Tectonics and Structural Geology


Meeting Plate Tectonics – Barbara Romanowicz

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Barbara Romanowicz

These blogposts present interviews with outstanding scientists that bloomed and shape the theory that revolutionised Earth Sciences — Plate Tectonics. Get to know them, learn from their experience, discover the pieces of advice they share and find out where the newest challenges lie!

Meeting Barbara Romanowicz

Barbara Romanowicz studied mathematics and applied physics and did two PhDs, one in astronomy from Pierre and Marie Curie University and one in geophysics from Paris Diderot University. After her postdoctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she researched at the Centre national de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), where she developed a global network of seismic stations known as GEOSCOPE to study earthquakes and the interior structure of the earth. She currently splits her time between a professorship at UC Berkeley, California, where she does research, and a teaching position as the Chair in Physics of the Earth’s interior at Collège de France, in Paris, where she teaches to the public.

I go between theory and observations, back and forth.

What is your main research interest and which approach do you use in your research?

Barbara Romanowicz in class. Credit: Barbara Romanowicz

My main research interest is the Earth’s interior: figuring out the dynamics and the evolution of the Earth by providing constraints from seismic imaging at the global and continental scale, from the lithosphere to the inner core of the Earth. The methodology that we use is primarily tomography. In my team, we develop new techniques in tomography, so we can achieve higher resolution. But also other types of seismic waveform modelling.

What would you say is the favorite aspect of your research?

What I find most exciting is that I go between theory and observations, back and forth. This brings different types of excitements. For example, developing a method that works is exciting, and so is finding something new in the data. Making progress and discovering something new, basically through a lot of attempts at modelling, and commonly after a lot of time, is very rewarding.

If we do not contribute to it, we will not have any more data.

Why is your research relevant? What are the possible real world applications?

The research is relevant because we are trying to understand the driving mechanisms of plate tectonics. And plate tectonics is what causes earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and all other natural disasters related to the solid Earth. It is not directly relevant, of course, because of the different timescales; the dynamics of the interior of the Earth are in millions of years, and people are interested in timescales of decades, maybe hundreds of years. So this is a bit of a challenge, but if we do not understand the causes of natural disasters, it is not possible to mitigate them.

Depth cross-sections through model SEMUCB_WM1 (French and Romanowicz, Nature – 2015, doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14876) highlighting broad low velocity “plume-like” conduits beneath major hotspot volcanoes in the central Pacific.

What do you consider to be your biggest academic achievement?

I was asked this question recently, and I did not hesitate to say that I was able to make some impact with my research, but also to contribute to the infrastructure of research. I have been involved since very early in my career, in the development of seismic networks at a global and later regional scale, or trying to put stations in the oceans… Developing the infrastructure to collect data for research is a very recurrent issue that people should keep in mind: if we do not contribute to it, we will not have any more data. If the younger generation of researchers keeps on considering that the data is granted, and do not take up this challenge, the good situation that we’re at will not last.

I thought it is kind of cool that we could show that.

What would you say is the main problem that you solved during your most recent project?

In a fairly recent project, we were able to not only to confirm that there is an ultra slow velocity zone at the base of the Iceland plume near the core-mantle boundary, but also to determine that it is circular in shape. This required being able to illuminate it from different sides, and showing that the same model works for whichever way you look at it. I think that the fact that we can show that is kind of cool, as it combined modelling of seismic waveforms, as well as some imagination in 3D geometry.

Seasonal changes in the dominant locations of the sources of the earth’s low frequency “hum” (top) as inferred from seismic data, compared to the distribution of significant ocean wave height (bottom).

We are not doing enough to raise funds [to build a seismic network infrastructure].

What would you change to improve how science in your field is done?

In my field, which is global seismology, we really rely on a large network of stations, and we need a lot of instruments. Ideally, we would like to cover the entire Earth with instruments, which is not only logistically difficult but also very expensive. I think we are not doing enough to raise funds to build this better infrastructure. The astronomical community, for example, develop decadal plans to build the next generation instruments. In a way, it is easier for them because they need perhaps only a small number of telescopes, whereas our systems are completely distributed, so it is harder for us to join forces. Nevertheless, we are not doing enough of that.

3D rendering of a portion of upper mantle shear velocity model SEMum2 (French, Lekic and Romanowicz, 2013 – Science, doi:10.1126/science.1241514) showing interaction of mantle plume conduits with the asthenosphere beneath the south Pacific superswell (A) and the presence of quasi-periodic low velocity “fingers” aligned in the direction of absolute plate motion extending below the oceanic low velocity zone (B).

What do you think are the biggest challenges right now in your field?

There are several computational challenges, in the sense that we are moving increasingly towards modelling the complete seismic wavefield using numerical methods that are computationally very expensive. One has to think about how big the computer is that you can use, and balance that by finding smart ways to speed up computations in a way that doesn’t rely too much on big computers.

Another really big challenge is to reach the ocean floor and to cover the oceans with broadband seismic observatories. We don’t have enough such stations, and two-thirds of the Earth is covered by oceans. We have less resolution in the southern hemisphere and in the middle of the ocean just because we do not have enough seismic stations on the ocean floor. This is a problem for research on ocean basin structure and deeper upper mantle structure beneath the oceans, but also for research on the very deep Earth, including the inner core. Ocean Bottom Seismometers are great, but we really need very broadband recording, with good coupling to the ground and for long enough times (several years), as well as really large aperture arrays to be able to catch seismic waves over a large azimuth and depth range.

I never really worried about my career.

Barbara Romanowicz. Credit: Barbara Romanowicz

When you were in the early stages of our career, what were your expectations? Did you always see yourself staying in academia?

I think times have changed a lot. When I was doing my Ph.D., I really didn’t have any expectations. I never worried about my career. I simply did not think about it. Probably because I was naive, but also because there was less of a concern at that time… maybe it was easier to find jobs. The landscape was quite different.

Primarily thinking about their [ECS] research will get them where they want to be.

What is the best advice you ever received?

I think the best advice I received is to be daring, to think broadly and about the big picture. So, my best advice to Earth Career Scientists (ECSs) is the same. I would recommend ECSs not to worry too much about their immediate results or about their citation index, but to really think about their research. Primarily thinking about their research will lead them where they want to be. Otherwise, their thinking can be polluted by practical worries. Also, you will always get into situations where you cannot do all the work that you need to do for your research because you have other demands on your time. So my other advice to ECSs is to always keep a couple of hours (the best ones) during the day to completely isolate yourself and work on your research. It is very important. Everything else is easier, but the research itself is the hardest, and if you get distracted you will end up frustrated by not being able to accomplish much.


Barbara Romanowicz. Credit: Barbara Romanowicz


Interview conducted by David Fernández-Blanco

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Jean-Philippe Avouac

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Jean-Philippe Avouac

These blogposts present interviews with outstanding scientists that bloomed and shape the theory that revolutionised Earth Sciences — Plate Tectonics. Get to know them, learn from their experience, discover the pieces of advice they share and find out where the newest challenges lie!

Meeting Jean-Philippe Avouac

Prof. Jean-Philippe Avouac initially studied mathematics and physics during his undergraduate and graduate degrees. Later he got more inclined towards geophysics and then he discovered Earth Sciences. During his Ph.D. at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, advised by Paul Tapponnier, he immersed himself in geology and tectonic geomorphology. Currently, Jean-Philippe Avouac is a Professor of Geology at the California Institute of Technology.

Like living organisms, earthquakes have a life cycle: they nucleate, grow and arrest. There can be some lineage but each earthquake is a different being.

Fieldwork along the Kali Gandaki (Nepal) in 1999. Credit: Barbara Avouac

Where lies your main research interest?

I study crustal dynamics: How the crust is deforming as a result of earthquakes, but also as a result of viscous processes. I study the process of stress accumulation on faults, the release of this stress by earthquakes, as well as how earthquakes and other mechanisms of deformation are contributing to building the topography and geological structures in the long run.


How would you describe your approach and methodology?

In my group, we develop techniques to measure crustal deformation using in particular remote sensing and seismology. We were using radar images initially, and we have moved toward using more optical images with time and also GPS data… We try to reproduce the observations (geodetic deformation, kinematic models of seismic ruptures, gravity field…) using dynamic models to determine what are the forces and rheologies needed.


What would you say is the favorite aspect of your research?

What I like most about my research is mentoring Ph.D. students and postdocs. I love matching their skills with good problems, problems that will be attractive to them and that will resonate with the currently hot questions in Earth Sciences. I really love doing that.

The other thing I love is to use what I learned as I student (maths and physics) to answer science questions arising from natural observations. I love that part when you look at nature, you observe something and try to measure it quantitatively and then you try to explain the observation with dynamic models. I really enjoy going back and forth between observations and modelling. And the field! I really like being in the field… This is an aspect of the job that really attracted me initially.

We built from what other researchers had done before, but we reached quite different conclusions […] that’s exciting!

Jean-Phillipe Avouac leading a field excursion in the Dzungar basin, 2006. Credit: Aurelia Hubert-Ferrari


Why is your research relevant? What are the possible real-world applications?

A significant fraction of my research is relevant to seismic hazards. After my Ph.D., I worked for the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique (CEA) for 10 years. I was conducting seismic hazard assessment studies for nuclear facilities. So, I have been exposed to the applied side of earthquake science and I like that some of the research we do in my group can help to improve the way we do seismic hazard assessments.

But what I really want to say is that I do not think relevance should drive academic research. In that regard, I should say that I don’t like much the way the funding system works today. I think there is too much emphasis on relevance to society. The idea that you start from stating problems of societal relevance, and only then see what kind of research we can do to solve this problem is not a good approach, in my opinion. I don’t think this is the way important scientific discoveries are made. You make discoveries by being curious, by observing nature with an open mind, by exploring new ideas and coming up with new concepts, or by observing something that is not explained in the current theoretical framework that we have and then you make use of the knowledge that you build after looking at these problems. There is no way you can clearly anticipate where the joyful exploration of an intriguing idea or observation can lead but we know from experience that the society benefits from curious scientific exploration. So, although I think there is relevance in what I am doing, I do not think that, in general, relevance to society should be driving academic research.


An outcome of Jean-Phillipe Ph.D Thesis, later published in Kinematic model of active deformation in Central Asia (Avouac and Tapponnier, GRL – 1993; doi: https://doi.org/10.1029/93GL00128).

I do not think relevance to society should drive academic research

What would you say is the main problem that you solved during your most recent project?

People in my group work on many different projects that are all very exciting to me. I’m going to mention just one project though because I can not possibly list them all.

We have done a lot of work in the past to develop techniques to invert geodetic measurements for fault slip at depth. A postdoc and a graduate students in my group have moved on to improve the technique and use it to document slow slip events in Cascadia over the last 15 years. That was a daunting work but their hard work and perseverance have really paid back. The end result is amazing! We see how the slow slip event initiate, propagate, arrest, trigger one another… We built from what other researchers had done before us, but we reached quite different conclusions given that we now have a more complete view of the behaviour of the system –that’s exciting! I anticipate that we are going to learn a lot about the dynamics of slow-slip events, and maybe it will have important implications for regular earthquakes!

What do you consider to be your biggest academic achievement?

The research for which my group is probably best known is that we have done in the Himalaya. In particular, we have built a model of the seismic cycle that explains the observations that we have from seismology, geodesy, geomorphology and geology. We worked a lot on the Himalaya, in part because I love mountains, but also because it is a very unique setting to study orogenic processes which are still active today. There is really no better place where you can get geological constraints on the thermal and structural evolution of the range. There is a lot of erosion and it has been going on for a long time, so the rocks that have been brought to the surface have recorded the thermal and deformation history over tens of million years. Our research has helped understand how the Himalaya has formed as a result of seismic and aseismic deformation, and I think it has yielded important insight on orogenic processes and the seismic cycle in general.

By the way, I don’t mean that earthquakes are periodic. Like living organisms, earthquakes have a life cycle: they nucleate, grow and arrest. There can be some lineage but each earthquake is a different being.

Animation showing the process of stress build up and release associated to earthquakes along the Main Himalayan Thrust fault, along which India is thrust beneath the Himalaya and Tibet. Credit: Jean-Philippe Avouac, Tim Pyle and Kristel Chanard.

We tend to build walls between disciplines […] We would not have been able to discover plate tectonics without a deep cross-disciplinary dialogue

What do you think are the biggest challenges right now in your field?

As I mentioned before, the funding system is an issue. Funding agencies are clearly making a big mistake in prioritizing social relevance as a criterion to evaluate proposals. Aside from that, the challenge that we have in the Earth Sciences is that we tend to build walls between disciplines. Specialization is a natural drift, and you can make a very successful career in a particular field pushing further a particular analytical or modelling technique. Also, it is easier to get funding for what you are known to be good at. As a result, walls between disciplines are building with time. The vocabulary is evolving in each individual discipline and it is increasingly difficult to make major advancements that can bridge different disciplines. In my research, I try to navigate from one discipline to the other… but it is a challenge –while it can be key to make significant discoveries, it takes time and effort. There are fewer and fewer people making a carrier this way. It can be dangerous because of a dilution effect, but at some point, it is needed. Look at plate tectonics for example: it happened because of advances in different disciplines but most importantly because some scientists were aware of these advances and were able to connect them and derive a coherent global framework. We would not have been able to discover plate tectonics without a deep cross-disciplinary dialogue.

Another challenge is that nowadays we have a lot more data than we used to have. This is both an opportunity and a threat. There is a trend to produce more and more publications, that look very solid because they use a lot of data, but that are in fact very incremental. More of the same is not necessarily advancing knowledge at a fundamental level. We have to be imaginative with regard to how to process the increasing flux of data, but it should not come at the cost of being imaginative with regard to what they mean.

I do not like the way the funding system works today

When you were in the early stages of our career, what were your expectations? Did you always see yourself staying in academia?

After my Ph.D. I did not stay in academia. But even when outside academia, I kept doing research, because I had an appetite for it and was working in an environment where scientific curiosity was valued, even if science was not the main objective. Although I was not unhappy at all outside academia, I decided to go back to it since I found it more exciting for myself: I like to solve scientific questions but there is not so much I could solve without the help of students and postdocs. I didn’t consider staying in academia after my PhD because there were sides of the academic life I did not feel comfortable with… I was finding people in academia to be a bit… difficult sometimes, with big egos and not so open minded. Also, we are a very conservative community. There’s a reason for that, for we as scientists have to be sceptical and to push back new ideas and new observations. I guess I have now become now one of those crazy and conservative academic guys (laughs)!


Mapping and sampling Holocene terraces abandoned by rapid climate-driven incision in the Tianshan. Credit: Luca Malatesta

If you have a new idea… you will probably have a hard time

What advice would you like to share with Early Career Students?

My first advice is to be aware of the important questions that we should try to solve. Not because they are relevant but because they are interesting and because they are timely, given the tools and data that we have access to. Being aware of the really big questions is important because we tend to forget them sometimes as we become more specialized. And be also aware of the new techniques available, especially those that you could draw from other fields; computer science or medical imagery for example… It is important to be curious and see what is happening in other fields so that you can transfer new ideas and new techniques to your own field and give a try at answering big science questions.

Be curious, be adventurous. Take risks. Try things that might not work. You might be losing your time but it is also an opportunity to make real fundamental advancements. You can make a career by increments, but I think it is not as rewarding as taking risks and really solving a difficult problem.

Follow your own dreams and don’t be intimidated by peer pressure. If you put a new idea on the table, a really new one, first, you will probably have a hard time expressing it clearly… And second, peers will most probably push back, as they should. So do not be intimidated, believe in your ideas, and keep adjusting and pushing them forward. I see too many times students or postdocs who meltdown and get discouraged if they receive a negative comment after a presentation… – I would say, that could, in fact, be a good sign! You may be doing something different and maybe people are not understanding because there is something disturbing and really new!


Jean-Phillipe Avouac. Credit: Trish Reda.


Interview conducted by David Fernández-Blanco

You’re an early career scientist and you want to go somewhere… but where?

You’re an early career scientist and you want to go somewhere… but where?

Only a few more days and the General Assembly of the EGU 2017 will start! Five exciting days with science and the opportunity to meet your colleagues and collaborators, both the old and the new. Earlier this week the outgoing TS President Susanne Buiter and the incoming TS President Claudio Rosenberg posted a blog with TS highlights, but what are the must-see for the Early Career Scientists? This is where we, outgoing TS ECS reps, come in! So we provide here tips for the hottest TS ECS events the coming week.



Don’t forget to come for dinner with the other TS ECS at Brandauers Bierbogen (Heiligenstädter Str. 31) on Monday, at 20h.

We welcome everyone to the ECS corner at the icebreaker on Sunday. Pick up your badge, meet old and new friends at Foyer E, from 18h30 to 21h.


The TS Division Meeting is on Wednesday, 12h15-13h15. Lunch will be provided. What happened within the TS Division last year? What are the plans for next year?


Come give feedback! Your new TS ECS representative Anouk Beniest organizes an informal get-together over lunch on Thursday. We meet at 12h15 at the EGU flags just outside the building, we’ll get a sandwich and find a nice spot to sit and chat on how to improve things for TS ECS. All are welcome!

Meet your reps! The EGU Division President Claudio Rosenberg and the outgoing ECS Representatives Anne Pluymakers and João Duarte plus the incoming ECS Representative Anouk Beniest! They will all be at the EGU booth on Thursday from 14h15 to 15h.


Short courses:

For those of you who have not been to Vienna before, start the week with a crash course on how to navigate EGU as a first-timer, on Monday from 8h30 to 10h in Room -2.31. http://meetingorganizer.copernicus.org/EGU2017/session/25606#

If you like fully open access and transparent publishing, you should consider the course on how to publish in EGU journals: Solid Earth and Earth Surface Dynamics. Meet the Editors on Monday, 13h30 – 15h in room -2.91.


Of course we would love to see more TS-related research, also by the youngsters! So come to ‘How to write a successful ERC Grant proposal’ on Tuesday, 13h30 – 15h, in room -2.91.


Publish more pretty pictures to show of those beautiful structures with ‘Virtual Polarizing Microscopy in Petrology and Microtectonics’ on Wednesday 10h30 – 12h00, in room -2.16. http://meetingorganizer.copernicus.org/EGU2017/session/25156



After open access publishing, we seem to transition now towards open science: all data available for everyone. Is this really the way to go? Come to the panel debate on Thursday, 15h30-17h in Room E1.


With the decreased amounts of funding and less and less permanent jobs the pressure of ‘publish or perish’ is mounting. What is the best way of judging early career scientists? Come to the group debates on Wednesday 19h-20h30 in room G1.


If you have a disability or chronic condition and want to find out more about the Chronically Academic Network and the type of support it provides, this is the meeting to attend. This meeting will also gather some information that will be provided to EGU to make the GA and EGU in general more accessible – so your input is much appreciated. Come come! Thursday 12h15 – 13h15 to room Room 2.61




Every TS session is an ECS session! So browse the program, and look for something that captures your interest, either directly inside your field or just outside. Due to its size EGU is the perfect conference to look across the boundary into other fields. Create your program online and download it into the EGU2017 app for Apple and Android.



If you have no other plans, come to the Arne Richter Award lecture by outgoing ECS rep João Duarte “The Future of Earth’s Oceans: consequences of subduction invasion in the Atlantic” on Wednesday 9h30–10h in Room D3.


Equal opportunities for all! On Friday there are talks from women in geosciences from 10h30 to 12h15 in Room L4/5  and on equal opportunities in general from 13h30–17h in Room L4/5.




These and other sessions for ECS across all program groups can be found at http://meetingorganizer.copernicus.org/EGU2017/sessions-of-special-interest/ECS


written by: Anne Pluymakers and João Duarte, outgoing TS ECS reps

photo credits: TS Twitter and Facebook pages and EGU blog