Geologist hails $915,000 grant

University of Otago geologist Prof David Prior examines an ancient lump of Westland schist, ...
University of Otago geologist Prof David Prior examines an ancient lump of Westland schist, damaged by an earthquake about two million years ago. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Research into a mysterious underground zone linked to the origins of big earthquakes is one of a number of University of Otago projects boosted by $17.8 million in grants from the latest "extremely competitive" Marsden Fund round.

English-born geologist Prof David Prior, who began at Otago this year after leaving his previous post at Liverpool University, said gaining a $915,000 grant from the fund was a "brilliant" outcome for his first major grant application at Otago.

Earthquakes generally occur near the Earth's surface.

But deep down the pressures are so great that, instead of breaking, the Earth responds by "flowing", similar to the way glaciers flow over the ground.

Big earthquakes often begin in this lower, flowing region.

Prof Prior will lead an international team of researchers in studying the response of rocks to stress in the region called the "brittle-ductile transition", which links the flowing region to the crust above it.

The team includes Dr Virginia Toy and Otago colleagues Associate Profs Pat Langhorne and Sean Fitzsimons.

The scientists would pursue laboratory experiments using finely grained ice to simulate the behaviour of crystalline rock layers in the transition zone, deep under the Alpine Fault.

"In the world, nobody else has taken the approach that we're taking," Prof Prior said.

"Understanding the driving force of earthquakes really requires us to understand the brittle-ductile transition.

"It's not easy." By comparing the textures of Alpine rocks with those of the laboratory ice, researchers could estimate how the rocks responded to earthquake-related stress.

University of Otago researchers gained $17.8 million for research involving 26 projects. Nationally, 88 projects were funded in this year's Marsden round, which had a funding pool of $53.8 million.

For the seventh successive year, Otago researchers gained the largest share of funding in the round.

Acting deputy vice-chancellor, research and enterprise, Prof Helen Nicholson said the "fantastic" outcome, in gaining one-third of the $53.8 million national pool, reflected the high calibre of Otago researchers.

Researchers from all four Otago academic disciplines, including humanities, gained grants.


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