Skip to main content

Sculpting the Earth’s topography: insights from modelling deep–surface processes

Final Report Summary - TOPOMOD (Sculpting the Earth’s topography: insights from modelling deep–surface processes)

TOPOMOD is an EC FP7-funded Marie Curie Initial Training Network coordinated by Prof. Claudio Faccenna from University “Roma TRE”, Italy. It is a coherent training and career development platform designed for a team of early-stage and experienced researchers to investigate and model the origin and evolution of topography of the continents over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. The multi-disciplinary approach combines geophysics, geochemistry, tectonics and structural geology with advanced geodynamic modelling. TOPOMOD involves 7 European research teams internationally recognized for their excellence in complementary fields of Earth Sciences (the universities of Roma TRE-ITA, Utrecht-NL, Rennes I-FRA and Durham-UK with ETH Zurich-CH, GFZ-GER, CTJA-CSIC-SPA) to which are associated 5 external research partners (the universities of Parma-ITA, Montpellier 2-FRA, Mainz-GER, Geneva-CH with CNR Firenze-I) 3 high-technology enterprises (Malvern-UK, TNO-NL, G.O. Logical Consulting-FRA) and a large multinational oil/gas company (ENI-ITA). TOPOMOD objectives were to provide to 14 early-stage researchers, which are engaged in PhD programs in partner institutions, and 2 junior post-doc fellows a unique experience-based training through 15 cross-disciplinary research projects combining case studies in target areas with state-of-the-art concepts and leading-edge research techniques in structural geology, geomorphology, seismology, geochemistry, InSAR, laboratory and numerical modelling. These multidisciplinary projects aimed to answer a key question in Earth Sciences: What does sculpt the topography of continents? To answer this question, TOPOMOD investigated the interaction between surface dynamics, crustal deformation and lithospheric/mantle processes. The study of the mechanisms controlling the Earth’s topography is critical in governing vital surface processes – landslides, rock fall, floods, earthquakes and volcanic unrest-and related geohazard, as well as long term phenomena such as climate changes, global geochemical cycles and biodiversity evolution. Hence, the understanding of mechanisms controlling the way Earth surface is sculptured and evolves is mandatory and gives a rare occasion to gather social and Geosciences related interests, forwarding solid Earth Sciences in response to the needs of society.
TOPOMOD started as planned on January 1st 2011. Web-based presentation of the project and publicity of the training positions were available from the same time.The kick-off meeting - partecipated by all the PIs and the majority of senior researchers - took place in February 2011 in Rome, Italy.
Within the first year the recruiting of 13 high qualified ESR and 2 ER was completed. Another ESR was recruited in July 2013. Of the 16 fellows, 11 hold European Nationalities (Italian, French, Greek, Finnish, Hungarian), 1 Canadian, 1 Indian, 1 Iranian, 1 Pakistani, and 1 Chinese.
In 2012, 3 short courses (From earthquakes to mountains: Short to long term lithosphere dynamics - Potsdam; The deep contribution to formation of ranges, basins and landscape evolution - Barcelona; Laboratory modeling of geodynamic processes - Rome), 1 summer school (Lithosphere deformation: theory, practice and field work - Thassos, June 2012) and 1 workshop (ENI, Milan - November 2012) took place. An assessment session took place after the TOPOMOD summer school in Thassos (Greece, June 2012); all the students were evaluated eligible to continue their research work in the project.
The mid-term review meeting took place in Rome, Italy on 7-8 November 2012. The PO expressed a very positive impressions on the robustness of TOPOMOD in terms of organization, scientific results, networking.
In 2013, 3 short courses (Numerical Modelling and Analysis of Surface Processes, Mainz; Interplay of Tectonic and Surface Processes - Central Greece; Assynt Field Trip - Scotland); and in 2014 two webinars organized by industrial partners (Rheology - Granulometry - Malvern).
The 1st TOPOMOD WORKSHOP took place in Wien (Austria) on April, 4th 2011, during the EGU meeting 2011, attended by most of the senior TOPOMOD researchers;
The 2nd TOPOMOD WORKSHOP took place in Thassos (18-23 june 2012)
The 3rd TOPOMOD WORKSHOP took place in Wien (Austria) on April, 8th 2013, during the
EGU meeting 2013, and was attended by most of the TOPOMOD scientists and fellows;
The Final meeting took place in Barcelona (17 September 2014), during the 10th Topo-Europe workshop. This gave further opportunity of further interactions between TOPOMOD fellows/senior scientists with the earth science community working on topography.

All the ESR were enrolled in a PhD. At the time of the submission of this report 4 have already obtained their PhD degree while 8 other defences are programmed within october, 2015.
5 of the TOPOMOD fellows (Antoine Rozel, Melodie Philippons, Mehdi Nikkhoo, Lars Kaislaniemi) have already found a post-doc position.

Outstanding results of these research works include:
- New physical and analytical expressions predicting total landslide volume and area produced by earthquakes.
- Definition of the controlling factors for erosion rates in the sub-Andes of Bolivia.
- Analogue models recognizing that the accretionary wedge evolution is a competition between minimum work and critical taper.
- Calibration of a new analogue material – the Carbopol – which has a great potential for mimicking the non-Newtonian behavior of rocks.
- New insights on the morphotectonic response to enucleation and propagation of intraplate faulting.
- Revised spatio-temporal tectonic/kinematic model of Central Iran in the aftermath of the Arabia-Eurasia collision history.
- New insights on the effects of surface processes on fold dynamics in fold and thrust belt settings.
- Detailed structural and kinematic map and model of the Tertiary evolution of the North Aegean (Greece).
- Detailed geomorphological and structural maps of the Southern Peninsular India.
- Development of a new analytic artefact-free solution for modelling triangular dislocations (TDs).
- Development of a new boundary element method (BEM) code in MATLAB to study the long and short term topographic effects on the observed surface deformation as well as the development of volcanic and tectonic sources of deformation.
- Innovative picture of the Western Betics taking into account lithospheric processes compatible with a slab-rollback model.
- Setup of novel analogue models to investigate the parameter space affecting the deformation pattern and related topography in intra-plate compressional settings.
- Definition of structure and physical properties of both crust and upper mantle and their structural relationships in Central-Southern Iberia (Spain).
- Novel geodynamic-petrological numerical models to study the role of sub-lithospheric small scale convection for the generation of continental collision magmatism.
- Insights on the extent of mantle melting and the effect of varying water contents of the mantle on melting in a post-collisional setting and in the presence of lithosphere thickness gradient induced edge-driven convection.
- New crustal and lithospheric maps showing the thickness variation across the African continent.
- The role of the composition-dependent rheology and buoyancy in the stability and longevity of cratonic root has been determined.
- New insights on the thermo-chemical erosion of subcontinental lithosphere by plume driven mantle flow.
- Development of a new analogue approach giving the possibility to successfully link mantle and surface processes within a single model
- New insights on dynamic topography using numerical results (e.g. the dynamic topography is affected by the rheology, the uplift rate should be greatly affected by the magnitude of the viscosity of the upper mantle, the topography obtained above an anomaly can depend on the viscosity of the lithosphere).
- First kinematic map of southern Ethiopia.
- Insights on the kinematics of oblique fault during extension from analogue modeling.
- Insights on the relationship between volcanism and tectonic during the early stages of rifting.
These results have been presented in national and international thematic conferences and published on peer-reviewed journals.

These results have been already presented in national and international conferences in Earth Sciences.

All the scientific and organizing details about the projects are continuously updated on the TOPOMOD website:
The TOPOMOD coordination team can be contacted at