolarian biostratigraphy to provide temporal constraints on the tectonic evolution of the Himalayan region – onshore and offshore on board IODP Expedition 362. Sarah explains why microfossils are so useful and how their assemblages can be used to understand the history of the Himalayas. And how are new technologies improving our understanding of microfossils, thus advancing them as a dating method?


                                                                          Linking microfossils to tectonics

Credit: Sarah Kachovich

Sarah Kachovich, Postdoctoral Researcher at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, Australia.

Radiolarians are single-celled marine organisms that have the ability to fix intricate, siliceous skeletons. This group of organism have captured the attention of artist and geologist alike due to their skeletal diversity and complexity that can be observed in rocks from the Cambrian to the present. As a virtue of their silica skeletons, small size and abundance, radiolarian skeletons can potentially exist in most fine-grained marine deposits as long as their preservation is good. This includes mudstones, hard shales, limestones and cherts. To recover radiolarians from a rock, acid digestion is commonly required. For cherts, 12-24 hours in 5 % hydrofluoric acid is needed to liberate radiolarians. Specimens are collected on a 63 µm sieve and prepared for transmitted light or scanning electron microscope analysis.

Animation of radiolarian diversity. Credit: Sarah Kachovich

Scale and diversity of modern radiolarians. Credit: Sarah Kachovich (radiolarians from IODP Expedition 362) and Adrianna Rajkumar (hair).











Improving the biostratigraphical potential of radiolarians

The radiolarian form has changed drastically through time and by figuratively “standing on the shoulders of giants”, we correlate forms from well-studied sections to determine an age of an unknown sample. A large effort of my PhD was aimed to progress, previously stagnant, research in radiolarian evolution and systematics in an effort to improve the biostratigraphical potential of spherical radiolarians, especially from the Early Palaeozoic. The end goal of this work is to improve the biostratigraphy method and its utility, thus increasing our understanding of the mountain building processes.

The main problem with older deposits is the typical states of preservation, where radiolarians partly or totally lose their transparency, which makes traditional illustration with simple transmitted light optics difficult. Micro-computed tomography (µ-CT) has been adopted in fields as diverse as the mineralogical, biological, biophysical and anatomical sciences. Although the implementation in palaeontology has been steady, µ-CT has not displaced more traditional imaging methods, despite its often superior performance.

Animation of an Ordovician radiolarian skeleton in 3D imaged through µ-CT. Credit: Sarah Kachovich

To study small complex radiolarian skeletons, you need to mount a single specimen and scan it at the highest resolution of the µ-CT. The µ-CT method is much like a CAT scan in a hospital, where X-rays are imaged at different orientations, then digitally stitched together to reconstruct a 3D model. The vital function of the internal structures provides new insights to early radiolarian morphologies and is a step towards creating a more robust biostratigraphy for radiolarians in the Early Paleozoic.

Linking radiolarian fossils to tectonics

Radiolarian chert is important to Himalayan geologists as it provides a robust tool to better document and interpret the age and consumption of oceanic lithosphere that once intervened India and Asia before their collision.The chert that directly overlies pillow basalt in the ophiolite sequence (remnant oceanic lithosphere) represents the minimum age constraint of its formation. In the Himalayas, over 2000 km of ocean has been consumed as India rifted from Western Australia and migrated north to collide with Asia. Only small slivers of ophiolite and overlying radiolarian cherts are preserved in the suture zone and it is our job to determine how these few ophiolite puzzle pieces fit together.

Another way I have been able to link microfossils to Himalayan tectonics is by studying the history and source of erosion from the Himalayas on board IODP Expedition 362. Sedimentation rates obtained from deep sea drilling can provide ages of various tectonic events related to the India-Asia collision. For example, we were able to date various events such as the collision of the Ninety East Ridge with the Sumatra subduction zone, which chocked off the sediment supply to the Nicobar basin around 2 Ma as the ridge collided with the subduction zone.

Left: Results from the McNeill et al. (2017) of the sedimentation history of Bengal Fan (green dots) and Nicobar Fan (red dots). Middle/right: Reconstruction of India and Asia for the past 9 million years showing the sediment source from the Himalayas to both basins on either side of the Ninety East Ridge.













Lastly, on board Expedition 362 we were able to use microfossils to understand how and why big earthquakes happen. We targeted the incoming sediments to the Sumatra subduction zone that were partly responsible for the globally 3rd largest recorded earthquake (Mw≈9.2). This earthquake occurred in 2004 and produced a tsunami that killed more than 250,000 people.

From the seismic profiles (see example below), we found that the seismic horizon where the pre-decollement formed coincided with a thick layer of biogenetically rich sediment (e.g. radiolarians, sponge spicules, etc.) found whilst drilling. Under the weight of the overlying Nicobar Fan sediments, this critical layer of biogenic silica is undergoing diagenesis and fresh water is being chemically released into the sediments. The fresh water within these sediments is moving into the subduction zone where it has implications to the physical properties of the sediment and the morphology of the forearc region.

The Sumatra subduction zone. The dark orange zone represents the rupture area of the 2004 earthquake. Also shown are the drill sites of IODP Expedition 362 and the location of seismic lines across the plate boundary.

Seismic profile: The fault that develops between the two tectonic plates (the plate boundary fault) forms at the red dotted line. Note the location of the drill site.
























Hüpers, A., Torres, M. E., Owari, S., McNeill, L. C., Dugan, & Expedition 362 Scientists, 2017. Release of mineral-bound water prior to subduction tied to shallow seismogenic slip. Science, 356: 841–844. doi:10.1126/science.aal3429

McNeill, L. C., Dugan, B., Backman, J., Pickering, K. T., & Expedition 362 Scientists 2017. Understanding Himalayan Erosion and the Significance of the Nicobar Fan. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 475: 134–142. doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2017.07.019

Mind your head #2: The importance of time management in academia

Mind your head #2: The importance of time management in academia

Mind Your Head is a blog series dedicated towards addressing mental health in the academic environment and highlighting solutions relieving stress in daily academic life.

An important struggle of people working in academia is how to complete all the different tasks in the limited time available. Even though time management is important for almost any type of career, the degree of freedom in academia and therefore the expected independence make good time management skills a necessity.

In this blog I discuss some highlights of the tips and advice I collected from various senior scientists and time management consultants. I divided them into these five sub-topics, which will hopefully help you in knowing what your goals are and which steps you can take to reach those goals in an efficient way.

Research strategy
The first step is to have a well thought-out research strategy. At the beginning of a PhD or post-doc project, the specific topic and research strategy is defined by you and your advisors or collaborators. It usually includes a pre-determined balance in terms of certain successes (i.e. known research paths that will certainly lead to publications) and innovative research (with some degree of risk).

However, such a pre-determined strategy does not mean that there is no change possible; it simply means that you have something to hold on to. This initial long-term plan is simply a guide through the forest of different research paths, but these strategies are never set in stone. It is important to keep in mind what the final goal of your work is and to periodically evaluate if this goal is still realistic.

Many side-paths will present themselves along the way and it is up to you to decide whether to take them or not. To help you make decisions like that, you have your colleagues and supervisors for discussions and advice, and sometimes you can do a small, quick test to see whether a side-path shows potential or not.

How to sub-divide
Then, there are different sub-projects in any long-term project. These could be different methods you use, like fieldwork, experiments or models, or maybe long-term vs. short term projects. You need to find a way of managing and keeping track of these multiple research lines.

The further along in your career, the more multi-tasking becomes part of the job. Try to find what works best for you: if you feel that it is better to finish one project first, before taking on the next step or method, than definitely do so. Another method is to create specific time blocks (during the week, or month), to which you assign your different tasks. There are numerous time-management apps, as well as old-fashioned paper calendars and notebooks to help you to keep track of things.

Decrease your stress levels by spending some time on thinking about how to efficiently subdivide your work and how to be in control; it doesn’t help if you are overwhelmed because you try to work on four different sub-projects simultaneously. And, especially in research, things often take more time than you would like, and then it is up to you to adjust the plan. Remember Murphy’s law: “ In general, things take longer than expected, because we often underestimate the difficulty of tasks, especially when they are new.”.


In order to be productive, make sure you assign the right amount of time to a task. Not too little, but not too much either. For more about Parkinson’s law, check out this article. Picture credit: Elenora van Rijsingen


Set priorities – and learn how to say no!
Have you ever heard of the Eisenhower matrix? By making the difference between urgent and important tasks, Eisenhower summarizes how to optimize the different tasks that you have in a job (or in life!). Urgent tasks are the ones that come with an approaching deadline, while important tasks are the ones that are useful for both your professional and personal development. This Eisenhower matrix is a tool that can help you decide which tasks of your to-do lists come first.

The first group consists of tasks that are both important and urgent (like finishing the revision of your article, or preparing a conference talk). These fall into two different categories: tasks that you could not have foreseen, and things you left yourself until the last minute. The first thing to do is to minimize the things in the second category, so your list of important and urgent tasks becomes shorter. Think about how you can manage your time better, which tasks you could have foreseen, so that not all your activities become urgent. This means you keep track of your deadlines!

The second group are the not-urgent, but important things (like reading articles to increase your knowledge or going to the gym in the evening). You might have the tendency to put these activities aside, because you always have more urgent things to do, but don’t forget that these tasks are important for a reason!

Then there are the urgent, but not so important tasks (like booking flights for your upcoming conferences or mandatory bureaucracy for the university). For some people, half their day consists of these tasks, which probably does not make them very happy. If possible, try to find a way to reduce the amount of time you spend on those tasks. Maybe you can delegate them? Also, many favours you do for other people belong in this group. Is there the possibility to say no, when someone asks you to do something? If so, do it, but politely. Maybe you can find another moment which is more convenient for you, or you can suggest someone else who would be more suitable for the job.

And what about the not-urgent and not-important tasks? Well, according to Eisenhower you should just eliminate them. There is no faster way to complete a task than not doing it at all.

The Eisenhower Matrix. Credit: James Clear


Work organized
This one seems obvious, but it’s importance is easily underestimated. Do you recognize that feeling when you quickly saved a file somewhere on your computer, but a few weeks later you have no idea where it went?

Organizing things like your computer, your email inbox, your desk, the lab and even your calendar might take some time, but it is definitely worth it. For example, if you organise your calendar in such a way that you can work on a task without (too many) interruptions, you will be much more efficient. Turning off the sound of your phone and your email notifications (and pop-ups) can already be very effective in reducing the amount of distraction during your work.

Also, keeping track of what you have done and which decisions you have made regarding your analyses or your models will be very useful if you do interrupt your task for several days (or months!). This all helps you to keep control, and increase your efficiency – and therefore decrease stress and frustration!

“An interrupted task will be less efficient and take longer than if it would have been carried out continuously”- Carlson’s Law

Do what you like
One of the most important pieces of advice I received was that I should do what I feel like doing in a particular moment. This means that if you feel like reading papers all day and making notes about things relevant for your work, you should do it!

You will be much more productive if you are actually in the mood, rather than pushing yourself to do something, simply because you feel like you should. Even though the degree of freedom in science is quite large, this strategy does not always work. Often there are deadlines and sometimes things simply must be done (i.e. the urgent things). If you make sure your list of Urgent & Important things is short at all times, there is the most opportunity to do such things.

So, to maximize the ‘do-what-you-feel-like-strategy’, it is necessary to think ahead. For example, start thinking about that poster a few weeks in advance, so that you can already create some figures when you have the time… and when you are in the mood!


By Elenora van Rijsingen
Written with help and revisions from Anne Pluymakers



2nd workshop of the Marie Skodowska-Curie ITN project CREEP: Discussion sessions between senior- and early career scientists focused on reducing stress levels in academia.

PhD management training by Marie-Laure Parmentier from Belpaeme Conseil, France. 

‘How to be more productive and eliminate time wasting activities by using the Eisenhower Box’, by James Clear

Mind Your Head #1: Let’s talk about mental health in academia

Mind Your Head #1: Let’s talk about mental health in academia

Mind Your Head is a blog series dedicated towards addressing mental health in the academic environment and highlighting solutions relieving stress in daily academic life.

Research has shown that almost 50% of people working in academia suffer from mental health issues (e.g. Winefield et al. 2003; The Graduate Assembly at the University of California Berkeley 2015; Levecque et al. 2017). Factors like job insecurity, limited amount of time and poor management often cause high stress levels and can lead to mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety or emotional exhaustion.

Even though these problems are pervasive in academia, openly discussing these issues is not easy. People are reluctant to come forward about their difficulties for fear of being judged and loosing career chances, while support mechanisms are poorly advertised.

Particularly at risk are those starting out their research careers. Early career scientists find themselves in a very competitive environment, facing high expectations to publish papers. Too often this results in working much harder than is good for anyone. Personally, I feel that a happy researcher produces better results in the end: so why compete instead of collaborating, or doubt instead of discussing? In the end, too much competition doesn’t drive your productivity, but hinders it instead.

Initiatives such as university support systems, time management courses or training in supervision are thus very important, and I call for those to be incorporated more frequently and more visibly in academic environments.

And even though problems like an unsupportive university, or an overstretched supervisor should be solved to improve the situation, we must not forget that we can do a lot ourselves as well. While many studies focus on institutions’ role in addressing mental health issues in academia, I would like to focus more on coping mechanisms for individuals, with special emphasis on early career scientists.

Through this short series of blog posts, I will address several topics that are often related to the high stress levels many of us experience, incorporating some of the advice I gathered from senior scientists and research management advisors.

Note that mental health issues are serious and should always be addressed with the help of professionals. Remember, acknowledging that things are not going well and seeking help is a sign of strength, and never a source of shame! The advice in this blog series should be seen as a complement, not an alternative, to seeking professional help.

So, to kick off this series, what can we do to deal with stressful circumstances and create a more relaxed working atmosphere for ourselves?

Communication is key
In my opinion, one of the most important tools is communication. The social stigma around mental issues in academia (or almost any other sector) is large and creates the tendency for people to keep their problems to themselves (Wynaden et al., 2014). However, communication is one of the key ingredients for solving a whole range of emotional problems, including those related to stress.

An easy example: if you don’t tell your advisors that something is going wrong, they won’t know about it and will not be able to help you fix it. Usually, your professors have thousands of things to do, and might not notice when you are upset, unless you actively tell them.

In addition, communication with your fellow early career scientists (PhDs and post-docs alike!) is important, since you are not the only one struggling. And odd as it sounds, it really does help to know you are not alone. In most cases, your colleagues will understand how you feel in a certain situation and might even give you some advice on how to solve it.

Setting your boundaries
Apart from communication, it is very important to be aware of your own boundaries. If there is no more energy left, there is no more creativity either. So make sure you recharge your batteries on time! Sometimes the best solutions come to you when partaking in sports, while riding the bus, or simply after a good night sleep. If you are aware of your own mental state, it can be easier to find a way to deal with it, seek the help you need, or simply give yourself permission to take off early for one day.

Of course, being an early career scientist will still be hard work; that is part of the job. But there is a difference between hard work and struggling. Getting a PhD degree is an achievement that requires you to work independently on a long-term project, facing many challenges along the way. But it is also an incredible experience during which, first and foremost, you are supposed to have some fun.

The joy that stems from doing research should not be mainly driven by awards and recognition, but because you are creating new things, gaining new knowledge, improving something or trying to understand the world a bit better! If this joy gets lost along the way, then something has to change. One aspect of learning how to become an independent researcher is not talked about enough: how to be in charge of yourself and your project, how to take control of the situation and make the necessary steps that you need to be a happy scientist!


By Elenora van Rijsingen
Written with help and revisions of Anne Pluymakers & Olivia Trani


Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), 868–879. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2017.02.008

The Graduate Assembly at the University of California Berkeley. (2015). Graduate student happiness and well-being report 2014. Retrieved from http://ga.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/wellbeingreport_2014.pdf

Winefield, A. H., Gillespie, N., Stough, C., Dua, J., Hapuarachchi, J., & Boyd, C. (2003). Occupational stress in Australian university staff: Results from a national survey. International Journal of Stress Management, 10(1), 51–63. http://doi.org/10.1037/1072-5245.10.1.51

Wynaden, D., McAllister, M., Tohotoa, J., Al Omari, O., Heslop, K., Duggan, R., … Byrne, L. (2014). The silence of mental health issues within university environments: A quantitative study. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 28(5), 339–344. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.apnu.2014.08.003


Minds over Methods: Experimental seismotectonics

Minds over Methods: Experimental seismotectonics

For our next Minds over Methods, we go back into the laboratory, this time for modelling seismotectonics! Michael Rudolf, PhD student at GFZ in Potsdam (Germany), tells us about the different types of analogue models they perform, and how these models contribute to a better understanding of earthquakes along plate boundaries.


Credit: Michael Rudolf

Experimental seismotectonics – Seismic cycles and tectonic evolution of plate boundary faults

Michael Rudolf, PhD student at Helmholtz Centre Potsdam – German Research Centre for Geosciences GFZ

The recurrence time of large earthquakes that happen along lithospheric-scale fault zones such as the San Andreas Fault or Chile subduction megathrusts, is very long (≫100 yrs.) compared to human timescales. The scarcity of such events over the instrumental record of around 60 years is unfortunate for a statistically sound analysis of the earthquake time series.

So far, only few megathrust events have been monitored in detail with near-field seismic and geodetic networks. To circumvent this lack of observational data, we at Helmholtz Tectonic Laboratory use analogue modelling to understand plate boundary faulting on multiple time-scales and the implications for seismic hazard. We use models of strike-slip zones and subduction zones, to investigate several aspects of the seismic cycle. Additionally, numerical simulations accompany and complement each experimental setup using experimental parameters.


Seismotectonic scale models
In my project, we develop experiments that can model multiple seismic cycles in strike-slip conditions. Our study employs two types of experimental setups both are using the same materials. The first is simpler (ring shear setup) and is able to show the on-fault rupture propagation. The second is geometrically more similar to the natural system, but only the surface deformation is observable.

To model rupture propagation, we introduce deformable sliders in a ring shear apparatus. Two cylindrical shells of ballistic gelatine (Ø20 cm), representing the side walls, rotate against each other, with a thin layer (5 mm) of glass beads (Ø355-400µm) in between representing an annular fault zone. A see-through lid connected to force sensors holds the upper shell in place, whereas the machine rotates the lower shell. Through the transparent lid and upper shell, we directly observe the fault slip. We can vary the normal stress on the fault (<20 kPa) and the loading velocity (0.0005 – 0.5 mm/s).

The next stage of analogue model, features depth-dependent normal stress and a rheological layering mimicking the strike-slip setting in the uppermost 25-30 km of the lithosphere (see also Mehmet Köküm’s blog post). A gelatine block (30x30cm) compressed in uniaxial setting represents the elastic upper crust under far-field forcing. Embedded in the block is a thin fault filled with quartz glass beads. The ductile lower crust is modelled using viscoelastic silicone oil. The model floats in a tank of dense sugar solution, to guarantee free-slip, stress-free boundaries.


Figure 2 – Setup and monitoring technique during an experiment. Several cameras record the displacement field and the ring shear tester records the experimental results. Credit: Michael Rudolf


Analogue earthquakes
Both setups generate regular stick-slip cycles including minor creep. Long phases of quiescence, where no slip or very slow creep occurs, alternate with fast slip events sometimes preceded by slow slip events. The moment magnitude of analogue earthquake events is Mw -7 to -5. The cyclic recurrence of slip events is an analogue for the natural seismic cycle of a single-fault system.


Figure 3 – Detailed setup and results from the ring shear tester experiments. The upper right image shows a snapshot of an analogue earthquake rupture along the fault zone. The plot shows the recorded shear forces and slip velocities over one hour of experiment. Credit: Michael Rudolf


Optical cameras record the slip on the fault and the deformation of the sidewalls. Using digital image correlation techniques, we are able to visualize accurately deformations on the micrometre scale at high spatial and temporal resolution. Accordingly, we can verify that analogue earthquakes behave kinematically very similar to natural earthquakes. They generally nucleate where shear stress is highest, and then propagate radially until the seismogenic width is saturated. In the end, the rupture continues laterally along the fault strike. Our experiments give insight into the role of viscoelastic relaxation, interseismic creep, and slip transients on the recurrence of earthquakes, as well as the control of loading conditions on seismic coupling and rupture dynamics.


Figure 4 – Setup and Results for the strike-slip geometry. The surface displacement field is very similar to natural earthquakes. The plot shows that due to technical limitations of this setup, fewer events are recorded but the slip velocities are higher. Credit: Michael Rudolf


Future developments
Together with our partners in the Collaborative Research Centre (CRC1114 – Scaling Cascades in Complex Systems) we employ a new mathematical and numerical description of the fault system, to simulate our experiments and get a physical understanding of the empirical friction laws. In the future, we want to use this multiscale spatial and temporal approach to model complex fault networks over many seismic cycles. The experiments serve as benchmarks and cross-validation for the numerical code, which in the future will be using natural parameters to get a better geological and mathematical understanding of earthquake slip phenomena and occurrence patterns in multiscale fault networks.

Minds over Methods: Reconstructing oceans lost to subduction

Minds over Methods: Reconstructing oceans lost to subduction

Our next Minds over Methods article is written by Derya Gürer, who just finished a PhD at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. During her PhD, she used a combination of many methods to reconstruct the evolution of the Anadolu plate, which got almost entirely lost during closure of the Neotethys in Anatolia. Here, she explains how the use of these multiple methods helped her to obtain a 3D understanding of the Anatolian double subduction system and the demise of the Anadolu plate. 

Credit: Derya Gürer

Reconstructing oceans lost to subduction

Derya Gürer, Postdoctoral Researcher, Utrecht University, the Netherlands. 

Subduction represents the single biggest recycling process on Earth and takes place at convergent plate boundaries. One plate subducts underneath another into the mantle, generating volcanism, earthquakes, tsunamis and associated hazards. Subduction zones come and go, and nearly half of the subduction zones active today formed in the Cenozoic (after ~65 Ma) (Gurnis et al., 2004). The negative buoyancy of subducted lithosphere (‘slab pull’) is thought to be the major driver of plate tectonics (Turcotte and Schubert, 2014). Changes in the configuration of subduction zones thus change the driving forces of plate tectonics, making the reconstruction of the kinematic evolution of subduction key to understanding past plate motions. Such reconstructions make use of data preserved in the modern oceans (marine magnetic anomalies and fracture zone patterns). But because subduction is a destructive process, the surface record of subduction-dominated systems is naturally incomplete, and more so backwards in time. Sometimes, relicts of subducted lithosphere are preserved in active margin mountain belts, holding valuable information to restore past plate motions and the dynamic evolution of subduction zones.

But how does one recognize a plate that has been almost entirely lost to subduction? And how do we reconstruct the evolution of subduction zones through space and time?


Archives of plates that were (almost) lost due to subduction

Subduction occurs in a variety of geometries and leaves behind a distinct geological record that holds key elements for the analysis of the past kinematics of now-subducted plates. Where subduction occurred below oceanic lithosphere, fragments of the leading edge of this overriding lithosphere may be left behind as remnants of oceanic crust (ophiolites). Subduction of oceanic plates may also be associated with accretion of its volcano-sedimentary cover to the overriding plate as an accretionary complex (Matsuda and Isozaki, 1991). Forearc basins associated with intra-oceanic subduction zones form on top of ophiolites and accretionary complexes and may record permanent deformation (syn-kinematic) of the overriding plate in response to tectonic interaction with the down-going plate (e.g., accretion, subduction erosion, slab roll-back) (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: The location of archives of the evolution of “lost” oceanic plates (ophiolites, accretionary complexes, forearc basins) in a subduction zone setting.Credit: Derya Gürer.

The sedimentary infill of forearc basins implicitly records the nature and stress state of the overriding plate. Forearc basins may therefore hold the most complete record of the motion of the oceanic plate relative to the trench. However, many accretionary complexes and forearcs are deeply submerged and buried below sediments, making them highly inaccessible, and therefore expensive to study. As a consequence, our understanding of such systems is primarily based on well-studied examples in the East Pacific (e.g. Franciscan Complex, California (Wakabayashi, 2015)). Other such systems exist in the Mediterranean realm – for example in the geological record of Anatolia. The unique and direct archive of past plate motion in the geological record of Central and Eastern Anatolia is independent from constraints provided by marine magnetic anomalies, and provides a key region to unravel the evolution of destructive plate boundaries.


How many oceans were lost in Anatolia?

Fig. 2: The multidisciplinary approach used in my PhD research consisted of structural field analysis and stratigraphy of Anatolian sedimentary basins with focus on syn-kinematic deformation (top) with time constraints provided by absolute age dating of accessory minerals and biostratigraphy (middle). Paleomagnetic analysis (bottom left) provided information about vertical axis rotations. The combined information from these methods were integrated in a kinematic reconstruction and tested against mantle tomography (bottom right). Credit: Derya Gürer

To answer this question, I studied the deformation of sedimentary basins overlying Anatolian ophiolites (remnants of oceanic crust), and the deformation record of rocks which were buried and exhumed below these ophiolites. The Cenozoic deformation of the Anatolian orogen allowed for identifying the timing of arrest of the subduction history and revealed the simultaneous activity of two subduction zones in Late Cretaceous time. These two subduction zones bound a separate oceanic plate within the Neotethys Ocean – the Anadolu Plate (Fig. 3, Gürer et al., 2016). The aim of my PhD research was to reconstruct the birth, evolution and destruction of this oceanic plate.

Tectonic problems require a multidisciplinary approach, in order to study the evolution of orogens and associated sedimentary basins. My research involved the integration of (1) structural analysis, (2) stratigraphy, (3) geochronology, (4) paleomagnetism, (5) plate reconstruction, and (6) mantle tomography (Fig. 2). The main goal was to obtain new data on the evolution of the Central and Eastern Anatolian regions through the analysis of spatial and temporal relationships of deformation archived in the geological record.

First, I collected kinematic data from sedimentary basins (Fig. 2) overlying ophiolitic relicts of the oceanic Anadolu Plate, as well as from the underlying accretionary complex (Gürer et al., 2018a). Here, it was especially useful to focus on syn-kinematic deformation recorded by sediments. To constrain the timing of this deformation, I used geochronological data coming from absolute age dating and biostratigraphy. The integrated reconstruction of the kinematic history of basins was used to develop concepts quantitatively constraining the tectonic history of the Anadolu Plate and its surrounding trenches in 2D (Gürer et al., 2016).


Fig. 3: The Ulukışla Basin (Central Anatolia) represents a forearc basin in Late Cretaceous to Eocene time which recorded the evolution of the Anadolu Plate. The basin has subsequently been strongly deformed during Eocene and younger collisional processes and is juxtaposed against the Aladağ range along the Ecemiş Fault. Credit: Derya Gürer.


There are, however, large vertical axis rotations constrained through paleomagnetic analysis within Anatolia, not taken into account in the workflow described in the previous paragraph. Therefore, paleomagnetic data from the Late Cretaceous to Miocene sedimentary basins were collected. These data identified coherently rotating domains and major tectonic structures that accommodated differential rotations between tectonic blocks (Gürer et al., 2018b).

Fig. 4: Simplified interpretation of the Late Cretaceous double subduction geometry in Anatolia and the Anadolu Plate.Credit: Derya Gürer.

Subsequently, a kinematic reconstruction of Anatolia back to the Late Cretaceous was built (Fig. 4) incorporating the timing of deformation obtained through structural analysis, stratigraphy, geochronology, and vertical axis rotations. This reconstruction provided first-order implications for the timing and geometry of subduction zones and revealed that the demise of the Anadolu Plate and collision in Anatolia was variable along the strike of the orogen, younging from the west to the east. The exact timing of collision in Eastern Anatolia will require future studies applying structural field geology, systematic analysis of the age and nature of magmatism, and thermochronology to constrain timing of regional exhumation, as well as detrital geochronology, providing information on the relative proximity of tectonic blocks through the provenance of sediments.


Finally, the resulting 2D kinematic reconstruction was tested against a mantle tomographic model (UU-07, Amaru, 2007; van der Meer et al., 2017) to gain insights into its 3D geometry. Mantle tomography images the present-day structure and positive seismic anomalies (blue colours in Fig. 5), which may be interpreted as subducted slabs. Comparing the convergence estimate obtained from the kinematic reconstruction with the imaged subducted lithosphere allowed to infer that the mantle structure in the Eastern Mediterranean holds record of not only the two strands of the Neotethys Ocean that existed in Anatolia, but also of the Paleotethys Ocean.


Fig. 5: Map view tomographic structure below the Eastern Mediterranean region at variable depths (increasing in depth from left to right). Blue colours generally represent positive, whereas red colours represent negative wave speed anomalies. Credit: Derya Gürer & Wim Spakman.

The combination of methods to unravel the geological record of Anatolia quantitatively constrained the evolution of subduction zones and of the Anadolu Plate. The reconstruction of the Anatolian double subduction system that existed in Late Cretaceous time has implications for the dynamics of multiple simultaneously active subduction zones.



Amaru, M.L., 2007. Global travel time tomography with 3-D reference models. PhD thesis, Utrecht University, The Netherlands.

Gürer, D., van Hinsbergen, D.J.J.D.J.J., Matenco, L., Corfu, F., Cascella, A., 2016. Kinematics of a former oceanic plate of the Neotethys revealed by deformation in the Ulukışla basin (Turkey). Tectonics 35, 2385–2416. https://doi.org/10.1002/2016TC004206

Gürer, D., Plunder, A., Kirst, F., Corfu, F., Schmid, S.M., van Hinsbergen, D.J.J., 2018a. A long-lived Late Cretaceous–early Eocene extensional province in Anatolia? Structural evidence from the Ivriz Detachment, southern central Turkey. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 481. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2017.10.008

Gürer, D., Hinsbergen, D.J.J. van, Özkaptan, M., Creton, I., Koymans, M.R., Cascella, A., Langereis, C.G., 2018b. Paleomagnetic constraints on the timing and distribution of Cenozoic rotations in Central and Eastern Anatolia. Solid Earth 9, 1–27. https://doi.org/10.5194/se-9-1-2018

Gurnis, M., Hall, C., Lavier, L., 2004. Evolving force balance during incipient subduction. Geochemistry Geophys. Geosystems 5, Q07001. https://doi.org/10.1029/2003GC000681

Matsuda, T., Isozaki, Y., 1991. Well-documented travel history of Mesozoic pelagic chert in Japan: from remote ocean to subduction zone. Tectonics 10, 475–499.

van der Meer, D.G., van Hinsbergen, D.J.J., Spakman, W., 2018. Atlas of the Underworld: slab remnants in the mantle, their sinking history, and a new outlook on lower mantle viscosity. Tectonophysics 723, 309–448.

Wakabayashi, J., 2015. Anatomy of a subduction complex: architecture of the Franciscan Complex, California, at multiple length and time scales. Int. Geol. Rev. 37–41. https://doi.org/10.1080/00206814.2014.998728


EGU – Realm and Maze? An interview with Susanne Buiter, the current chair of the EGU Programme Committee

EGU – Realm and Maze? An interview with Susanne Buiter, the current chair of the EGU Programme Committee

source: ngu.no

Susanne Buiter is senior scientist and team leader at the Solid Earth Geology Team at the Geological Survey of Norway. She is also the chair of the EGU Programme Committee. This means that she leads the coordination of the scientific programme of the annual General Assembly. She assists the Division Presidents and Programme Group chairs when they build the session programme of their divisions, helps find a place for new initiatives and tries to solve issues that may arise. This also includes short courses, townhall and splinter meetings, great debates, events on arts and other events. The programme group also initiates discussions on how to include interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary science and how to accommodate the growth of the General Assembly. Questions: Micha Dietze, Annegret Larsen (both GM Early Career Representatives), and Anouk Beniest (EGU TS Early Career Representative)


Susanne, you are a perfect example of a scientist bridging scientific work with scientific management. What brought you to this and how do you manage keeping the balance?
I would not call it perfect! And I find it not so easy to keep a balance. I am very fortunate that my employer, the Geological Survey of Norway, recognises the importance of organisations like EGU for the geoscience community in Europe. That means that I can partly use working hours for EGU activities and that is a great help. For me, EGU fulfils an important task in bringing people together for networking, starting new projects, discuss new ideas and I would like to contribute to making that possible. I guess one thing led to the other, but what is important for me is that all activities are truly fun and rewarding.


It seems you have filled almost all the different possible jobs within the EGU: giving talks, discussing posters, judging presentations, convening sessions, coordinating ECS activities like short courses, acting as Programme Group member and leader, serving as TS Division President, and now working as Programme Committee Chair. Could you describe what the main goals of the EGU are for you, and what brought you to become such an active member of the EGU community?
I see the role of EGU as serving the geoscience community through enabling networking, discussions and information sharing. Our General Assembly is very important for this and also our journals. I love the outreach and education that EGU does, through the GIFT programme and attempts to interact with politics and funding agencies. By the way, the short courses are for and by all participants, including the ECS, but not only!

I would really like to encourage ECS to submit session proposals during our call-for-sessions in Summer. And please consider to submit your abstract with oral preference, so conveners can schedule ECS talks.


Could you shed some light on the structure of this big ship called EGU in a few sentences?
What characterises EGU is that the union is by the community and for the community. EGU has a small office in Munich that oversees the day-to-day operations and coordinates our media activities (www.egu.eu). They are also EGUs long-term memory. We have 22 divisions from Atmosphere Sciences AS to Tectonics and Structural Geology TS. The division presidents are usually also chair of their associated Programme Group, with the same abbreviations AS, BG, CL etc that you see in our programme at the General Assembly in Vienna. They schedule their parts of the conference programme. For this, programme group chairs rely on the work of conveners (you!) to propose and organise sessions. Division presidents are also member of EGU’s council, together with EGU’s executives. Here decisions are taken on budgets, committee work, new executive editors of journals etc. EGU has among others committees for awards, education, outreach, publications and topical events (https://www.egu.eu/structure/committees/). Copernicus is hired by EGU for organisation of the General Assembly and publication of the 17 journals (https://www.egu.eu/publications/open-access-journals/). All EGU journals are open access. Sorry, that was rather more than a few sentences…


How flexible – in your experience – is the EGU administration and organization on a scale of 1-10?
A 9! I would have like to say a 10, but improvements are always possible. The EGU office, executives, divisions and committees put a lot of effort in coordinating all activities. We actually rely on flexibility as EGU is bottom-up. This is also how new initiatives find a place. For example, EGU2018 will have a cartoonist-in-residence and a poet-in-residence, a new activity I am very excited about and that was proposed by participants.


Regarding the ECS, which role do you feel should they play at EGU level? What is running very well and what would you like to change? Where do you think are fields where you see opportunities to become more active?
About half of participants to our General Assembly identify as ECS according to the survey from 2017 and abstract submission statistics for 2018. So they should play an important role! Not only in the General Assembly, but also in our committees. The ECS representatives are important for their feedback to council, making the ECS opinions heard, and starting new activities, such as the networking reception, many short courses, and the ECS lounge. What I would like to change? More ECS session conveners please! I would really like to encourage ECS to submit session proposals during our call-for-sessions in Summer. And please consider to submit your abstract with oral preference, so conveners can schedule ECS talks.


What is most important for ECS to know about the EGU structure?
Know your ECS representative. At the General Assembly, come to the ECS forum on Thursday at lunch time and the ECS corner at the icebreaker. Connect with scientists in your division(s) by attending the division meeting.


From your perspective, what can we do to motivate more ECS to actively shape “their” EGU?
It is building on what you already do: share information on EGU, the divisions, that we are bottom-up and therefore rely on suggestions by community members. Encourage ECS to suggest sessions, volunteer as committee member when there are vacancies (these are advertised on www.egu.eu and through social media), and organise activities at, before and after the General Assembly. Encourage ECS to use the conference in Vienna to network with all participants, not only through ECS channels, and find new opportunities that way. My observation is that many experienced scientists love to discuss with ECS and perhaps even start new collaborations.


Which ways and approaches do you see to better connect ECS within and between Programme Groups?
I find especially connections *between* Programme Groups very interesting, not only for ECS. EGU is growing to a size that it has become more difficult to find time to look outside your own bubble. We have been investigating ways to make our programme more interdisciplinary and perhaps in the future also transdisciplinary, to try to create new approaches. That said, I am happy to see at the ice-breaker and networking reception that many ECS identify with more than one division! It is important to cross borders, that is where a lot of exciting research happens.


The mentoring programme is a rather new feature for many divisions. Could you give some feedback on how it went last year? Will it be a permanent item during the EGU General Assembly?
We organised the mentoring programme in 2017 as a pilot, which we on purpose kept somewhat low profile to generate feedback and develop our tools. We see the programme as a networking opportunity for both first-time and experienced attendees. Feedback was very positive, so we are rolling out in full this year. We offer matching, two meeting opportunities at the General Assembly and some guidance.

I encourage people to try a PICO presentation or convening a PICO session. I have run some poster-only sessions last years, which have been great fun as we had so much more time for discussions.


The EGU General Assembly can be overwhelming at first. What would you advice young (and not so young) researchers to do to have a successful meeting?
Attend short course SC2.1 on how to navigate the EGU (Monday at 08:30), read the first-timer’s guide to the General Assembly, and make sure you are on the mailing list for your division ECS representatives if they have one. Some divisions have an ECS evening event, do attend! Consider taking part in the mentoring programme of course. And prepare a personal programme before heading to Vienna. Not to follow it in detail, but at least to know where to go for talks, PICO, short courses, posters, and events. I would definitely use the General Assembly to talk to other participants, this is a great chance to expand your network.


Time and space are precious during the EGU General Assembly. There are over 10.000 contributions, many aiming at a talk, but ending up as posters, the session rooms are often overcrowded, the lunch break brings a rush and long queues. Is there any way the Union Council considers to improve certain bottle necks or are we already at the maximum of optimizing some of the conference logistics?
In 2017, we had ca. 17,400 presentations and 14,500 participants. We rented a new hall on the forecourt of the conference centre, which we will also have in 2018. This increased the conference space, taking pressure off the rooms and surely reduced queues. Copernicus and EGU work continuously on optimising the scheduling. We also started a broader discussion on future formats of the General Assembly. I would like to take this opportunity to encourage trying a PICO presentation or convening a PICO session. I have run some poster-only sessions the last years, which have been great fun as we had so much better time for discussions.


Many ECS approach their representatives because they are worried or disappointed to see their initiatives for scientific session proposals not succeeding. Instead they find year after year the same names behind established and crowded sessions. Do you have any advice how to deal with this or do you think this is not really an issue?
I am aware that this may unfortunately play for some sessions, but overall I think we cater well to new initiatives. My advice to Programme Group chairs is to encourage ECS conveners for new sessions and also to include ECS as part of long-running sessions that should rotate, and renew, conveners each year. Our General Assembly offers place for sessions on the basics and fields that require long-term developments, and at the same time also on new, emerging topics. Sometimes these sessions on upcoming topics may be small in number of submissions, but large in attendance. The best I can say to anyone is to discuss concerns or feedback regarding convening with the division president and the ECS division representative.


With the growing amount of members and participants (almost) every year, how do you see the EGU’s future both as a community and as one of the most important events?
EGU is an important voice of the Earth and space science community in Europe. I think the union should continue to do what it is good at: providing a platform for networking, discussions on new and old fun topics, and information sharing. I would like EGU to stay flexible and cater to new formats in its journals and at its General Assembly, the latter also in light of discussions on CO2 costs of meetings.


Thank you Susanne!
Could I emphasize again that EGU is bottom-up and depends on input from our communities? So please contact your ECS representative, the division president or me (programme.committee@egu.eu) with ideas and feedback!


Some more information online here:



Paris: From quarry to catacombs

Paris: From quarry to catacombs

Paris, 2000 ya.
Claude is sweating all over. It’s mid-July and the sun is burning on his skin. With his hammer and shovel he is digging up grey and white stones. The faults and fractures in the rock help him to get the rocks out easily. But still, it’s hot and humid and his shift isn’t over yet. Luckily he can’t complain about the view. Lutetia, one of the new Roman settlements lies right in front of him, on the left bank of the Seine river.

Paris, 700 ya. Pierre sighs out deeply, his back hurts, but he has to continue. In the small corridors of the underground quarries at Montrouge south of Paris, he is digging for gypsum and cutting limestone for building material. The quarries are narrow and low, so he has to bend over all the time. Mining gypsum is easier, it’s a softer material. It’s the limestone that makes him suffer.

Paris, 300 ya. Jean covers his mouth. The stench is unbearable! Over 12 generations of Parisians are buried at the cemetery ‘Les Innocents’ in the heart of Paris. Last week, the cellar of a house located below the cemetery collapsed under the weight of the buried. The king decided to close all cemeteries within the city centre and so the cemeteries are being emptied. Jean found a job in this chaos, pulling a wagon at night, from the cemetery  to entrance of the old, abandoned quarries south of the city.


Figure 1. Geological map of France. The Paris basin is outlined in red and Paris (the red dot) is located at the centre of the basin. Credit: Written In Stone blog

Paris, 200 Ma – today
Paris is located at the heart of the Paris Basin, a NW-SE trending oval feature that measures over 140.000 kmand extends into the United Kingdom (Figure 1). The basin is positioned on top of a Palaeozoic crystalline basement. The lower lithologies are marine and continental sediments of Permian and Mesozoic age. A major subaerial, Palaeocene erosion event was followed by the deposition of Eocene limestones that is known now as ‘Parisian limestone’. The beige-white rocks are among the most famous building materials that is nowadays exported all over the world, but they used to be the main building material that characterizes the city of Paris. Of course, it is no coincidence that these rocks are of ‘Lutetian’ age, as Lutetia was the Latin name for Paris. The Lutetian is followed by the Bartonian stage, in which gypsum was deposited in the Paris basin, the second most important material that was mined in the Paris region. Oligocene, Miocene and Neogene successions consist of sands, marls and clays and cover all older sediments.

The familiar light-coloured, 6-7 stories high buildings, decorated with balconies and ornaments are Paris’ most famous selling point. Throughout the 20 districts all kinds of structures can be found that are made from these rocks; from regular houses to famous sights, such as the Notre Dame and the Louvre Museum. The rocks do not come from far. Scattered through the city, old quarries can be found above and below the ground (Figure 2). They were intensively mined from 2000 years ago until the 17th century to provide building material for the city of Paris.


Figure 2. Map of Paris with in black the old limestone quarries. Gypsum was mined around Mont Montmartre (18th arrondissement) and Belleville (19th and 20th arrondissement). Credit: Papyserge blog.


The very first mining activities in Paris were in an ‘open-pit’ kind of fashion, as our friend Claude from the introduction experienced. Paris was relatively small and these quarries were located just outside the old city walls. From some of them, we can still see signs nowadays, like the ‘Arènes de Lutèce’, situated in the 5th arrondissement. This was an open-pit mine that later turned into a small Roman amphitheatre (Figure 3).

Figure 3. ‘Les Arènes de Lutèce’. Before this place turned into an amphitheatre for the amusement of the Roman people it served as a limestone quarry to provide building material. Credit: Anouk Beniest.

As Paris expanded, more building material was needed. Even though the already excavated blocks were re-used, underground quarries for limestone and gypsum emerged below Montrouge (14th district), Parc Montsouris (13th district), Parc Butte-Chaument (19th district) and Montmartre (18th district). People like Pierre were subsurface miners. Initially they only excavated the Lutetian limestones. Later also Bartonian gypsum was extracted. Eventually the quarries moved south of Paris, outside the present-day city-limits, leaving a whole network of galleries and corridors below the city (Figure 4).

These quarries below Paris were almost forgotten, as they were abandoned for several decades. When the largest cemetery in the city-center of Paris, ‘Les Innocents’, collapsed and conditions became untenable, the king decided to clear all cemeteries within the citywalls. Our friend Jean was paid for his duties, moving carriages full of bones to the southern end of the quarries, close to the present-day entrance of the catacombs at ‘Denfert-Rochereau’. The major clean-up took a year-and a half during the end of the 18th century and resulted in corridors full of nicely stacked bones, decorated with skulls (Figure 5). During a second wave, more cemeteries were emptied in the early 19th century. Even after World War II, the old quarries at Pièrre-Lachaise were used as final resting place of the thousands of Parisians that found death during the war.


Figure 4 (left). One of the restored quarries below Paris. The pillars were used to support the overlying rocks and to avoid collapsing of the galleries. Credit: Secret de Paris. Figure 5 (right). The galleries of the old quarries were filled with the buried from the Parisian cemeteries. The remains were neatly stacked into blocks with the skulls used as decoration. Marble sign were placed to remind visitors of the origin of the bones. Credit: Anouk Beniest.


For over 150 years, parts of the catacombs have been accessible so people could pay tribute to their dead ancestors. During periods of civil unrest, people would use the old quarries as hide-outs. This was of course not without any risk; people could easily get lost and never see daylight again. In calmer periods, people would still search for ways to get inside, to party all night, go on adventure or just enjoy the silence without leaving the city. In 2005, part of the catacombs was renovated and 1.7 km of galleries is now open for public. The other 300 km of abandoned quarries remains closed, and only those who know the secret entrances dare to descend into these ancient galleries, where Pierre used to mine his limestones and Jean dumped his load of bones.

How Rome and its geology are strongly connected

How Rome and its geology are strongly connected

Walking through an ancient and fascinating city like Rome, there are signs of history everywhere. The whole city forms an open-air museum, full of remnants of many different times the city has known, from the Imperial to the Medieval times, the Renaissance, the Fascist period, and finally the present day version of Rome. For historians and archaeologists, unravelling the exact history of the city proves to be a major challenge, since things are only partly preserved or have been renovated or moved to serve a different purpose. This might sound familiar to geologists, since they deal with the same type of problems, just on much larger scales, both spatially and temporally.

Although you might expect to find the keys to the geological history of Rome and its surroundings outside the city, there’s actually a great deal of hints within the city itself. Let’s start with the roads you would walk on, during a visit to Rome. If you’ve ever been to Rome, you might remember the black cobblestones, which form the pavement for many streets in the historical centre of Rome. The Italians call them ‘sanpietrini’, cubic-shaped blocks made from volcanic rocks coming from the surrounding volcanic regions.


Volcanic activity

Two of these volcanic regions are the Alban Hills, southeast of Rome, and the Sabatini volcanic complex, northwest of Rome. They are part of a line of volcanic fields along the edge of the Italian peninsula, stretching from Naples, all the way to Tuscany. Eruptions in these areas were mainly explosive and created large volcanic plateaus and craters. One of those plateaus was formed by an eruption of the Alban Hills volcanic field and consists of volcanic tuff stone. Over time, erosion has altered this plateau and created a topography of valleys and hills, including the seven hills that Rome was built on. These hills are still remarkable features in the city today, for example when you climb the stairs to the Capitoline Hill and have a gorgeous view of the Imperial Forum or when standing on the Aventine hill in the south, looking down on Circus Maximus in the valley below you, and seeing the ruins of the imperial palaces on the Palatine hill in front of you.


Left: Map showing the regional relief and the two volcanic complexes north and south of Rome. Credit: modified from Funiciello et al., 2003 by Francesca Cifelli. Right: The seven hills of Rome. Credit: theculturetrip.com.


The volcanic rocks in the Roman area did not only shape the landscape, they also served (and still do!) as an important water supply to the city. Springs in the areas, but also freshwater lakes formed in the volcanic craters are important sources for the city’s water budget. In fact, last summer Rome was in a state of panic, since severe drought and extremely hot temperatures had a big impact on the water level of volcanic lakes providing water to Rome and city officials were considering rationing drinking water for the Roman citizens.


The Apennines

Another important water supply to Rome are the springs in the Apennines, a NW-SE trending mountain chain, also called ‘the backbone of the Italian peninsula’. This mountain chain is the result of a collision between the African and Eurasian plates, which was part of a series of complex collisions and extensions of the Earth’s crust in the Mediterranean region, lasting from roughly 100 million years to 2 million years ago.  During the last 20 million years, the Italian Peninsula rotated counter-clockwise, resulting in the formation of what we now call the Tyrrhenian sea. This period of extension also formed the onset of volcanic activity in the region.


Map of the Mediterranean highlighting the main tectonic processes. Credit: Introduction to the Geology of Rome.


The rocks in the Apennine mountain range are limestone, deposited in ancient shallow seas as long as 300 million years ago. These rocks became very important to Rome, since they formed major rock reservoirs, which have been used for water supply for many centuries. Many remains of ancient aqueducts carrying water to Rome can still be found nowadays, and some of them are still being used, like the Vergine aqueduct, bringing water to the Trevi fountain. Also the ‘fontanelle,’ little fountains on the streets everywhere in Rome, are part of this water supply system and always provide clear, cool, and drinkable water. And if you’ve ever spend a day in Rome during summer, you know how valuable these fontanelle are!


Left: view on the Imperial Forum from the Capitoline Hill. Many of the buildings at the Forum have been built with travertine. Right: remants of the Aqua Claudia, one of Romes many acqueducts bringing water from the surrounding regions to the city. Credit: Elenora van Rijsingen


The limestone that ended up in the Apennines often were converted into marble due to the high pressures and temperatures during collision. This marble  can be found everywhere in Rome, since they have been used as building blocks for various structures like the Pantheon and Trajan’s column. Another rock which has been used a lot for Roman buildings is travertine, which forms by the evaporation of river and spring waters. Many temples, aqueducts, amphitheatres, and monuments have been built with travertine, but the most famous one is the Colosseum, which is the largest building in the world constructed mainly of travertine blocks.

Have you ever wondered why part of the outer ring of the Colosseum is missing? It is actually also linked to geology, since the southern part of the Colosseum collapsed during a historical earthquake. The tectonic processes which formed the Apennines still produce irregular movement along all kinds of faults on the Italian Peninsula, generating frequent earthquakes. The reason why only the southern half of the Colosseum collapsed (fortunately!) is because it had been partly built on unconsolidated alluvial deposits. When shaken by an earthquake, these loose sediments amplified the shaking and therefore caused severe damage to the southern part of the amphitheatre.


The site effect: amplification of seismic waves due to the properties of the subsurface. Credit: Ciaccio and Cultrera (2014) Terremoto e rischio sismico.

The Tiber
These type of alluvial deposits can also be found at the floodplains of the Tiber, the river which passes through Rome and played an important role in the city’s development. Romans in the imperial times did not build any houses on the floodplains of the Tiber, because they knew the river would flood every once in a while. Instead, they built theatres, temples, and army training facilities which could easily be restored and would not harm the societies too much.

Another reason not to build along these floodplains is the same reason which damaged the Colosseum: the increased risk of earthquake damage due to amplification of the shaking. Unfortunately, nowadays, many areas close to the river are covered with residential areas and even though the risk of flooding has decreased due to the 12 meter high walls surrounding the Tiber today, the risk of increased earthquake damage still exists.

And now I think of it, I am living in one of those areas myself, in Testaccio, a neighbourhood just south of the Aventine hill. I guess this amplification of the shaking due to the alluvial deposits below my feet is the reason why I feel a slight shaking (even when living on the fourth floor!) every time a large truck passes by. Roughly 2000 years ago, Testaccio was not a residential area, but was used as the location for an olive oil warehouse along the Tiber. We even have an ancient garbage dump in our neighbourhood, which is now part of the local landscape and is referred to as ‘Monte Testaccio,’ literally meaning ‘Testaccio mountain’. Romans would pile up discarded amphorae, which were used to store the olive oil, leaving a hill composed of fragments of roughly 53 million amphorae.


Left: the Tiber river bounded by its 12 meter high walls, which should prevent the city from future floods. Credit: Elenora van Rijsingen. Right: millions of amphorae fragments piled up in an organized way and together forming the Monte Testaccio. Credit: Flickr.


Clearly, in Rome not only geological processes shaped the landscape, but also deposits called human debris played a role. Digging an imaginary hole below your feet anywhere in Rome might reveal more ancient houses, businesses, or roads, all buried during the continuous evolution of the Eternal City. And that’s one of the reasons why, for example, the work on the new metro line here in Rome is taking so long! Every ten meters, they stumble upon a new archaeological site, all revealing new hints about what the city was like hundreds to thousands of years ago.