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William Smith Meeting 2017: Plate Tectonics at 50

03 October 2017
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Organised by:
Geological Society Events, Tectonic Studies Group
The Geological Society, Burlington House
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On the 50th anniversary of the advent of the paradigm of plate tectonics, this three day meeting was convened to examine the state of the art and scope out new directions. The conference was then brought to a close by the 2017 William Smith lecture, delivered by Dan McKenzie.

William Smith Meeting 2017: Plate Tectonics at 50, 3-5 October 2017

Photos from William Smith Meeting

Plate Tectonics: The Dan McKenzie Archive

Through storytelling, and illustrated by the papers and photographs McKenzie kept throughout his career as well as recorded interviews, the new Plate Tectonics website acknowledges Dan McKenzie’s unique contribution in the most important discovery in the Earth sciences of the 20th century, documents his interactions with many collaborators and co-workers and includes work which continues today.

Invited Speakers were:

Nick Christie-Blick Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Columbia University, USA

John Dewey University of Oxford, UK

Tony Doré Statoil, UK

Cindy Ebinger Tulane University, USA

Hank Frankel University of Missouri, Kansas City. USA

Catherine Johnson University of British Columbia, Canada

Peter van Keken Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington DC USA

Mike Kendall University of Bristol, UK

Xavier Le Pichon Collège de France

Peter Molnar University of Colorado Boulder, USA

Christopher Scotese, Northwestern University, USA

Chris Hawkesworth, University of Bristol and University of St Andrews, UK

Opening remarks by

Tony Watts University of Oxford, UK

Closing remarks and introduction of the William Smith lecturer

James Jackson University of Cambridge, UK

William Smith lecturer

Dan McKenzie University of Cambridge, UK

Convenors for the meeting included:

Rob Butler University of Aberdeen

Mike Daly University of Oxford

Gareth Roberts Imperial College London

Jonathan Turner Radioactive Waste Management

Tony Watts University of Oxford



This first session from the conference looks at the history of scientific developments leading up to the plate tectonics paradigm. After the opening welcome by Malcom Brown (President of the Geological Society) the session is chaired by Rob Butler (University of Aberdeen). Tony Watts’ (University of Oxford)  introduction covers the history of tectonic concepts leading up to the 1960s and what happened next. This leads to Hank Frenkel (University of Missouri) looking at the parallel approaches taken by Jason Morgan and Dan McKenzie and the events leading up and following the Spring Meeting of AGU in 1967. Wolf Jacoby (Johannes Gutenberg University) ponders on why Alfred Wegener missed plate tectonics a century ago. Xavier Le Pichon (College de France) provides testimony from the 1960s, how he tested and then summarised plate tectonics concepts and then presents new ideas on the eastern Mediterranean. The discussion period looks at why other evidence, especially palaeomagnetism, was overlooked and then how quickly plate tectonics was adopted, taught and communicated. 


Chaired by Jim Briden (University of Oxford), this session looks at palaeogeography and plate reconstructions, kicking off with Chris Scotese (Northwestern University). He reviews the history of global reconstructions and shows a movie for the past 1.5 billion years of Earth history. Richard Gordon (Rice University) examines the evidence for true polar wander before John Watson (CGG Robertson) demonstrates reconstructions with deformable plates. Jim Pindell (Ion Geophysical and Rice University) looks at reconstructing the Caribbean and central Atlantic with rifting models before the session concludes with Bruce Eglington (University of Saskatchawen) pushing reconstructions back into the Proterozoic. Discussions touch on the different data going into reconstructions, the mechanisms behind different rates and complexity of relative plate motion and conclude with (a rather quiet) discussion of continental rifting mechanisms. 


These talks look at active tectonics, in a session chaired by Nicky White (University of Cambridge).  Cindy Ebinger (Tulane University) considers strain localization and magmatism and their impact on the stability of continental interiors with specific reference to rifting. Richard Walker (Oxford University) looks at active tectonics in Turkmenistan and the south Caspian before Tim Wright (University of Leeds) overviews the datasets from GPS and InSAR that chart active deformation in the continents. Bob White (University of Cambridge) presents seismological and geodetic data to track active volcanic and rifting processes on Iceland before Nick Kusznir (University of Liverpool) looks at plate boundary reorganizations in the Indian ocean.


Gareth Roberts (Imperial College) chairs this session on mantle convection and plate properties, which kicks off with Peter van Keken (Carnegie Institute) who looks at the subduction dynamics, thermal structure and mantle convection.  Nicky White (University of Cambridge) looks at complex upper mantle circulation and its control on surface movements.  Lara Kalnins (University of Edinburgh) looks at anisotropy of the lithosphere below the oceans. John Casey (University of Houston) looks at the role of ophiolites in subduction initiation and arc plate growth. 

This session deals with slabs and subduction zones, chaired by Karin Sigloch (University of Oxford). The first speaker is Mike Kendall (Bristol University) who looks at subduction zone dynamics through the methods of seismic anisotropy. Saskia Goes (Imperial College) looks at how slabs interact with the mantle transition zone, a theme followed up by Teh Ru Alex Song (University College London) who addresses mantle mixing. The distribution of subducted slabs in the deep earth is explored by Douwe van der Meer (Utrecht University).  Discussions look at the interpretation of seismic tomography images, the role of slab weakening in influencing slab geometry and dynamics, the impact of slab geometries on plate reconstructions, and the broader the implications for mantle convection models. 


The theme here is plate boundary processes in a session chaired by Lidia Lonergan (Imperial College). The first talk, by John Dewey (University of Oxford), looks at plate boundary processes in the ancient (Caledonides of Connemara) and modern (California). It is followed by Richard Gordon (Rice University) examining non-rigid plate behavior, Andrew Long develops the case of transform development on the East Africa margin. The general discussion opens up the issue of ophiolite emplacement together with the stress state and earthquakes in the Indian plate.

Slides from Antonio Pedrosa-Soares (Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil) - 
From inland-sea basins to confined orogens: An example from the Neoproterozoic Araçuaí-West Congo orogeny and implications for Plate Tectonics. 



The theme of this set of presentations is continental tectonics.  The session is chaired by Mike Daly (University of Oxford) and kicks off with Peter Molnar (University of Colorado, Boulder) examing the growth of the Tibetan plateau and its impact on climate. There follows talks on intraplate mountain building - the Eurekan orogeny in the Arctic, by Randell Stephenson (University of Aberdeen) and the ranges of central Asia by Dickson Cunningham (Connecticut State University). Chris Hartnady (Umvoto Africa) offers a South African perspective on continental tectonics and Benjamin Bley de Brito Neves (Sao Paulo University) looks at the Brasiliano orogen in South America. The general discussions at the end address Tibetan tectonics and the structure of the mantle below, chiefly in debate between Dan McKenzie and Peter Molnar. 


Opening the third day and chaired by Alan Roberts (Badley Earth Science), this session deals with sedimentary basins and vertical motions at the Earth’s surface. Nick Christie-Blick (Lamont-Doherty) kicks off with an overview of sedimentation and tectonics, the mechanisms of rifting and cyclic sedimentation in basins. Paul Green (Geotrack) uses the erosion record to unravel vertical motions in plate interiors, Teunis Heyn (BP) links the gravitational collapse on the margin of the Gulf of Mexico to mantle dynamics at depth. Max Dobson looks at sedimentation and tectonics in the Aleutian trench. Discussions look at reactivation in continental interiors, the fate of eroded products from denuding uplifted regions, the duration of exhumation “events” from the erosion record, the history of uplifts in North America and the interpretation of the “Haq curve:” not in terms of global sea-level change but regional/local tectonic processes.


This session looks at the role of plate tectonics and earth resources, specifically oil and gas exploration. It is chaired by Jonathan Turner (Radioactive Waste Management) who introduces the opening talk by Tony Doré’s (Statoil) overview of the symbiosis between plate tectonics research and the oil industry emphasizing the impact of georeferenced data on a plate tectonic database. Christian Heine (Shell) looks at the use of plate reconstructions and palaeographic maps in exploration. Adilkhan Baibatsha (Kazakh National Research Technical University) describes how models of plume tectonics assist in understanding basin development in Kazakhstan. Frank Ettensohn (University of Kentucky) looks at North American oil and gas shale basins. There follows a discussion on basin evolution and tectonics, and the tectono-economics of shale-oil and -gas. 


This final session, chaired by Mary Fowler (University of Cambridge) looks at tectonic processes in the early Earth and on extra-terrestrial systems. Catherine Johnson (University of British Columbia) investigates the tectonic nature of planets in the inner solar system and the challenges of data sets and establishing the chronology of deduced processes. David Waltham (Royal Holloway, University of London) looks forward to understanding the tectonics of exoplanets, using remotely sensed spectral proxies. Hugo Moreira (University of Portsmouth) examines the evidence for pulsed magmatism in the late Archaean-early Proterozoic. Chris Hawkesworth (University of Bristol) examines the growth of the continents and the evolution of tectonic processes through deep time on Earth. Discussions lead into evolution, controls and modeling of mantle convection with its coupling to the lithosphere following a question on the role (or necessity) of water in plate tectonics. There is a short discussion on the volcano-tectonic origin of the coronae of Venus. 


James Jackson (University of Cambridge) concludes the meeting, summarizing some aspects, gives a historical insight before opening up a general discussion. This then leads into his personal reflections and introduction to Dan McKenzie (University of Cambridge) - the 70th William Smith lecturer – who speaks on “Downward Bound or seismology and something else”. McKenzie takes questions (on evidence and mechanisms of crustal thickening as a precursor to basin formation; the penetration of subducted slabs into the deep mantle and understanding mantle viscosity, imaging and convection models; driving mechanisms and stresses associated with the India plate; the relationships between the gravity field and topography; and the onset of plate tectonics). A vote of thanks is given by former President of the Geological Society - Bryan Lovell.

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