Boris Kaus receives ERC Consolidator Grant for his research in magmatic processes

Mainz-based geoscientist will develop computer models to obtain new insights in magmatic processes

21 February 2018

Geophysicist Professor Boris Kaus receives EUR 2 million from the European Research Council (ERC) to better understand magmatic processes in the interior of the Earth using computer simulations. Kaus has been Professor of Geodynamics and Geophysics at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) since 2011 and together with his team is specialized in understanding the physics of geological processes on small and large scales. The ERC will be providing support to his Melting and Geodynamic Models of Ascent (MAGMA) project over the coming five years in the shape of an ERC Consolidator Grant, one of the most highly endowed sponsorships in the EU. The participating researchers will develop new computer models of magmatic systems and compare the results of the computer simulations with available geological and geophysical data. This should provide important information on how magmatic systems behave over geological eras and why supervolcanoes form only rarely.

Magma is generated in the mantle of the Earth, at depths between 70 to 200 kilometers. Its creation and migration through the lithosphere result in spectacular geological processes such as volcanic eruptions and the formation of large gold deposits, but it is also responsible for the formation of the continents. It is difficult to study magmatic systems because they are not directly accessible and are active for millions of years. The method usually employed to investigate them is to indirectly reconstruct them by studying former magma chambers, for example. These so-called batholiths, crystallized millions of years ago, can be found in mountain ranges such as the Andes. In addition, geophysical methods can be employed to examine magmatic systems, but this is only feasible in the case of currently active systems and reveals little about how they develop over longer time periods. "There are many hypotheses about how magma ascends through the lithosphere, but to date there is no physically accurate model of the whole magmatic system," Kaus commented the current status of research.

Within the framework of the MAGMA project, running from 2018 to 2023, Kaus and his team aim to create new numerical models that will simulate ascending magma. They will not only need large computer systems, such as the MOGON high performance computers available at JGU, but also and especially the appropriate software. "There is no software designed for the investigation of magmatic systems such as that available for weather forecasting, for example. This means that at present there is little we know about the actual physics of magma movements," stated Kaus. His group thus plans to design the first generation of computer models which will represent the physical aspects consistent with the creation, migration, and chemical development of magma in
2-D and 3-D simulations.

MAGMA will combine computer modeling and available geophysical and geological data to understand magmatic systems

Subsequently, the simulations will be compared with the known natural conditions and the models and available data will be considered in combination in order to explore the structure and dynamics of active magmatic systems. The researchers also intend to examine some of the major magmatic systems of the Earth, namely Mount St. Helens, the Andes, Yellowstone, and the Izu-Bonin Arc to identify common features and differences.

"Only about five percent of all magma comes to the Earth's surface, 95 percent crystallizes in the Earth's crust. So we need to look at the system as a whole, from magma chambers at three to five kilometers deep to partially molten rock at depths of over 100 kilometers," explained Kaus. This should help explain aspects that are not yet fully understood, such as what effect significant changes to the lithosphere can have on magmatic processes, why only a small amount of magma ever reaches a volcano while the majority crystallizes somewhere in the Earth's crust, how magma moves through the lithosphere, and how magmatic systems develop over millions of years.

Boris Kaus moved from ETH Zurich to Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in 2011, where he was appointed Professor of Geodynamics and Geophysics. He received an ERC Starting Grant (2010-2015) and an ERC Proof of Concept Grant (2016-2017). The recent award of the ERC Consolidator Grant further underlines the excellent work being undertaken by the Dutch geophysicist. Since 2017, Kaus has been the Managing Director of the Institute of Geosciences at JGU.

The ERC Consolidator Grant is one of the most prestigious awards given by the EU to researchers. The European Research Council uses these grants to support excellent researchers in consolidating their own research team and program, usually at a time 7 to 12 years after they have finished their doctorates. In order to be awarded a grant, applicants must not only demonstrate excellence in research but must additionally provide evidence of the pioneering nature of their project and its feasibility.