Earthquakes in the laboratory: Part 1 – Paris

By Kathryn Hayward

In 2016, I was fortunate enough to be awarded a 34th IGC Early Career Travel Grant and the RSES Mervyn and Katalin Paterson Travel Fellowship. These awards allowed me travel for an extended period this year to attend conferences and undertake state-of-the-art laboratory experiments at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris and the National Institute of Volcanology and Geophysics (INVG) in Rome.

In this article I will talk a little about my experiences at the ENS laboratories in Paris. During my stay I was able to use experimental techniques pioneered by the ENS lab to explore differences in fault processes between earthquakes resulting from increases in shear stress (such as classic mainshock-aftershock events) and those driven by changes in pore fluid pressure (e.g. during an injection driven swarm sequence). Working closely with Professor Alexandre Schubnel and PhD student Jérôme Albury, I was able to undertake six experiments during the four weeks of my visit.

The École Normale Supérieure laboratories in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

The aim of my research is to use experiments undertaken at pressure and temperature conditions comparable to those found deep in the crust to learn about the strength and behaviour of faults. I am interested in understanding the processes that occur during the first seconds of fault slip as this is central to understanding whether a fault rupture grows to become a large, damaging earthquake, or whether strain is accommodated as a small, possibly non-seismic event. During the first seconds of slip, the extreme forces acting on fault contacts, or asperities, result in heat generation, formation of damage and changes in the physical properties of a fault surface. As slip proceeds, these processes can result in an evolution of fault strength through a process referred to as ‘dynamic weakening’.

A key aspect of my current research, and the reason for my trip to Paris, was to look at role that fluids play in affecting the behaviour of faults during the initial stages of slip. Fault zones are recognised as fluid conduits within the crust and large-scale injection experiments (such as in Basel, Switzerland) have shown a direct correlation between fluid pressure and rates of seismicity. This has important implications for the development of hydraulic fracture technologies such as enhanced gas recovery, geothermal energy extraction and geo-sequestration. However, little is currently known about how pore fluids modify fault strength and asperity behaviour during rupture and how this could facilitate or impede rupture propagation.

Standing in front of the deformation apparatus with collaborators Alexandre Schubnel and Jérôme Albury

The lab at ENS has pioneered the use of two different types of sensors mounted on the sample as way of measuring deformation prior to and during the onset of slip. The first technique involves the detection and measurement of Acoustic Emissions (AEs). AEs are generated when structural changes, such as a brittle fracture, form a local source of elastic waves. Just like an earthquake only much, much smaller, the elastic waves generate tiny displacements on the sample surface that are detected using piezoelectric sensors. By looking at the rate and source of emissions we can gain insights into where the larger-scale macroscopic labquakes nucleate. The second type of measurement involves the use of strain gauges, which we glue adjacent to the slip surface. These sensors are important for recording the coseismic release of stored elastic energy. If we record multiple strain gauges synchronously we can use the time difference between the onset of energy release to determine the speed at which the labquake rupture propagates.

During my visit I performed six experiments on Fontainebleau sandstone, a pure quartz sandstone that is highly prized for use by experimental rock physicists owing to its purity, lack of preexisting deformation and beautiful pore structure. It just so happens that my piece of Fontainebleau sandstone was salvaged from the Palace of Versailles. It did seem rather surreal to be deforming part of one of France’s greatest icons!

Coring a pavement stone from the Palace of Versailles.

Preparation for each experiment took the better part of a week. The samples had to be cored and ground, and the sixteen sensors carefully glued into position. However, all the fiddly preparation was worth it when the experiments worked and we were able to produce some exciting results. During the experiments we recorded thousands of little ‘fore-shock’ AEs in the lead up to the main macroscopic slip events.

Now, in a similar manner to the way seismologists pick events from different seismograms, we must pick the events from our 8 acoustic emission sensors. If we can correlate AE events between the different sensors we can calculate travel times and estimate the hypocenter locations. This work will take months to complete but we hope that it will provide us with new insights into how fluids alter the dynamics of rupture on a fault. Now that I am back in Australia, I am also using high-resolution electron microscopy imaging to look at physical changes that have occurred on the fault surfaces during slip in an attempt to correlate microstructural and behavioral evolution.

The sample with all its sensors attached following a successful experiment. Here at ANU we use argon as a confining medium – in Paris they use oil and it takes some getting used to!

A month in Paris was a wonderful experience. Yes, I sampled many fine desserts from numerous patisseries, but I also had the opportunity to develop new skills and learn new experimental techniques in a hands-on way. No doubt, what I have learnt will shape my future endeavors and I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the Australian Geoscience Council, the Australian Academy of Science, the Research School of Earth Sciences and Mervyn and Katalin Paterson for the provision and the award of the travel grants that made this trip possible.

One of the indulgent little delicacies that Paris had to offer…

Rig 1’s 50th Birthday Party: Celebrating 50 years rock deformation research at RSES

By Kathryn Hayward

On 16 November next month, RSES will be celebrating a significant milestone – the 50th Birthday of our first high temperature high pressure rock deformation apparatus, developed and built in-house by Professor Mervyn Paterson. These apparatus marked a major global advance in the ability to measure and understand the strength, rheology and behaviour of earth materials at pressures and temperatures equivalent to depths of 20km in the crust. Even today, 50 years on, these gas medium apparatus remain relevant, achieving unsurpassed mechanical accuracy at high pressure-temperature conditions.

Photo 1
A living legend: Mervyn Paterson at his 90th birthday celebrations. Mervyn’s association with RSES spans more than 50 years from 1953-2017. During his time at the School Mervyn has achieved much in the field of rock deformation but he has also given the School a great deal. Many students have benefited from the gift of travel through the Mervyn and Katalin Paterson Travel Fellowship.

Many of us have seen Professor Mervyn Paterson, now aged 92, at tea and around the School – but who was he and what did he do that was so significant? Mervyn spent his career working as geophysicist and instrument developer, specializing in rock deformation. He was born into a farming family in South Australia in 1925 and attended the Adelaide Technical High School. In 1943 he completed his undergraduate studies in metallurgy at the University of Adelaide. Mervyn began his career at the CSIR Division of Aeronautics working on the physics of metal fatigue in a position that would now be called a ‘materials scientist’. He received a PhD from the University of Cambridge in the UK on x-ray diffraction effects of deformation in metals, and pursued postdoctoral studies in Chicago in the USA.

In 1951 Mervyn returned to Australia to work at the newly-named CSIRO, but was soon approached by Professor John Jaeger and appointed to pursue research in the field of experimental rock deformation within the Department of Geophysics at the Australian National University. Commencing in 1953, Mervyn remained as a researcher at the subsequently formed Research School of Earth Sciences until his retirement in 1990. During this time he developed the instruments that we have today in the High Pressure Rock Physics Lab and undertook seminal research into the strength and behavior of many crustal materials including work on quartz, calcite and olivine. Following ‘retirement’ Mervyn proceeded to have a second career as the chairman of Paterson Instruments Pty Ltd, a company which oversaw the development of all the ‘commercial’ Paterson apparatus that are the pride of many rock deformation labs around the world. Not one to take retirement too easily, Mervyn published his last book at the age of 88, titled ‘Materials Science for Structural Geology’.

Photo 2
The master at work: Mervyn Paterson with the control console of Rig 1 in 1983. Due to the high gas pressures contained within the pressure vessel during experiments, for safety reasons the apparatus must be isolated. The machine can be operated and the experiment run entirely from outside the high pressure bay.

The Rock Physics lab at RSES is in the fortunate position of being the envy of many experimental rock physicists, with an unprecedented three (3) high temperature, high pressure gas apparatus. These include two deformation apparatus and the attenuation apparatus, which is used to measure seismic properties of rocks at crustal to mantle conditions. When thinking about national infrastructure and capacity, it is worth highlighting that we are the only rock physics lab with ability to explore high pressure, high temperature, fluid saturated conditions in the Southern Hemisphere.

But what makes these machines so special? Central to the operation of these machines is the pressure vessel – a big cylinder of steel that can be pressurized. We use argon gas as the medium that we pressurize to between 3000 to 5000 atmospheres (300-500 MPa or, for our petrologist friends, 3-5 kbar). Inside the pressure vessel we have a furnace that raises the temperature as high as 1300 °C. A load or force is applied to the sample, making it deform either plastically or by brittle failure, forming miniature ‘labquakes’. During deformation, the applied forces are measured inside the pressure vessel, giving unrivaled accuracy of the mechanical data. In particular, internal measurement removes effects such as the frictional contribution of the high pressure seals. Although the design is seemingly quite simple, Mervyn’s machines remain the only gas-medium apparatus that can operate in the given P-T space. As a number of other researchers have discovered to their dismay when trying to build an equivalent, the devil is in the detail!

Photo 3
50 years young: The pressure vessel and loading frame of Rig 1. You can also see the gas and pore fluid intensification systems on the right of the photo.

Rig 1 is technically not the first pressure vessel of its kind at ANU, but rather it is the oldest surviving one. In the early days of rock deformation, people did not fully understand the effects of corrosion, hydrogen embrittlement and pressure cycling on strength of the apparatus. It was also during the heady days of pumping gas to 1 GPa (10 kbar) and on one fine morning in 1964 the first pressure vessel on Rig 1 exploded…

Thankfully Mervyn had designed and built the lab planning for the worst. The machine was contained within a bunker with 30 cm thick concrete walls. No one was injured and there was surprisingly little damage (except to the pressure vessel). The shards of the vessel can still be found in the lab and serve as a reminder to all users of what can happen.

Photo 4
The founding fathers: our three professors in the Rock Physics lab in 1988. Left to right: Mervyn Paterson, Ian Jackson and Stephen Cox

You might be thinking that after 50 years of service Rig 1 might be due for retirement. Nothing could be further from the truth and it remains as relevant today as when it was built. One of Rig 1’s main assets is versatility: over the past decades it has been a platform for numerous research ventures ranging from meticulously defining rheological properties of earth materials to my current research interests exploring the first stages of earthquake slip.

In 2015 an innovative partnership was established with physicists from the Department of Quantum Physics to build a unique measurement system to capture, for the first time, the mechanical behavior of tiny earthquakes produced in the lab. We combined Nobel Prize-winning technology used for the detection of gravity waves, with the unique pressure and temperature environment provided by Rig 1. With this capability we are now begining to unravel the secrets of earthquake initiation at realistic mid crustal-conditions – one of the great unresolved enigmas of geophysics. In 2016 this endeavor captured the attention of the Major Equipment Committee and the project was awarded a grant that has allowed continued development, and culminated in an instrument that is truly globally unique. The up-coming Birthday Party is an opportunity to celebrate not only the wonderful and rich history of this machine but also to showcase its exciting future.

Photo 5
New capabilities: the optical interferometer designed and built in partnership with the Department of Quantum Physics (RSPE). Left to right: Bram Slagmolen, Kathryn Hayward, Stephen Cox and Perry Forsyth.

Former lab users and guests will be coming from around the world to mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the first use Rig 1. On 16 November we will be having a series of seminars with talks given by our visitors and current lab users. The day will start with tours of the High Pressure Rock Physics Laboratory – so please join in and visit one of RSES’s hidden gems! Following the tours there will be a school morning tea. Details of the seminar program will be posted shortly and everyone is very welcome to attend.

References:  Lambeck, K., Paterson, M. 2006 ‘Professor Mervyn Paterson, geophysicist’ Interviews with Australian Scientists, Australian Academy of Science.

Palaeoclimate in a Medieval city

By Tiah Penny

For three weeks of July I go to say “arrivederci” to the Canberra winter, as I travelled to Italy to attend the 14th Urbino Summer School in Palaeoclimateology (USSP). The summer school was taught by some of the leading scientists in the field of palaeoclimate, and attended by over 70 palaeoclimate nerds – I mean HDR students – from around the world. Continue reading “Palaeoclimate in a Medieval city”

Self worth and the PhD

Not long after I began my PhD I saw a piece of advice that read ‘be cautious of letting your PhD become the sole thing by which you measure your self worth’. Sounds reasonable, I thought. Only recently, however, have I come to realise its true value.

Continue reading “Self worth and the PhD”

Photos From Our RSES Adventures. Vol.1

As part of our annual Student Conference, this year we held our first ever RSES Photography Competition! Over the coming months we are going to be sharing with you some of these photos, and the stories and science behind them.

This week we start on a high with the winning images from our three categories; Where We Go, Who We Are and What We Study, as well as the overall winner. Enjoy!

Where We Go

Milky Way + Tent – Dr. Jonathan Pownall (ARC DECRA Fellow)


The photo was taken in August 2014 during a trip to Ladakh in the Indian Himalaya with Dr. Marnie Forster.  We were undertaking geological mapping and structural analysis of shear zones related to the exhumation of UHP coesite-bearing eclogites.  One night, camping by Tso Kar lake (4500 m), I opened my tent, and the sky was amazingly clear, and the Milky Way looked pretty special.  The lamp was still on in the kitchen tent… so I balanced my camera on a rock and took a long exposure photo.

Continue reading “Photos From Our RSES Adventures. Vol.1”

Mining history and geology of the West Coast region – Tasmania

By Suzette

Tasmania has a rich history in ore geology and particularly West Tasmania is well-known for its mining industry. The formation of numerous ore bodies in this region were all related to three main geological events: the movement of hot fluids by volcanism in the Cambrian forming the primary minerals, the activity of the Great Lyell Fault exposing and oxidising some of the minerals, and a major orogeny in the Devonian causing the remobilising of the metals into veins and larger crystals. A simplified geological map can be seen below.

Continue reading “Mining history and geology of the West Coast region – Tasmania”

Self-conscious science writing

My writing has gone to bits - like my character. I am simply a self-conscious nerve in pain. - Oscar Wilde

by Tim Jones

A friend and I were discussing our tendency to hedge our bets when writing about science, for example: “The effect is somewhat observed“, “Our results are relatively consistent with”, “We conclude that our writing predominantly sucks”. These vagaries pollute our prose and muddle the mind of our readers. But is it necessary? Let’s start by addressing why scientists feel the need to be so inconclusive. First, science really is uncertain, and nobody wants to give an audience full of braniacs, geeks, and know-it-alls, a reason to think they don’t realise this. Second, writing is an act of psychology, because you don’t know what your readers know or don’t know, so you have to pre-empt the inevitable knowledge gap between you and them. The problem is that it’s impossible to determine the size of this gap and so the default position is to assume a chasm.

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Exploring the region: when a three-hour trip takes you millions of years back in time

By Jesse Zondervan

Where other people see rocks and cliffs, our geologist student blogger Jesse Zondervan sees another world. Join him as he visits Jervis Bay. This blog was originally posted on the ANU science student blog.

A little kangaroo under a beach umbrella sticks his tongue out at us. A small group of beachgoers surround him, but he seems unperturbed as he lies down to relax.

Continue reading “Exploring the region: when a three-hour trip takes you millions of years back in time”

Deep Carbon Observatory summer school 2016

By Suzette Timmerman

The Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO; is an organization that investigates the carbon cycle. Researchers from all over the world are linked to this organization in four communities: extreme physics and chemistry, reservoirs and fluxes, deep energy, and deep life. We explore the behavior of carbon at extreme pressure and temperature conditions, how much carbon there is in which reservoirs and how it moves, how it changed over time, and the extreme conditions of life.

Continue reading “Deep Carbon Observatory summer school 2016”

Week 38: Wee Jasper

This weeks post is from third year Msci geology exchange student Jesse Zondervan who has been visiting RSES for the last year. This was originally posted on the 10th April on Jesse’s personal blog site.

By Jesse Zondervan

The two week mid-semester break started off with a field trip to Wee Jasper, in the bush of New South Wales. After five days of walking around in a field shirt and hat without phone signal I arrived back in civilization on Wednesday evening. Back in Canberra I spent the rest of my time writing for my assignments and the student newspaper. I also worked on the microscope with Janelle and played some boardgames with the B&G boardgames society.

Continue reading “Week 38: Wee Jasper”

Turtles and tap-dancing birds: welcome to an ANU field trip

A field trip takes student blogger Jesse Zondervan to a classroom in paradise on the Great Barrier Reef. This was originally posted on the ANU Science student blog.

By Jesse Zondervan

In a silent group of people, I stand in the dark on a white beach. I listen to sea turtles digging their nests. Torches are not allowed because they may blind the turtles or scare them away to waste their eggs in the sea.

Heron Island is our one-night stopover to One Tree Island, a research island on the Great Barrier Reef, where we’ll be doing a field course for ten days.

Continue reading “Turtles and tap-dancing birds: welcome to an ANU field trip”

Just Not Cricket

by Patrick Goodarzi

True to academic stereotypes, it seems whenever sport is mentioned in these pages it is often followed by some combination of the words failure, embarrassment, or disgrace. This occasion is to be no different. Our opponents this time were the fully fledged academics and staff of RSES – ostensibly further down the line of sporting ineptitude. The day was mid April and the game was cricket. In hindsight, a poor choice of sport and one that played directly into the staffs’ hands – a predominantly matured group from Commonwealth nations for whom the idea of standing idly in a field for half a day was an exhilarating prospect. In contrast, our ragamuffin bunch was cobbled together with students from diverse backgrounds, to many of whom cricket was a foreign curiosity. All, however, were delightfully keen. Perhaps they sensed the magnitude of the occasion. Or more likely some cultural fulfilment to be had. Continue reading “Just Not Cricket”

A Summer at RSES

By Ben Nistor

ANU Summer Scholarship at RSES

As the mid-year holidays approach I start thinking ahead to summer.  After a hectic start to the year (despite trying to “lighten the workload”) and consecutive summers of full time employment in big cities away I intended to give myself a holiday.  This year I would head home and put my feet up. Haha, well that didn’t happen…

Continue reading “A Summer at RSES”

Exploring the Eastern Anchor of the Himalayas

By F. Fang

When talking about field work in the Himalayas, I always expect to see amazing scenery and try delicious local food,



However, a more common situation is like this…

Continue reading “Exploring the Eastern Anchor of the Himalayas”

Trends in Science

By Tim Jones

The ability to search through colossal amounts of data with a few key strokes is one of the most powerful gifts of the digital age. While vastly improving the standard of common knowledge the world over (with no foreseeable limit to this trend), we have opened up areas of research that would be too arduous for humans, or simply never imagined before the rise of digital data analysis. An awesome example of this is Google’s Ngram Viewer, a corpus of digitised texts containing around 6% of all books ever printed. Linguists use it to track changes in language through time, e.g. the usage of “burnt” vs “burned” or the emergence of phrases such as “it takes two to tango”. I’ve used it to track the occurrence of four words between 1800 and 2000; physics, chemistry, biology, and geology. There are some interesting correlations that can been drawn between trends in word usage and the timing of developments and discoveries in these fields of science. For example, geology begins its greatest period of growth from the year 1829, one year before Charles Lyell began publishing his seminal work, Principles of Geology.


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RSES social soccer, summer 2015 – a season in retrospect

By Patrick Goodarzi

Popular wisdom cautions against the worship of false idols. This year’s RSES soccer team chose to eschew this by elevating one player, Pat Carr, to near demigod status. The hopes and dreams of an entire School were pinned to Carr before the first ball had been kicked. Even the team’s name – Pat Carr and the Cardiac Arrests, and later Pat Carr and the Carr-pettes – blazoned the strategy. The role of remaining team members was simply auxiliary. Pat Carr was to be our champion. Our light. Our salvation. In Carr we believed.

Continue reading “RSES social soccer, summer 2015 – a season in retrospect”

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