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GNS Science awarded four Marsden grants - 05/11/2015

GNS Science researchers have won Marsden Fund support for four new projects worth a total of $2.5 million over the next three years in the latest round of the ideas-driven research fund announced this week.

Jocelyn Turnbull. Image by Margaret Low GNS Science

Jocelyn Turnbull. Image by Margaret Low GNS Science

The Marsden Fund is for investigator-driven research projects and is not subject to government science priorities. It is administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand and funded by the New Zealand Government.

Of the 1201 preliminary proposals, 208 were asked to submit a full proposal for funding and 92 were successful and will get a share of the $53 million funding. This represents a success rate of 7.7%. Projects are generally funded for three years.

GNS Science researchers were awarded three standard Marsdens and one ‘fast-start’ Marsden, which are awarded to early career scientists.

Two of the projects involve environmental sciences with one investigating the ability of the Southern Ocean to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and the other using geochemical fingerprinting to reconnect prized Maori cloaks in museums to their iwi origins.

The two earth science projects both focus on the Hikurangi subduction zone to the east of the North Island, a tectonic setting that can produce megathrust earthquakes and tsunamis.

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The research will also have implications for future atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and the Earth’s climate

Dr Jocelyn Turnbull

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One will test the hypothesis that seemingly harmless slow-slip quakes can changes stresses in the earth’s crust to increase the likelihood of large earthquakes. The other will use sophisticated modelling to build a three-dimensional model of the structure near the interface between the two tectonic plates – the Australian and the Pacific.

Radiocarbon scientist Jocelyn Turnbull leads the project investigating the Southern Ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide. It has won funding of $810,000 over the next three years.

The Southern Ocean is an important carbon sink, and it plays a key role mediating the build-up of human-produced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But there are conflicting scientific observations on whether its ability to absorb carbon dioxide is changing.

Dr Turnbull’s team will use existing and new atmospheric radiocarbon observations, as well as ocean and satellite data, to determine the underlying mechanisms at play.

“The results will provide much-needed constraint on how Southern Ocean sink efficiency has changed,” she said.

“The research will also have implications for future atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and the Earth’s climate.”

Karyne Rogers. Image by Margaret Low GNS Science

Karyne Rogers. Image by Margaret Low GNS Science

Forensic geochemist Karyne Rogers leads the project that will trace prized flax artefacts and Maori cloaks back to the marae where they were made. It has been awarded funding of $690,000 over the next three years.

Museums and private collections have hundreds of heritage cloaks and artefacts with little or no information on which iwi produced them, or what part of the country they come from.

Dr Rogers and her associate, Rangi Te Kanawa a curator at Te Papa, will use the geochemical fingerprints of the iron-rich mud dyes that were used to make intricate dark patterns on the artefacts.

The dyes were made from mud that was particular to individual marae. Scientists have found that each mud (or paru) has a distinctive geochemical fingerprint that they can exploit to reconnect artefacts to their place of manufacture.

Seismologist Bill Fry leads a project that will test the hypothesis that seemingly harmless slow-slip earthquakes and surface deformation can change stresses in the earth’s crust which increase the likelihood of mega earthquakes.

The project has been awarded funding of $775,000 over the next three years.

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Understanding these changes on the subduction interface and their impact on neighbouring faults is key to more accurate earthquake forecasting in subduction regions

Dr Bill Fry

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The traditional model of the earthquake cycle, in which a locked fault slowly accumulates stress until it is too weak to resist failure, needs rethinking, Dr Fry said.

Movement of subsurface fluids on and near faults is thought to be a key factor in changing the frictional strength of faults. But much is still unknown about the underlying physical processes involved.

“Understanding these changes on the subduction interface and their impact on neighbouring faults is key to more accurate earthquake forecasting in suduction regions,” Dr Fry said.

Bill Fry. Image by Margaret Low GNS Science

Bill Fry. Image by Margaret Low GNS Science

A key part of the project will be extra-ordinarily rich data recordings of two slow-slip earthquakes that occurred under the seafloor east of Gisborne late last year.

The two events were recorded by a network of about 35 Ocean Bottom Seismometers which were specifically deployed to record such events.

Had the slow-slip quakes occurred in seconds rather than over weeks, they would have each been equivalent to a magnitude 6.8 quake.

The data is regarded as the world’s best-ever recording of two successive slow-slip earthquakes in one region.

Using the data, Dr Fry and project co-leader Dr Stuart Henrys will apply newly developed seismic methods to map stress and other physical properties across a cycle of slow-slip deformation in the offshore Poverty Bay region.

Yoshi Kaneko. Image by Margaret Low GNS Science

Yoshi Kaneko. Image by Margaret Low GNS Science

The fourth successful project is led by seismologist Yoshi Kaneko and will investigate how and why some parts of the Hikurangi subduction interface are firmly stuck and others slide past each other episodically.

It is a ‘fast-start’ project and has been awarded $300,000 over three years.

The physical factors that control the degree of coupling between tectonic plates at subduction zones are a mystery.

The project will use seismic tomography to image the three-dimensional structure near the plate interface in unprecedented detail to provide new information on its physical properties.

The aim is to answer the globally significant question: what controls the spatial variation of megathrust slip behaviour?