Dynamic. Thinking big. In it for the long haul.
These are three key leadership qualities for any field. But for Dietmar Müller, the award-winning geoscience professor leading Sydney University’s EarthByte Group, they take on tangible meaning as he investigates Earth’s complex evolution.
Firstly, congratulations on receiving the Australian Academy of Science’s Jaeger Medal honorific award recently.
Thank you, it was really unexpected!
The Jaeger medal award reflects a huge group effort in EarthByte, the work of 20 research fellows and 30 PhD students, a group of software developers, countless undergraduate research students and a large group of national and international collaborators. Critically, our success has been enabled by AuScope’s stable infrastructure funding — without AuScope, we wouldn’t be here.
In a nutshell, please tell us about yourself: how you found interest in geoscience and became involved with AuScope.
I grew up close to the Baltic Sea coast which comprised all kinds of rocks: Cretaceous chalk, igneous rocks, meta sedimentary rocks, echinoderm fossils, and glacial tillites that had been transported there from Scandinavia...you name it. I was fascinated by them, and how all they came to be on one beach together.
This interest led me to study geology and geophysics in my undergraduate degree in Germany, followed by a PhD in Earth Science in the USA, first at the University of Texas in Austin, and then at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, after my supervisor moved.
In the late 80s and early 90s during my PhD I had access to the first interactive graphics computers and could manipulate Earth’s tectonic plates on my computer screen. I wanted to understand how plate tectonics works, and especially how ocean basins were formed and destroyed through time.
I then emigrated to Australia to take on a lectureship in at University of Sydney. We were facing an enormous challenge in the global tectonics and geodynamics community: we had a lot of data, but didn’t know how to assimilate it into Earth evolution models, especially in deep time where the relative position of data points on different tectonic plates changes continuously.
We identified an opportunity to develop numerical models that allowed us to link mantle convection processes to plate tectonics and surface geology. That is, for geodynamics to be married with global tectonics and large observational datasets.
I teamed up with other academics to obtain funding for GPlates software development, first supported in Australia by the Australian Partnership for Advanced Computing (APAC) before securing ongoing funding via NCRIS with AuScope. And the rest is history, we’ve been happily developing GPlates, linking it to geodynamic and surface process modelling software, and facilitating national and international collaboration ever since.
It’s fair to say that AuScope has played a huge role in turning the EarthByte Group into a leader in computational tectonics and geodynamics.
What a journey so far! Before we dig any deeper, would you have an analogy to help explain what you do?
Imagine Earth as a cup of warmed toffee with Tim Tams floating around on the top.
If you could just meditate — and not act — on that image for a moment, you might see warm toffee convecting up to the surface; and cookies bumping into each other, breaking off, melting and sinking in places.
These are the same kinds of physical and thermal interactions that my team and I are observing at geological scale using geological modelling software. Here’s a starting point on earth processes.
Ok, let’s get into your science journey. I’m impressed by your community working together to overcome such a big challenge, and then to achieve such an impactful solution in GPlates.
Can you tell us a bit about it and its applications?
GPlates is a desktop software that allows users, from novice to expert, to interactively visualise Earth’s tectonic plates evolving through time, together with geographic (GIS), geological and geophysical data linked to online databases.
A huge number and variety of users have been able to get something out of what we have developed with GPlates. We have recorded more than 100,000 downloads of the software since 2003, and 830,000 GPlates Portal visitors across 188 countries since 2016!
Users are often high school teachers or undergraduate lecturers wanting to play around and visualise plate motion. Or perhaps field geologists who might want to load their structural data and understand the tectonic context, i.e. surrounding blocks and plates and different active plate margins. And finally, researchers who might want to use and write scripts, process or mine data, or reconstruct plates and continents. Users come from diverse communities including geodynamics, paleobiology, paleoceanography and climate science and resource exploration.
What are you working on right now?
Our EarthByte group is working on building the first global deforming plate model which demonstrates how Earth’s plates have evolved over time as dynamic —rather than rigid — entities, as considered in the theory of plate tectonics.
We know that plate boundaries are often diffuse, because we see things like intraplate earthquakes in the interior of continents, far away from plate boundaries. Thanks to space geodesy (measuring Earth’s plate movements and crustal deformation with high precision using satellites), we have very detailed maps and can see that the interior of plates are deforming today, and that plate boundaries are often wide and complex.
Now we have used a global synthesis of geological and geophysical data to map the spatial and time extent of continental deformation back through deep time, embedded in our global plate model. This was first presented in 2018 in Paris at a 50th anniversary plate tectonic conference plate collisions, and mountain building processes have shaped the continents over time.
Understanding Earth’s tectonic history helps us to understand processes which affect life on Earth today: how much carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere via volcanoes and rift zones and along subduction zones, and how sedimentary basins are filled with sediments, ultimate providing energy and water resources. This work forms the basis of the Basin Genesis Hub, an Australian Research Council Industry Transformation Research Hub that has been made possible by NCRIS and AuScope.
How does this work translate to the real world and affect all Australians?
Plate tectonics drives everything. From mineral deposits that make Australia the rich and lucky country, to energy sources and natural hazards, these all form because of plate tectonics and plate-mantle interaction.
Why do we have some many beautiful national parks? Think about our beautiful beaches, and the red wine that Australia is so well known for… South Australia’s Limestone Coast which supports a thriving Barossa wine trail is possible thanks to carbonate deposits that result from Australia tilt first to the south, and later to the north, exposing Cenozoic limestone deposits at the surface after uplift of the Great Australian Bight margin.
If we didn’t have plate tectonics, Earth wouldn’t look as it does. Such diverse geology and biology — the world across — is all driven by plate tectonics. In fact, much of the interesting geology that we observe is to do with Earth deforming. It’s important to understand it, and amazing to think that only now, 50 years after Plate Tectonic Theory was developed, are we reconstructing Earth’s history via a global model of plate deformation since Pangea’s breakup.
Can you share a turning point in your career?
The biggest turning point for me came after arriving in Sydney to teach and research in marine geophysics: I discovered that Australia had only one research vessel that had sparse equipment and funding to collect geological and geophysical data. This was a vastly different opportunity than what I had experienced in Europe or America.
Things have since changed in Australia with the RV Investigator being commissioned in 2014, but twenty years ago, I needed to reinvent myself and investigate underutilised data rather than collect new data, and GPlates software development emerged as a huge opportunity for deep time data synthesis and analysis.
What do you want to achieve with your work in the future?
I want us geoscientists to look at the Earth as an entire system, to embrace ‘Earth System Science’ as including the deep Earth, the oceans, the atmosphere and the biosphere, because there are so many material interactions between these systems.
I actually discovered an old NASA report that depicted the Earth System being defined as a cross section of how the entire Earth is connected. But the idea disappeared, perhaps it was too hard to connect the deep Earth with the surface.
I see this as a huge national geoscience challenge: we’re collectively less inclined to understand the earth system as a whole, but that is becoming more important than before, with climate change and the need for sustainable development. Understanding possible future paths of the Earth depends on understanding the history of the entire Earth system, and how surface environments and the biosphere have responded to major climate change events in the past.
We need to map Earth and environment thousands of years into the future, and use the geological record to inform our understanding of future pathways. And we need to start the dialogue today.
What is the coolest thing about your research? And what are you most passionate about?
The moments of discovery, perhaps as part of a group, and you’re looking at something and have an ‘ah-hah’ moment. And you don’t know when this will happen.
If you are testing a hypothesis, you know you will get a ‘yay’ or ‘nay’, but an unexpected finding is really cool — something that comes out as a by-product.
I really enjoy ‘e-research’ because it allows me to explore complex global and regional models, and ultimately, understand how the Earth works. It’s hard to understand geological time, so having GPlates and other simulation and modelling tools to ‘travel back through geological time’ is very powerful.
What inspires you outside of Maths and Earth Science?
Photography, capturing something new on camera.
We’ve covered a lot. Is there anything you wish you’d been asked?
Thanks very much, Dietmar.
Thank you, Jo!