COLLEGE STATION, May 14, 2013 — The cause of earthquakes is known: tectonic plates scraping and clashing against each other. Scientists seeking a deeper understanding of the underlying causes of that plate movement turn to Texas A&M University professor Wolfgang Bangerth, a widely respected expert in computational mathematics and mathematical modeling.
Simulating the complex processes that unfold across millions of years, hundreds of miles below the Earth's surface, requires not only an understanding of how rocks behave under immense pressure and high temperatures, but also software capable of describing the planet's mantle to computers using mathematical models with billions of variables.
Drawing on his proficiency in computational mathematics and broad understanding of the sciences, Bangerth has written ASPECT (Advanced Solver for Problems in Earth's Convection), code that is used around the world and funded by a major facility in California at the epicenter of geodynamics research.
Bangerth's ASPECT program is based off of deal.II, a modeling software library he developed starting as an undergraduate in Germany in the 1990s that is credited with helping researchers harness the power of supercomputers to provide a more accurate picture of complex problems and processes in many areas, from healthcare to environment to energy.
In 2010, he was contacted by the Computational Infrastructure for Geodynamics, a National Science Foundation-funded facility at the University of California, Davis that supports the computing needs of the world's geodynamics researchers. The facility awarded Bangerth a five-year, $800,000 subcontract to write software that allows researchers to simulate processes occurring within Earth's interior.
Bangerth says his software -- developed along with visiting assistant math professor Timo Heister -- helps researchers who are studying the Earth's mantle, the 1,800-mile-thick rocky shell between the planet's crust and its core.
Unlike the lava that pours out of volcanoes, the material in the mantle is largely solid due to the enormous pressure, but Bangerth notes it can move very slowly -- at speeds up to 2 or 3 inches per year -- like an extremely viscous liquid if observed across long enough time scales. It's the processes within this region of the Earth that lead to tectonic plate movement, which during the course of hundreds of millions of years has led to the formation of the Rocky Mountains, Himalayas and much of the planet's natural beauty. Researchers study the mantle to better understand these processes.
"Scientists want to use computers to simulate the Earth's mantle to find out why continental plates or oceanic plates move," Bangerth said. "If we understand how fast plates move, we can predict how often earthquakes happen and maybe even how strong they'll be."