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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities

Lead Supervisor: Alex Copley, Earth Sciences

Co-Supervisor: Tim Wright, University of Leeds & Ekbal Hussain, British Geological Survey

Brief summary: 
Investigating what controls how the Earth’s continents deform and evolve, using observations and models of earthquakes and mountain ranges.
Importance of the area of research concerned: 
This project has guaranteed funding from COMET and the BGS. An important and rapidly-evolving subject area concerns understanding what controls the characteristics of earthquake cycles (e.g. the locations, magnitudes, and frequencies of earthquakes), and determining how these cycles control the evolution and deformation of the continents. Important open questions include understanding the evolution of material properties (e.g. fault strength and the viscosity of ductile rocks) in space and time, and how these properties influence earthquake occurrence and characteristics. Research in this topic is essential for assessing earthquake hazard in tectonically-active regions, and also for understanding what determines the long-term growth and decay of mountain ranges and depressions. This project will focus on mountain ranges, where plentiful earthquakes, and large population densities in the surrounding lowlands, provide both a scientific opportunity and also societal relevance. We will combine geodetic measurements, dynamic models, and field observations (where logistically possible), in order to gain new insights into the controls on earthquake behaviour and mountain building.
Project summary : 
This project will combine recently-developed modelling and observational techniques. Advances in satellite technology and data analysis methods mean that we are able to measure ground motion with unprecedented accuracy across large regions (e.g. using InSAR on data from the ‘Sentinel’ satellite constellation). Field observations provide insights into both the characteristics of recent earthquake cycles, and also the longer-term deformation preserved in the geological record. Simultaneous advances in dynamic models of earthquake cycles and mountain range evolution allow us to link these advances, by investigating what properties and behaviour are able to explain all of these diverse observations. Methods of earthquake hazard assessment will then be used to establish the dynamic controls on the hazard faced by populations in the study regions (in the Alpine-Himalayan belt).
What will the student do?: 
The student will begin by making geodetic measurements (and field observations if logistically possible) of deformation in a target mountain ranges, chosen from a range of possibilities in the Alpine-Himalayan belt (get in touch for more details). In tandem, models of the composition, temperature structure, and material properties of mountain ranges will be constructed. By comparing the observations and model results the student will investigate what controls the properties and behaviour of mountain ranges on a range of time- and length-scales spanning individual earthquake cycles to entire mountain-building events. This comparison will allow us to address questions that include: (1) what is the interplay between individual earthquake cycles and the long-term evolution of mountain ranges; (2) what controls whether earthquakes are concentrated onto a small number of rapidly-slipping faults, or distributed over wide areas; (3) what limits the rupture areas (and so magnitudes) of earthquakes. These results will be used to establish the dynamic controls on the level of earthquake hazard posed by mountain ranges. All necessary training will be given, and no prior experience is assumed.
References - references should provide further reading about the project: 
S. Wimpenny, A. Copley, C. Benavente, E. Aguirre, 2018, Extension and dynamics of the Andes inferred from the 2016 Parina (Huarichancara) earthquake Journal of Geophysical Research, 123, doi:10.1029/2018JB015588
A. Copley, J-P. Avouac, and B.P. Wernicke, 2011, Evidence for mechanical coupling and strong Indian lower crust beneath southern Tibet, Nature, 472, p.79-81, doi:10.1038/nature09926
E. Hussain, T.J. Wright, R.J. Walters, D.P.S. Bekaert, R. Lloyd, and A. Hooper, 2018, Constant strain accumulation rate between major earthquakes on the North Anatolian Fault, Nature Communications volume 9, Article number: 1392, doi:10.1038/s41467-018-03739-2
You can find out about applying for this project on the Department of Earth Sciences page.
Department of Earth Sciences Graduate Administrator
Dr Alex Copley