Geophysics Research

The Geophysics group is internationally recognized for effectively combining experimental, theoretical, and field studies to determine physical processes operative in the Earth's crust and mantle. Their research is interdisciplinary, and thus well suited to students with strong backgrounds in geology, physics, mathematics and/or engineering.








Our research addresses key questions regarding the structure, dynamics and evolution of the Earth and other planetary bodies.  For example:

  • How does melt generated by upwelling beneath mid-ocean ridges migrate to the surface at the ridge axis to form new seafloor?
  • How do the oceanic and continental lithosphere interact with the underlying asthenosphere and how are these processes reflected in mineral fabrics and anisotropy in seismic velocities?
  • How do subducting lithospheric slabs interact with the overriding lithosphere and surrounding lithospheric mantle in both modern subduction zones and regions of paleo-subduction?  What is the relationship between mantle flow, melting, and melt migration to arc volcanoes?
  • How does the lithosphere accrete and evolve during and after continental collisions?
  • What is the interplay of magmatism and extension during rifting of continental lithosphere, and how are these processes reflected in crust and mantle structure?
  •  How does the internal structure of the cratonic lithosphere reflect its formation and alteration by later tectonic processes?

To address these questions, we carry out a wide variety of studies that involve field deployments of seismometers both on land (including the U.S., Canada, Nicaragua and Costa Rica) and on the ocean floor (including oceanographic research cruises to the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans). Seismic waveforms collected from these experiments and other global stations are analyzed using state-of-the-art methods for constraining the seismic properties of the Earth’s crust and mantle, backed up by numerical simulations of wave propagation.  To understand the physics of the underlying geodynamic processes, we use sophisticated numerical modeling that involves high-end (often parallel) computing and numerical innovation. A key aspect of our approach is to explore how nanoscale mineral and rock physics maps to structures that are observable with seismic waves and other geophysical data. Understanding rheology and the physical processes of deformation provides a critical link between Earth structure and dynamics.

Integration of theory and observation is fundamental to the philosophy of our group.  For the specifics of ongoing research projects, please visit the research pages of individual people.

Our mode of research emphasizes collaboration. Students typically work with more than one of our faculty, and we enjoy an interactive environment that includes seminars, informal research talks and lots of discussion.

Structural Geology

Structural Geology at Brown involves experimental, theoretical and field work. Emphasis is on obtaining an understanding of deformational processes over a range of scales from the sub-microscopic to the global. The use of continuum mechanics figures strongly in the theoretical work. Students with a strong undergraduate background in geology, physics, or engineering are well suited for study in structural geology. Coursework is individually tailored to match the background and interests of incoming graduate students. Courses are usually selected from many available in the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, the Division of Engineering and the Applied Math Department. An important difference between undergraduate and graduate education is that original research plays an important role in graduate school. Students get involved in an individual research program in their first year. The importance of research compared to courses increases every year, as formal course work is completed and students become more experienced and able to conduct their research projects independently. Students normally undertake more than one research project in order to gain a variety of experience and background that will help them obtain the type of employment they each desire.

The structure group has built one of the best-equipped rock deformation labs in the country. Constitutive laws for frictional sliding of important rock types as well as the processes responsible for observed behavior can be determined in experiments on faulting and friction mechanics performed in a rotary shear gas apparatus. Field studies of faults help guide the laboratory experiments and test their applicability to nature. Theoretical modeling currently underway for Parkfield and Loma Prieta sections of the San Andreas investigates the reasons for earthquake instabilities to determine ways to attempt earthquake prediction. Experimental studies to determine grain-scale deformation mechanisms, microstructures, and flow laws operative in crustal rocks are conducted in 3 piston-cylinder apparatus capable of applying a wide range of temperatures, pressures, and strain rates. Specific studies concern the nature of the brittle-ductile transition, formation of mylonites and ductile shear zones, and the role of fluids in deformation. Collaborative studies with Prof. Emeritus Yund (mineralogy) investigate the interaction of chemical and mechanical processes in deforming metamorphic rocks. Field and theoretical studies of the tectonic history of New England involve collaboration with Prof. L. Peter Gromet (geochemistry).

Environmental Geophysics and Hydrology

Environmental geophysics applies ground penetrating radar, seismic, gravity, magnetic, electromagnetic, and resistivity techniques to characterize the Earth's subsurface for groundwater studies and engineering applications (see also Environmental Science).

Environmental geophysics and hydrology is a relatively new initiative at Brown University, and involves the application of geophysical methods and computer modeling to environmental investigations of groundwater flow, watershed dynamics, subsurface hazardous waste assessment and contaminant migration. We use computer modeling and field research — as well as the broad resources of interdisciplinary activity throughout the University — to follow the precept, "Think globally, but act locally," to investigate environmental problems that, while of local community importance, are paradigms of analogous concerns on the national and international scale.