Announcement of Opportunity: Scoping group for transforming fractures - exploration of the deep-ocean highways

Closing date: 16:00 on 9 April 2018

NERC invites applications to join a scoping group that will develop the science case for a potential large strategic research programme on transforming fractures - exploration of the deep-ocean highways.

This is one of three potential strategic programme areas (SPAs) which have emerged from the ideas process for strategic research. We do not expect to be able to fund all three potential SPAs, and any potential SPA must meet NERC's criteria for a strategic programme, so it is possible that none of them will result in funded programmes.

Transform faults and fracture zones (FZs) are key elements in the structure and physical properties of the ocean basins and how the Earth works. Transform faults segment the Earth's mid-ocean ridge (MOR) system. Once lateral motion on these faults ceases, they are preserved as FZs for thousands of kilometres from the MOR to continental margins and into subduction zones. Although found throughout the ocean basins, FZs have rarely been studied in detail because research has focused on the MORs where new oceanic lithosphere is made.

As such, our understanding of the mechanical and geochemical properties of FZs is quite limited as is their biological importance and the role they play in the evolution of ocean basins and marine environments. This is becoming critical as we begin systematic exploration of the deep seabed in order to understand continental boundary extension, mineral and other resources, and unique species and migration pathways.

This SPA aims to effect a substantive change in our understanding of this key part of the seabed by creating an integrated research effort targeted at specific type examples of transform faults and FZs. It will encompass passive monitoring of seismicity and ground motion to understand tectonic deformation. It will also include seabed and water column sampling fluxes and associated mineral, fluid, faunal, geochemical and geo-biological interactions, and sub-seabed remote imaging. It will make best use of existing NERC ships, autonomous platforms and robotic systems, and enhance them to enable next-generation highest resolution imaging and sampling in the deepest ocean environment.

Potential research questions:

  1. Evolution and deformation: How do transform faults and FZs initiate to accommodate lateral relative plate motion? How do transform faults interact with MORs and how is heat distributed? Should they be treated as a single crustal-scale fault or a network of active faults between which rotational and translational deformation occurs, exhuming deep crustal and upper mantle rocks and extending to develop incipient spreading centres or windows in subduction systems? What role do FZs play in the evolution of continental margins and the underlying mantle?

  2. Stress and rebound: Across a FZ, the lithosphere has different ages, and hence thermal maturity and strength. What is the interaction between cooling, which creates subsidence, and serpentinisation and elastic rebound, which drive uplift? Is stress on FZs released seismically or aseismically? How do FZs affect the stress distribution in subducting plates? Do they cause segmentation along subduction plate boundaries, and, if so, how does this affect the generation and magnitude of subduction-zone earthquakes?

  3. Pathway for flow and interaction: How does heat flow within and across FZs, and is it conductive or advective? How does seawater interact with rocks exposed deep within FZs to release methane and hydrogen, form serpentinite, and sequester CO2? How are off-axis, fossil vent and mineralising systems distributed and do they offer a source for rare minerals (such as platinum group elements) by exposing deep crustal levels where more magmatic-dominated systems might reside?

  4. A pathway for life: What role do FZs play in channelling deep ocean water flow across ocean basins? What role do they play in biogeography and population connectivity of benthic fauna across oceans? Do they act as barriers or stepping-stones for species distribution? Are there active hydrothermal vent systems that act as staging posts? Do FZs host unique communities, adapted to this deep-water setting?

Applications are invited from individuals wishing to join the scoping group that will develop the science case for consideration by NERC.

Scoping group meeting

Professor Christopher MacLeod from Cardiff University has agreed to chair the scoping group. Members will be selected by NERC via an open call for self-nomination. It is anticipated that the scoping group will be made up of around six to eight individuals and will have an appropriate scientific balance. Members of the scoping group are expected to act as representatives of their scientific disciplines, and to act in the interests of the scientific community as a whole, rather than representing personal or institutional interests.

The composition of the group will be decided by NERC with input from the chair of the scoping group and a representative of NERC's Strategic Programme Advisory Group (SPAG). NERC reserves the right to appoint members to the scoping group who haven't applied to achieve the balance of representation required.

The scoping group will convene for a two-day meeting which all members must attend. The group will be tasked with producing a science case by the end of June 2018. This meeting will take place on 3-4 May at a venue in the London area. By applying to join this scoping group you are confirming your availability to attend the meeting.

If the proposed research programme is approved, members of the scoping group will be able to apply for funding, subject to normal NERC eligibility rules.


Applicants should complete an application form and submit it via the online form by 16:00 on 9 April 2018. Successful applicants will be informed of the outcome by 17 April 2018.

NERC will cover all reasonable travel and subsistence costs associated with attending the meeting, in line with NERC policy.

To register for this event, please complete the online registration form.


Amy Vitale