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E336: A new understanding of the dynamics of continental deformation (Lead Supervisor: Jerome Neufeld, BP Institute/DAMTP/Department of Earth Sciences)

Supervisors: Jerome Neufeld (BPI) (DAMTP) (Earth Sciences) and Alex Copley (Earth Sciences)

Importance of the area of research:

The tectonic deformation of the continents results in many of the major features of the Earth’s surface, such as mountain ranges, fault-bounded basins, and earthquakes. However, the forces, material properties, and physical processes that govern the tectonic deformation of the continents are hotly debated. Modern observational, and data analysis techniques provide the tools to resolve these debates, the results of which will have wide-ranging implications for our understanding of the geological and tectonic evolution of the Earth.

Project summary:

The aim of this project is to make new insights into the factors controlling continental deformation by combining and developing a range of theoretical, observational, and experimental techniques. A combination of new fluid mechanical and elastic models, bench-marked with analogue laboratory experiments, will be used to develop new techniques for the synthesis of geodetic and seismic observations of continental deformation. We will focus on the properties and physical principles that govern the deformation at the scale of entire plate boundary zones (e.g. with dimensions of thousands of kilometres). The project will result in a new understanding of the material properties of the lithosphere, and how these properties control tectonic deformation.

What the student will:

The student will develop new fluid and elastic models of deformation in geologically relevant contexts.  Models will be benchmarked against analogue laboratory experiments in which techniques for the analysis of large-scale deformation data will also be developed. The student will combine these approaches with new observational constraints on continental deformation using geodesy and seismology. By combining the theoretical and observational results, the student will be able to place new constraints on the material properties of the lithosphere, and the factors that control the nature of the deformation. The initial focus of the project will be on the behaviour of fluid layers that propagate over/under elastic sheets, with application to the flow of the ductile part of the lithosphere in areas of mountain building.

Please contact the lead supervisor directly for further information relating to what the successful applicant will be expected to do, training to be provided, and any specific educational background requirements.


Copley, A., Avouac, J-P and Wernicke, B, 2011. Evidence for mechanical coupling and strong Indian lower crust beneath southern Tibet, Nature, vol. 472, p.79-81, doi:10.1038/nature09926.

Copley, A., 2012. The formation of mountain range curvature by gravitational spreading, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 351-352, p.208-214.

Lister, J.R., Peng, G.G., & Neufeld, J.A. 2013. Viscous control of peeling an elastic sheet by bending and pulling. Physical Review Letters, vol. 111, p1–5, doi:

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