PhD positions for 2018 start

I am involved in several exciting projects at the University of Cambridge, each of which is part of the Cambridge Earth Systems Science DTP (projects I am involved in) and will base the student in the Department of Earth Sciences.  Several of the projects below are cross-disciplinary and link areas of the geosciences and astronomy.  My research life is based both in the Institute of Astronomy and Department of Earth Sciences.

If you have any questions about these projects, please feel free to contact me or one of the other listed supervisors.


Tracing mantle carbon

The project will ask the question ‘How reliable are magmatic archives as recorders of mantle carbon content?’. There are significant limitations to the most ubiquitous approaches of estimating the carbon content of Earth’s mantle: Using seawater noble gas contents provides a bulk upper mantle estimate, not easily resolving the constituent mantle sources; whilst C/trace-element ratios in melt inclusions are frequently lowered by C degassing. This project will provide new constraints on the distribution and cycling of C within the mantle by employing C isotopes as an independent tracer of degassing, and by targeting for analysis eruptions with geochemical signatures from: the lower mantle (Iceland); crustal recycling (The Canaries); and the archetypal depleted upper mantle.

Lead supervisor: Oliver Shorttle [ESC-homepage, IoA-homepage]
Co-supervisors: John Maclennan


Cooking the crust: 4.4 billion years of weathering-driven continental maturation?

The crustal composition has likely evolved over time because of weathering. This project will quantify this over Earth history. This has previously been neglected, but could be a major control on crustal composition with implications for the evolution of the surficial environment and for the igneous processes which generate crust. The student will measure stable isotope ratios of Mg and Li on river sediments to characterise average crustal compositions and variability, whilst associated “model” ages will be determined from radiogenic isotope systems such as neodymium. The Li and Mg stable isotope systems are highly-sensitive to water rock interaction, such as weathering, and their fractionations are most prominent at low temperature. Therefore, when combined, these three isotope systems will enable the weathering-driven maturation of the crust to be constrained.

Lead supervisor:  Ed Tipper
Co-supervisor: Oliver Shorttle  [ESC-homepage, IoA-homepage]


Carbon and sulfur cycling in the Earth’s mantle over the last 4 Ga: new clues from novel stable isotopes

This project will explore carbon and sulfur cycling and mantle source region heterogeneity using a combination of novel stable isotope and geochemical tracers. Through this it will be possible to explore the interplay between partial melting processes, mantle chemical and mineralogical heterogeneity and volatile element cycling. Key ocean island localities will be targeted, which possess abundant evidence for recycled components in their source regions. The study will also extend its reach back over Earth history by considering komatiites, with this project’s analyses contributing important new results to the debate about the origin (thermal vs. compositional) of these enigmatic high-degree melts.

Lead supervisor: Helen Williams
Co-supervisors: Oliver Shorttle [ESC-homepage, IoA-homepage]


The alternative chemistry of deep planetary interiors (Lead Supervisor: Simon Redfern

Ab initio structure prediction methods have now reached a maturity that allow them to be used to model the enthalpic stabilities of phases across pseudo-binary composition sections, The project uses this development to search for new structures in key silicates, oxides and carbonates at high pressures, where “unusual” chemical configurations may be stabilised. Such computational predictions demand experimental verification using high-pressure structural techniques such as vibrational spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction of samples pressurised in the diamond anvil cell. This project seeks to identify such unexpected phases by first adopting particle swarm structure prediction methods based on quantum mechanical computational results, combined with experimental studies of these structures for key candidate silicate, oxide and carbonate chemistries.

Lead supervisor: Simon Redfern
Co-supervisors: Oliver Shorttle [ESC-homepage, IoA-homepage]


Beyond Imaging: Optical Spectroscopy for Mineral Characterization

During this project, we wish to answer the following question: (1) how does the optical absorption signature of minerals such as olivine vary at the micron scale, and what are the key components leading to this variation? (2) Are defects such as dislocations in olivine (a sign of compression and deformation) perceptible with optical tools, and to what extent? (3) How does optical absorption and cathodoluminescence of minerals be used as complementary techniques?

Lead supervisor: Emilie Ringe
Co-supervisors: Oliver Shorttle [ESC-homepage, IoA-homepage]


Stable isotope tracers for the evolution of the crust-mantle system

This project will explore the changing composition of the Earth’s mantle and crust from the perspective of novel isotopic tracers. Recently, differences in the 238U/235U in OIB and MORB have been related to recycling of surface material and the different ages of the OIB and MORB sources (Andersen et al. 2015). Similar effects might be expected for stable isotope systems such as the transition metals (e.g. δ98Mo) and δ138Ba (e.g.Freymuth et al. 2015, Nielsen et al. 2018). Mantle-derived samples representing a time-series of Earth’s history will be used to characterise the isotopic evolution of the mantle in these systems and relate them to the history of plate tectonics and the formation of continental crust via geochemical modeling.

Lead supervisor: Helen Williams
Co-supervisors: Heye FreymuthOliver Shorttle [ESC-homepage, IoA-homepage]

AGU 2016

I will be at AGU for the whole week.  On Monday afternoon I will presenting work we have been doing combining new Fe-XANES observations and thermodynamic models of mantle melting to understand solid Earth redox.  On Wednesday afternoon Paula Antoshechkina will be presenting our preliminary model incorporating carbonate melting into the pMELTS thermodynamic framework.  See you in San Francisco!

The solid Earth’s involvement in oxygen cycling: Observations and theory


Authors: Oliver Shorttle, Edward Stolper, Paula Antoshechkina, Paul Asimow, Eleanor Jennings, Glenn Gaetani, David Graham, Margaret Hartley, Helen Williams, Maryjo Brounce, Saemundur Halldorsson

Session: V13B Magmatic and Tectonic Influences on Elemental Cycling and Earth’s Climate and Oxidation State Posters

When/where: Monday 12th December, 13:40 – 18:00 in Moscone South – poster hall

We have undertaken a targeted study of basalts erupted along the South East Indian Ridge to test the relative controls of mantle temperature and chemical heterogeneity on Fe3+/ΣFe.  Among this suite of basalts there is short length scale heterogeneity and a long wavelength transition to cooler mantle.  Despite these factors, the Fe3+/ΣFe and the oxidation state of erupted basalts is remarkably uniform.  This result suggests that basalt  fO2 is being buffered during mantle melt extraction.

Silicate and Carbonatite Melts in the Mantle: Adding CO2to the pMELTS Thermodynamic Model of Silicate Phase Equilibria


Authors: Paula Antoshechkina, Oliver Shorttle

Session: V33C Deep Carbon: From the Mantle to the Surface and Back Again III Posters

When/where: Wednesday 14th December, 13:40 – 18:00 in Moscone South – poster hall

The transport of carbon in the mantle via carbonated melting of peridotite is critical for the solid Earth volatile cycle, yet most models of mantle melting only consider the thermodynamics of silicate melting and treat carbon as a trace species.  To address this issue and form a self-consistent thermodynamic description of carbonated peridotite melting we have expanded and updated the CO2-fluid database constructed by Ghiorso and Gualda (2012, 2015) to include more recent high pressure experiments.  In the initial stages of calibrating the model a key question we will answer is whether a Na2CO3 liquid component is required in addition to CaCO3.

A statistical description of concurrent mixing and crystallisation during MORB differentiation: implications for trace element enrichment

Melt formation, mixing, and transport schematic

A cartoon of the processes operating from mantle to crust, which give rise to the appearance of trace element over-enrichment in mid-ocean ridge basalts. Diverse melts are produced in the mantle, potentially from chemically heterogeneous sources (left). These melts are transported out of the mantle by channelised flow, which preserves some primary heterogeneity of the melts supplied to the crust (centre). In the crust melts fractionate crystal phases and mix (centre and right).  The supply of heterogenous melts to crustal magma chambers, and their subsequent mixing, gives rise to apparent trace element over-enrichment in the final erupted basalt.

Basalts are our window into Earth’s chemical structure, and being a product of mantle melting and transport, constrain the processes by which it continues to differentiate.  However, to interpret the basalt record in terms of mantle source and melting conditions requires our being able to see through the processes that affect basalt chemistry following melting, during their transport through the mantle, and their storage in the crust.  The extent to which basalts reflect mantle processes vs. crustal processes has been a topic of long-running debate, with workers such as Klein and Langmuir (1987) and Gale et al. (2014) arguing for the importance of mantle processes, whereas more recently O’Neill and Jenner (2012) and Coogan and O’Hara (2015) have emphasised the role of crustal magma chambers in modifying the trace and minor element chemistry of basalts.  A key observation in this debate has been the presence of trace element over-enrichment in mid-ocean ridge basalts, whereby differentiated basalts (those with low MgO) appear to have higher concentrations of incompatible trace elements than can be accounted for by simple fractional crystallisation (see figure below).

Trace element enrichment gradients.

The rate of enrichment of trace elements during magmatic differentiation (expressed as the gradient in trace element – MgO space). More negative numbers indicate stepper gradients, which when they fall below the orange line, cannot be accounted for by simple fractional crystallisation.

In this article we demonstrate how apparent trace element over-enrichment during differentiation can result simply from the chemically heterogeneous melts being supplied to the crust.  The key aspect of the model is that once resident in crustal magma chambers, the probability of melts mixing is proportional to their degree of differentiation (a proxy for their residence time).  Therefore, as melts differentiate, they progressively interact with other melts, until at low MgO (~5  wt%), magmas have a composition close to that of the mean melts being supplied from the mantle.  A consequence of this process, which we call concurrent mixing and crystallisation (CMC; Maclennan, 2008), is that the overall trend of trace element enrichment during differentiation is steeper than what it would be predicted in the absence of mixing.  What’s more, the most incompatible elements have the most variable abundance in melts supplied to the crust, and therefore exhibit the greatest degree of over-enrichment.  Thus, this model reproduces the observations presented in the figure above, whereby highly incompatible elements such as Th and U have the steepest enrichment gradients.

The importance of these results is that in our model, although mixing destroys much mantle-derived chemical variability and therefore information on the melting and melt transport process, the mean composition of the magmas supplied from the mantle is not affected.  As such, magmas retain bulk information on their sources and conditions of formation.  This means that global correlations like those established by Klein and Langmuir (1987) and Gale et al. (2014) will be valid, and the elemental ratios forming the basis for isotope evolution models of the Earth’s mantle (e.g., Sm/Nd for the <sup>143</sup>Nd isotope system) will not have been perturbed.


Online [publisher]: https://dx.doi.org/10.1093/petrology/egw056

Reference: Oliver Shorttle, John F. Rudge, John Maclennan, and Ken Rubin. Journal of Petrology (2016): 1-35, doi:10.1093/petrology/egw056.

Concurrent mixing and crystallisation in MORB

Concurrent mixing and crystallisation in MORB over a range of length scales.

As MgO drops during crystallisation basalts become more mixed. This concurrent mixing and crystallisation is tracked by a measure of chemical variability at a given MgO (σ*), shown here for La/Yb in a global compilation of mid-ocean ridge basalts (Gale et al., 2013). In the plot to the left the amount of chemical variability present at a given MgO is represented by points coloured red for high variability and blue for low. Each horizontal band of colour indicates how variability changes during differentiation, for a suite of MORB geographically normalised over a particular length scale. Taken together, these σ*-MgO profiles record how coherent mixing patterns emerge from global datasets as the length scale of sample grouping becomes progressively more local. Plots to the right indicate the normalised data distribution of La/Yb at 10,000 km and 50 km. Figure modified from Shorttle (2015).

The basalts sampled at mid-ocean ridges and ocean islands provide critical insight into the chemical evolution of the Earth: with their isotope ratio and trace element abundances capturing processes as diverse as planetary accretion and the recent subduction of organic sediments.  Basalts are used in this way with the understanding that their composition reflects that of the solid mantle source from which they were derived. However, we can only use the chemical inventory of basalts to probe mantle geochemistry if we are confident that we can ‘see through’ the chemical signals that have been imparted to them in the tens to thousands of years preceding their eruption. During this interval basalts are produced by partial melting of the mantle, extracted by porous and focussed flow, aggregated in mantle and crustal magma chambers and cooled, leading to their crystallisation. At each of theses stages there is the opportunity for basalts to mix, leading to a reduction in the amount of information they carry about their source, and therefore limiting our ability to reconstruct mantle composition and history.

This paper focusses on the mixing basalts experience during crustal (and upper mantle) storage in magma chambers. I use Iceland as a case study, which nicely illustrates the chemical signature of mixing in whole rock and melt inclusion records, to then explore mixing systematics along the more sparsely sampled submarine portions of the mid-ocean ridge system. The significance of magma mixing in mid-ocean ridge basalts (MORB) has previously been recognised from global compilations of MORB (e.g. Rubin et al., 2001) and from micro-analytical studies of melt inclusions (e.g. Sobolev & Shimizu (1993) and Maclennan (2008)), amongst other observations. In this paper I focus on investigating the length scale at which coherent mixing relationships become visible in suites of basalts, and the spatial statistical methods we can use to understand the meaning of this length scale.

Applying geographic normalisation to the global dataset of Gale et al., (2013), I find that coherent mixing relationships are visible at length scales < 300 km – approximately the scale of first order ridge segmentation. Statistical tests repeatedly randomly repositioning samples demonstrate that this result is only apparent in the real dataset – i.e. spatial structure exists in the samples of natural MORB that statistically relates them to one another over ~100 km length scales. This observation is another hint at the geochemical provincialism present in basalts (e.g. Shorttle et al. 2013). Yet, it remains challenge to identify at which point in the system, from mantle to crust, that basalts erupting > 100 km apart gain similarity to one another. One possibility is that this relates to a decorrelation length scale in mantle compositional structure.

The challenge posed by magma mixing from a mantle geochemical perspective is even knowing that the information loss has occurred. If primitive basalts are erupted, containing early crystallising phases, then perhaps concurrent mixing and crystallisation (CMC) will be caught in the act and basalts will be only partially mixed. However, extensive mixing may occur before a crystal record is even produced, for example during transport out of the mantle (Rudge et al., 2013). In this case it is important to appreciate how mixing may bias the accessible geochemical record of basalts. In particular, developing an understanding of magma mixing is going to be important for understanding the relationship of ocean island basalt chemistry to that of MORB.  As their very different geodynamic settings will likely translate into different magma storage and transport histories, of which we are unable to fully predict the geochemical consequences.


Online [publisher]: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2015.04.035

Online [preprint]: http://www.shorttle.com/paper_store/os_mix2015.pdf

Reference: Oliver Shorttle. Geochemical variability in MORB controlled by concurrent mixing and crystallisation. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 424 (2015): 1-14.