Seeing the earth as a connected whole

In a proposed new research centre, geologists and meteorologists have found common ground to discover the connection between the climate and tectonic movements.

Portrait of Ritske Huismans
WHERE GEOLOGY MEETS CLIMATE RESEARCH: Professor Ritske Huismans want geologists and climate researchers to collaborate on solving the riddles of earth's major systems.
Walter Wehus

Geology moves slow, while the sky changes by the hour. Yet the landscape has a way of influencing the weather, something the inhabitants of Bergen know all too well. The city on the west coast of Norway is famous for its rainy weather, caused by heavy clouds from the sea hitting the mountains that surround the city.

Bergen's extreme levels of precipitation is a simple example, but the link between climate and topology is not fully understood by researchers. Mountains are eroded by rain and ice, which in turn carries the rock out to sea. This effects the movement of the tectonic plates which makes up Earth's crust, and again how mountain ranges and ocean ridges develop.

Tying the strings together

"The tectonic plates move in a perspective of millions of years, while rain showers come and go from one hour to the next. We want to understand the connection between Earth's climate and large systems of mountain ranges and deep sea ridges," says Ritske Huismans, professor at the Department of Earth Science at the University of Bergen (UiB).

His application to create the Centre for Integrated Quantitative Earth System Dynamics is currently competing in the final round to be funded as a Norwegian Centre of Excellence by the Research Council of Norway.

Bergen is in a unique position

"Researchers don't really have an understanding of how these different parts of Earth are connected. The debate has been raging for the last 15-20 years as to how strong the connection really is. Speaking globally, geologists have failed to incorporate climate researchers in the search for answers," Huismans says.

UiB already has experts on everything from tectonic processes to erosion and climate, several of them doing research that place them in leading positions internationally. This places UiB in a unique position for the kind of collaboration that has so far eluded researchers elsewhere. Long discussions on where the different fields of research overlap have already been conducted, according to Huismans.

Simulation tools help understanding

One of the greatest challenges facing geologists is that the necessary data is buried deep inside the earth. Mathematical and physical models are used to simulate phenomena like erosion and tectonic movements.

"We want to investigate how the systems change when we alter the parameters. We do not know everything about how rock or other materials behave under certain conditions. How is erosion affected by a given amount of rain, for example? The simulation tools help us gain a better understanding of the processes," Huismans says.

The research carried out at the proposed new centre will also contribute to a deeper understanding of areas like water distribution and earth slides. The oil and gas industry will also benefit, though Huismans stresses that there is no formal connection between the proposed research centre and the industry.

Huismans has spent the last fifteen years, ten at UiB, working with tectonics, erosion and its consequences. For the last eight years he has managed a similar project funded by the energy company Statoil. While that project also combined climate researchers and geologists, Huismans asserts that it only scraped the surface of what the Centre for Integrated Quantitative Earth System Dynamics can accomplish.