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Last updated on April 23, 2014 at 1:22 EDT

Understanding Europe’s Topography

November 23, 2008

Europe’s shape is in a constant change: The Mediterranean basin is shrinking, the Alps are rising and pushing North, and Scandinavia is still rebounding after having been crushed by the weight of a thick and huge ice sheet in the ice ages. But what did Europe look like in the past, what are the processes controlling all these changes and what has the future in store for us? And how does the topography influence the climate of Europe on geological time scales?

The EUROCORES programme TOPO-EUROPE (4-D Topography Evolution in Europe: Uplift, Subsidence and Sea level Change) sets out to answer these questions and many more. So far the largest programme of the European Collaborative Research Scheme (EUROCORES) with 10 Collaborative Research Projects (CRPs) involving 16 National Funding Organisations and an overall budget of approximately 15 million Euros, TOPO-EUROPE is a concerted action to observe and better understand the evolution of the continent in both space and time. The programme kicked off in El Escorial near Madrid in October 2008 during the fourth TOPO-EUROPE International Workshop.

The TOPO-EUROPE programme is part of a European-wide network of the same name. The network was born in the International Lithosphere Programme (ILP) and developed as a regional research coordinating committee for Europe. “EUROCORES TOPO-EUROPE provides an important stimulus for realising the ambitions of the TOPO-EUROPE initiative at large” said Professor Sierd Cloetingh of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, President of the ILP and initiator of both the network and the programme. “The idea is to bring different segments of the European community together from the fields of deep Earth and surface processes and for exactly that EUROCORES is a good instrument” continued Cloetingh. TOPO-EUROPE is also the natural successor of EuroMARGINS, a completed EUROCORES programme on continental margins.

A selection of Europe’s manifold natural laboratories is under investigation, ranging from orogens like the Pyrenees and the Alps via the Anatolian Plateau to the Scandinavian upland and the Mediterranean. The science in TOPO-EUROPE covers a wide spectrum of topics: inter alia, Earth crust and mantle dynamics, source-to-sink relationships and sediment dynamics, plateau formation and plate-reorganisation.

TOPO-EUROPE is highly interdisciplinary, pooling not only solid Earth experts but also coupling them with climate scientists. One of the programme’s Collaborative Research Projects called TOPO-ALPS, for example, attempts to unravel the topographic history of the Alps and its tectonic and climatic drivers. “One of the foci in the current TOPO-EUROPE is to find ways to bring climate in, to determine what role this plays in tectonic and geomorphic problems. This is a frontier of science, so I expect to see more and more of this type of project in the future” explained Professor Sean Willet, the project leader of TOPO-ALPS and a geologist at ETH Zurich, Switzerland.

Another CRP called RESEL-GRACE looks into refining European sea level estimations by combining altimetry, tide gauges and other data with improved glacial isostatic adjustment modelling and tailored regional gravity field models that reflect the redistribution of water masses. “Most important now is to study the impacts of sea level rise and here hardly anything has been done” said Anny Cazenave of Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) in Toulouse, France. “The rise, the sedimentology, the tectonics, ocean dynamics and climate need to be combined to develop models for the impacts” continued Cazenave, who is also a lead author of the Nobel prize-winning fourth IPCC report. In RESEL-GRACE, she will identify the most vulnerable ecosystems and economies such as the Nile Delta or the Adriatic and assess the impacts of sea-level rise and concomitant risk of flooding case by case.

There are further applied aspects of the research undertaken in TOPO-EUROPE, which renders the results enormously interesting for the geological surveys of Europe. “A number of issues like geothermal energy, seismic hazards and slope instabilities require a know-how that goes beyond the national borders of Europe” said Cloetingh. New concepts are being developed but need to be validated at the same time with an array of different types of data in order to reach a better geo-prediction that could eventually save lives and protect property.

TOPO-EUROPE creates also new research opportunities by opening up 50 to 60 positions for young researchers. “If you don’t offer opportunities, young people will not go into our field as they will have the impression that everything has been solved, that the field is classical” explained Cloetingh. With programmes like TOPO-EUROPE and by further modernising the science, a pool of researchers is created that is able to fill up the positions to become available in the years to come with the generation change. The interest in the Earth sciences is constantly increasing and statistics in terms of student, PhD and post-doc populations are promising. Even the proportion of women has reached 50 percent among students, which is a great success in a formerly extremely male-dominated discipline.

Next to the collaborations within the EUROCORES programme, a plentitude of synergies is envisaged since the programme is not a stand-alone. The TOPO-IBERIA Research Initiative and the EU EPOS-ESFRI programme will be important partners, and TOPO-EUROPE hopes to team up with the TOPO- Central Asia programme. The TOPO-EUROPE network is part of the ILP research agenda and hence paving the way for a global partnership in the Earth sciences.

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