UK-NERC Approves Deep Earth Theme Action Plan

A NERC theme action plan on “Volatiles, Geodynamics and Solid Earth Controls on the Habitable Planet” will receive a total of £8 million to fund a variety of research activities and infrastructure upgrades across a wide variety of disciplines in Earth sciences.

The UK’s Natural Environment Research Council has announced funding for 10 new theme action plans, each receiving a share of  £50 million over the next five years. Of these 10, one is of particular interest to the Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO). Entitled “Volatiles, Geodynamics and Solid Earth Controls on the Habitable Planet,” this theme action will receive a total of £8 million to fund a variety of research activities and infrastructure upgrades across a wide variety of disciplines in Earth sciences.

While we know in some detail how volatile elements behave at Earth’s surface, our knowledge of their behavior in Earth’s deep interior is limited. Indeed, the last 15 years alone have seen a tremendous change in how scientists understand the behavior of Earth’s mantle. These behaviors have effects at Earth’s surface, which can most obviously be seen in regions with high levels of volcanic activity. But other, less violent, effects on our land and in our oceans are likely going unnoticed.

“This visionary initiative has significant potential to revolutionize our understanding of the dynamic role of deep volatiles in mediating geological processes that affect Earth’s habitability. It has clear synergies with the Deep Carbon Observatory, which provides substantial support and access to the international scientific community,” said DCO Director Craig Schiffries.

The proposal outlines three key areas of research that will be supported: “rheology, reservoirs, and recycling”. By understanding how carbon and other volatile elements move among the atmosphere, crust, and mantle, several fundamental questions in Earth science can be addressed. Important societal issues are also likely to be impacted by this research, including water resource management, geological carbon storage, and oil and natural gas exploration.

An important aspect of this action plan is an appreciation for the ways Earth has changed, and the ways in which it has stayed the same, over geological time. Retrospective analyses of the last 4.5 billion years of Earth’s evolution can provide important clues into how volatile fluxes into and out of the mantle have affected Earth’s atmosphere and climate. Research on deep carbon reservoirs and fluxes is central to the Deep Carbon Observatory, with many labs studying both the storage of carbon as diamonds and other minerals in the mantle, as well as myriad ways carbon is returned to the near-surface environment. Indeed, the NERC proposal notes these strong connections with the DCO, as well as other international research initiatives.

“Scientists from the United Kingdom have played central roles in the Deep Carbon Observatory from the inception of the program,” said Schiffries. “We look forward to developing extensive collaboration between DCO and the new NERC theme action plan on Volatiles, Geodynamics and Solid Earth Controls on the Habitable Planet.”   

From NERC’s significant input of research funding, it is hoped that many legacy effects will positively influence geoscience research, predominantly in the UK but also around the world. Research infrastructure for this type of science is particularly strong in the UK, and several technological improvements, including upgrades to the Diamond Light Source Synchrotron, will have critical and lasting impact. In addition, the action plan reserves a significant amount to support approximately 60 postdoctoral fellows and provide 10 PhD studentships, thus building an active community of young scientists in the field. 

For more information on all of the newly funded areas, please visit the NERC website

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