Research notes

October 6, 2006

Marian Holness, 42, reader in petrogenesis, Cambridge University

Educational background:
Comprehensive school and sixth-form college. BA and PhD, Cambridge University.

Research area: I am interested in how molten rock solidifies. I study this using a combination of field observations, microscopic examination of thin-sections (translucent slices of rock mounted on glass slides) and geochemistry.

Latest project: The Skaergaard Intrusion of East Greenland is the frozen remains of a large (11 x 8 x 4km) mass of basaltic magma that never made it to the Earth's surface.

When the rise of the magma was halted several kilometres below the surface, it slowly froze and formed a highly complex series of layers that even now are not fully understood.

I have already worked on a frozen magma chamber on the Isle of Rum, but that one formed underneath a volcano that was continually erupting. The quiet undisturbed conditions of the Skaergaard are the perfect counterpoint, and the contrast provides excellent research opportunities.

For the past year, I have been working on material collected by other geologists from the central part of the intrusion; but this summer I began work on the little-studied edges of the intrusion - the rind that formed very early in the solidification process - where the effects of compaction were minimal. Here we can see more clearly the effects of melt moving through the mush as it solidifies inwards from the edges.

Funding: Getting to and around the east coast of Greenland is a challenge. There are very few settlements but there is the occasional polar bear. The most practical way of working there is to link up with a mining company. We were lucky enough to be given generous logistical support by the Skaergaard Mining Corporation (a subsidiary of Galahad Gold plc), which supports my PhD student via a Co-operative Award in Science and Industry. The company gave us space on its Twin Otter charter from northern Iceland, provided us with guns (should we have encountered bears) and dealt with the paperwork; it also took us in its helicopter to the areas we wanted to visit and shipped back the quarter tonne of rock samples we collected. The success of our trip was entirely due to them.

The logistical difficulties and expense of working on Skaergaard means that any sample sets are extremely valuable, and there is a strong driving force to set up teams of collaborators. I am working with colleagues at the Danish Geological Survey in Copenhagen, at Aarhus University and GeoForschungsZentrum, Potsdam.

Working partnerships: The international partnership is working very well.

The bulk of the communication is done by e-mail and telephone, and we organise group meetings every once in a while. My student and I go to Copenhagen to collect samples from the Danish Geological Survey. We are planning a major fieldtrip to Skaergaard next summer, in which we will all participate.

Research high: Realising that the cooling history is recorded in the way the grains fit together in these rocks, which allows us to use the microscope to tease apart the history of the magma chamber.

Research low: Missing out on a trip to Skaergaard last summer because the mining company decided at the last minute to cancel its drilling operation.

RAE or metrics? I try to let this sort of thing wash over my head.

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