The end of the Atlantic

Joao Duarte – Geologist

Having attended a workshop to help scientists better engage with the media, geophysicist Joao Duarte took away one vital piece of advice: provide the journalist with a tantalising one-liner about your work. Offer more complex information and you’ll lose their interest, he was told.

Then, for one mad month last year, Joao’s life spun out of control. And it was largely his own making. He looks back with a combination of embarrassment and wonder at the impact of a killer line he came up with about his work. He predicted that “the Atlantic ocean would close-up”, reversing the continental drift and reuniting the Americas and Europe.

He scrolls through his website where more than 100 news stories are listed – from popular science magazines and journals to communist newspapers, CNN and the Daily Mail in the UK. National Geographic listed the story as its second biggest headline on one day.

Several years ago, during his PhD in his homeland of Lisbon in Portugal, Joao touched on the impact of seismic activity and underwater topography in the waters off the coast. It wasn’t until he arrived at Monash that he managed to “join the dots” positioned by international geologists over 20 years. The local team mapped the ocean floor and found it was beginning to fracture, indicating tectonic activity around the apparently passive South West Iberia plate margin. They had detected the very beginnings of an active margin, an embryonic subduction zone.

He and his colleagues came up with a theory that tectonic forces are setting our continents on a collision course. The result? The end of the Atlantic. The sea floor is destined to deepen and deepen as new edges are formed and forced under a moving Eurasian plate near the coast of Portugal. The media went mad.

“I was doing four or five interviews a day. I don’t ever want to do that again,” Joao says. “Even my family was sick of hearing about it.”

The process of continental spreading and reassembly is slow. Joao estimates it’ll be 220 million years before Europe and the Americas reunite. They will move towards each other at about the pace our fingernails grow.

Joao has been at Monash for three years, building physical and numerical models to help test and quantify the forces of nature.

“Coming to Monash is quite amazing. I visited Sandy Cruden (Head of the School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment) when he was still in Toronto and was following the work of Wouter Schellart (also from the School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment) so I knew it was an experience I had to take – to travel right across the globe from my home in Portugal.”

“I work with geodynamicists, plate tectonic experts and marine geologists.” He and his colleagues take to the high seas with an underwater sonar device to map the ocean floor, an adventure he believes he was destined to take on.

“My father read me a lot of history when I was young and I grew up thinking about Homer’s Odysseus going out in a boat to discover the world. He met gods and monsters…at the same time, the heroes were driven to improve themselves. They were motivated by huge frustrations. I think we all have a need to balance our lives, seeking dull routine and adventure.”

Life continues to throw-up new challenges, satisfying his need for adventure. The BBC is currently filming a program on the Atlantic and plans to finish the series with Joao’s discoveries.

Image Credit: NOAA/NGDC

Joao estimates it’ll be 220 million years before Europe and the Americas reunite. They are moving towards each other at about the pace our fingernails grow.