Date of Award

Winter 2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Committee Director

Declan De Paor

Committee Director

Jennifer Georgen

Committee Member

Leposava Vuskovic

Committee Member

Alexander L. Godunov

Committee Member

Carol Simpson


This dissertation presents new methods of visualizing, teaching, assessing, modeling, and understanding tectonics on Earth and other celestial bodies. Tectonics is the study of planetary lithospheres and includes impact, plate, plume, cryo- and gravitational mechanisms. This dissertation is concerned with plate tectonics and plate/mantle plume interactions. Plate tectonics describes the mainly horizontal motion of lithospheric plates over the asthenosphere. Lithosphere is created at ridges and consumed at subduction zones. In addition to the plate tectonic system, mantle plumes also contribute to mass motions in the subsurface Earth. Both plate tectonics and plume upwelling processes help shape the present form of the planetary surface, including long volcanic island chains, deep ocean basins, and plate boundary triple junctions. Better understanding of these processes by visualization and numerical modeling is one of the primary goals of this study.

In the geospatial analysis lab at ODU, our research methodology starts with the creation of visualizations for teaching. These include Google Earth-based virtual field explorations enhanced with digitized specimens and emergent geological and geophysical cross sections. We test these in classes with IRB compliance and sometimes this leads to the discovery of tectonic research questions which we then explore. Settings studied in this investigation are Tonga Trench in the western Pacific Ocean, Artemis on Venus, the Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain, and the Azores triple junction. Some of these cases pose specific geophysical problems that were selected for further study.

The Tonga Trench is a subduction zone that includes trench rollback and opening of a marginal basin—the Lau Basin. The rollback process is difficult to imagine, and therefore we created a set of instructional resources using COLLADA models and the Google Earth Application Programming Interface (API). Animated models for the assessments tests and exploration of different initiations of the subduction process led to a new alternative hypothesis for rollback.

Virtual field explorations required the development of new interface features for the Google Earth API. All these instructional materials were combined into modular multi-user virtual field trip experiences and were subject to IRB-compliant evaluation of learning outcomes. Animated COLLADA models for the Hawaii Islands and Emperor Seamounts helped explain the origin and time progression of the island chain. From seismic data, a three-dimensional reconstruction of the Hawaiian mantle plume was created raising the question of the horizontal advection of the plume conduit in the mantle and its correlation with the change in trend of the islands. The Hawaiian–Emperor chain on Earth is spread out as the Pacific plate is moving over the Hawaiian mantle plume. On Venus, however, the Artemis structure was able to grow to super-plume size due to the absence of plate motion. For Venus, visualization was done on a much larger scale, including cross sections of the whole plate showing large plume structures, and Magellan SARS imagery of surface features.

In the Azores triple junction, dispersion of plume material is influenced by plate boundary geometry, creating anomalies in seafloor geophysical data for several hundred kilometers away from the plume center. To explore the interaction between a mantle plume and a plate boundary triple junction, a series of three dimensional finite element numerical models was calculated. A parameter space investigation changed the location of the plume conduit and its volume flux, as well as the treatment of viscosity. Flow patterns, dynamical topography, relative crustal thickness variations and waist width scaling relationships resulting from these calculations give valuable insight into the importance of triple junction configuration in the dispersion of plume material.


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