Director’s preface


This report summarises the activities and achievements of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Core to Crust Fluid Systems (CCFS) in 2020 (formally commenced mid 2011). Activities include research, technology development, stakeholder engagement, international links and research training. It also provides the research plans for 2021.

The overarching goal of CCFS is to understand Earth’s internal dynamics, evolution and fluid cycles from core to crust. CCFS multiplies the capabilities of three national centres of research excellence in Earth and Planetary Sciences: GEMOC from Macquarie University (Administering Institution), Curtin University (TiGeR) and CET at the University of Western Australia (Collaborating Institutions). The Geological Survey of Western Australia is a Partner Institution and researchers from Monash University, the University of Melbourne and the University of New South Wales are formally affiliated.

The 7-year allocated Centre funding from the ARC ceased at the end of 2018, but ARC formally granted continuation of the status of CCFS as an ARC Centre of Excellence for three years, contingent on demonstration of a relevant, funded continuing research program and retention of key researchers. As highlighted in the 2018 CCFS Report, eight of the Future Fellows awarded in CCFS transitioned to continuing academic positions and the two Laureate Fellowships (awarded 2015 and 2018) across two nodes of CCFS, increasing the critical research mass within areas fundamental to understanding “Core to Crust Fluid System”. These prestigious Fellowships with associated generous grants thus help to underpin funding, expertise and research personnel to continue the frontline research characteristic of CCFS aimed at better defining Earth’s 4D evolution and its composition and architecture today - the Earth framework that enables our civilisation to inhabit this amazing planet.

How has CCFS made a difference?

Selected examples are listed below.

Pioneering Integrative approach to understanding Earth across deep time and space (4D)

The conceptual framework of integrating geochemical, geophysical, geological, tectonic and geodynamic datasets in a GPS environment has revolutionised our holistic understanding of the inaccessible deep Earth. It has lead to the predictive modelling of the location of large economic deposits and enhanced understanding of how the Earth works and has evolved. CCFS advances in these geoscience disciplines seamlessly incorporate Bayesian mathematical approaches and innovative imaging techniques to probe planetary, global terrain and nanoscales advancing geoscience capabilities.

Training a new generation and thus spreading new knowledge across critical areas in society

CCFS has so far graduated 126 PhD students and 50 early-career researchers have participated in CCFS. 42 PhD students undertook research aligned with CCFS in 2020. In addition, over 30 international PhD students and more early-career researchers have had extended periods of research in CCFS on externally-funded scholarships, resulting in significant research outputs with CCFS bylines (see CCFS publications). CCFS postgraduates are producing world-class research with authorship of 26 publications (21 first-authored) in high-impact journals in 2020 and 15 presentations at peak international workshops and conferences (most by virtual mechanisms due to travel restrictions under COVID-19). This cohort forms the future generation of frontline researchers and professionals with comprehensive experience in solving difficult problems with tantalisingly incomplete datasets, into a world future with increasingly complex problems requiring clever integrative approaches. We are particularly proud that CCFS-aligned early-career researchers have populated a broad cross-section of professions including industry, government and commercial environmental agencies, stock exchange advising, state and national geological surveys, commercial geochemical laboratories (e.g., Rio Tinto has employed 8 former CCFS/GEMOC geochemists) as well as fulfilling valuable high positions in academia (research and teaching). This CCFS diaspora is thus bringing critical knowledge and new understanding of Earth’s behaviour to many areas of society at a serious tipping point in managing climate change and in providing critical minerals for a sustainable national (and global) future.

Outstanding Fundamental Research

CCFS produced 153 publications in 2020 in both high-impact journals and books, and in journals targeted for specific audiences Clarivate/Thomson Reuters have recognised CCFS’ frontline research through citation-, innovation- and highly-cited awards to CCFS researchers, in addition to the Google Australian Researcher of the Year award, and recognition of a CCFS Chief Investigator as one of the “World’s Most Influential Minds” across several years. Numerous awards of ‘annual best paper’ in prestigious journals, a constant flow of keynote presentations and awards of best posters and talks at peak and influential conferences and international workshops, by senior, early-career and postgraduate CCFS researchers, all provide evidence of peer recognition internationally. Frontline advances in geophysics were enabled because of the funding and timeframe provided by the Centre funding including: further development of ambient-noise adjoint-tomography; LitMod’s 3D multi-observable probabilistic inversion for the compositional and thermal structure of the lithosphere and upper mantle; new inversion techniques to understand earthquake generation in Western Australia; revolutionary multiphase multicomponent reactive transport modelling of disequilibrium melt-rock processes and geochemical geodynamics (e.g., CCFS publication #1510). All of these seminal contributions embed geochemical, tectonic, geological and/or advanced imaging and modelling components, emphasising integration across diverse datasets and methodologies. Another example (among the many in CCFS) of research that could not have been achieved without the funding, scale and focus of a Centre of Excellence is the ongoing “Tibet Project” that involves all nodes, more than 30 CCFS researchers from Chief Investigators to PhD students and international collaborators, and three Flagship Programs. This program has generated four IGCP (International Geological Correlation Project) Programs. Outcomes so far include breakthroughs in understanding in detail: the tectonic history of the Himalayas from palaeomagnetic evidence; the sources and mechanisms for mineralisation (e.g. copper, gold, chromite and critical minerals ) in different collision zone scenarios, not only in Tibet but along the entire Tethyan Belt and analogue tectonic environments; identifying domains of highly-reduced mantle environments; demonstrating that some collision zone domains are excavated from Earth’s transition zone 450 km beneath the surface, and recognising the analogue relevance for mineral exploration in the Australian Tasmanides.

International Collaborations

Global alliances with leading international geoscience groups have been forged through formal collaborative partnerships, programs and exchanges across multiple institutions (including China, Spain, France, Canada, Norway, Germany, South Africa, Taiwan, India, USA). These collaborations leverage the Centre funding, expertise and researcher resources and commonly include cotutelle PhD programs which provide the basis for a new generation of productive global research alliances. The collaborations are active and productive with ongoing mutual interaction – mostly through digital platforms in 2020, including international workshops and more individual research discussions and planning.

Technology Development and New Directions

The Technology Development section of this Report documents the ongoing frontline developments related to in situ geochemical analysis and imaging technologies using the outstanding array of advanced instrumentation accessible across CCFS nodes. Of increasing value is the co-registration of data across all types of digital information so that overlays of multiple datasets provide new insights into the distribution of physical properties, specific elements and chemical domains in the Earth (in many regions to depths of ~400 km) and relationships to the physical properties detected in seismic, magnetotelluric, gravity and magnetic surveys. Significant novel geochemical instrumental methodologies have resulted in step-changes for characterising element distributions and concentrations at increasing resolution and smaller spatial scales. Outstanding advances (at MQGA) include: delivery of first “routine” methodology for the in situ analysis of Rb-Sr isotopic data (and pushing age determinations to younger than 20 Ma), a new benchmark in time- and cost-effective geochronology; in situ sulfur isotope analysis in sulfides using tandem LA-ICP-MS and in situ zirconium isotopes (See Technology Development for a comprehensive list.) CCFS has been a very active participant in the nascent AuScope Australian Geochemistry Network (AGN: AGN is implementing a national geoscience database, capturing legacy and real-time geochemical datasets aligned with FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable) principles. This will enable the co-registration of multiple digital datasets (e.g., geophysical, geochemical, physical state and property, time) in multidimensional space for unprecedented imaging of Earth characteristics. One of the most exciting achievements encapsulates the intrinsic goals of CCFS. A paper just submitted is a world-first demonstration that robust first-principle modelling using multiple high-resolution geophysical datasets from both land and satellite surveys can image nuanced physical and chemical differences vertically and horizontally in the lithosphere. This modelling has not only replicated detailed high-resolution lithospheric sections constructed using the traditional approach based on geochemical data from the virtual drill-holes provided by mantle-derived xenoliths; it bridges the regions in between and is thus validated for regions lacking groundtruthing from xenolith data. This methodology can be employed wherever appropriate high-resolution geophysical datasets are available or can be acquired – the location is not restricted by the spatial occurrence of xenolith-bearing volcanics: therefore this joint inversion approach delivers a validated shortcut and greater spatial coverage than the more time-intensive xenolith methodology (months versus years).

CCFS Equity and Diversity

Since CCFS commenced, the gender balance in PhD students has been approximately equal, with a moderately higher cohort of women; the ECR cohort has had slightly fewer women than men. The Macquarie CCFS academic staff have had approximately even women/men ratios throughout, underpinned by CCFS family-friendly policies including consideration of meeting times to accommodate those with school and pre-school children, and provision of child care during CCFS meetings. Diversity has always been exceptionally high in CCFS with participants (junior and senior) from over 25 countries. I have had a significant role in shaping national STEM policies for women, as Chair of the Australian Academy of Science Equity and Diversity Reference Group, and participated in the preparation and launch of the STEM Decadal Plan in 2019 for Minister Karen Andrews ( Implementation of the plan so far includes a dedicated webpage on STEM Women, capturing and sharing national sector progress and gender equity activity.

Industry and end-user engagement

Industry interaction has been an integral component of CCFS. Collaborative projects with industry input (including guidance from CCFS Board members) have shaped the relevance of the fundamental research directions, and enabled continuation of relevant CCFS activities. These include the ongoing work in CET (UWA) in training courses and in research responses relevant to industry needs. Geophysical research has attracted significant industry and end-user collaborations. One example is the large-scale fully funded collaboration with IGG CAS to undertake a 900-km-long dense (station spacing of 10-15 km) seismic profile across Western Australia from Port Hedland to the southwestern border of Kimberly Craton, using 60 broadband seismic stations from IGG CAS, and 20 from ANSIR (ongoing in 2020 and projected for funding in 2021). Other funded examples (detailed in the Industry interaction section) include: a de Beers-resourced “Multiobservable Thermochemical Tomography of Central and South Africa”; “Developing thermochemical models of Australia’s lithosphere” with Geoscience Australia; and a Linkage Project “Illuminating AusLAMP", targeted at joint interpretation of magnetotelluric and seismic datasets. Ongoing collaboration with MTI (Mineral Targeting International) is not only focussing on high-resolution interpretation of seismic tomography to reveal paleotectonics; the principal, Dr Graham Begg, is also providing invaluable mentoring especially for early-career researchers with ambitions to work in the exploration industry.

Shaping International and National Science policy

CCFS researchers are now sought as thought-leaders globally for research related to Earth’s lithosphere and the integrated use of large datasets across geochemistry, geology and geophysics. CCFS researchers nationally provide advice to local, state and federal departments and members of parliaments, and through Australian Academy formal reports and reviews to the Chief Scientist and the Australian government on a wide range of geoscience-related issues. CCFS has indeed fulfilled its Vision of “Delivering the fundamental science needed to sustain Australia’s resource base” and its new generation of researchers are a vital part of the CCFS legacy and continuation.

In the future?

2020 was one of the most difficult years for Australian universities in many decades (ever?) and all are making hard choices that may topple Australia’s position as one of the most outstanding global performers in research in many fields (including geoscience) on a per capita basis. CCFS may not be immune from these effects and as Macquarie faces 2021, a foreshadowed “change process” may see the demise of its geoscience undergraduate teaching and dramatic curtailment of its research capability, determined on the basis of low undergraduate student numbers and hence income rather than performance. As rumours are circulating, dozens of CCFS alumni across the world have sent unforgettable emails about their experiences in CFFS and its antecedents (including GEMOC) all expressing in some way that “your legacy will never be lost as you did not only construct a building or a lab, but a worldwide family of top-performing scientists who respect each other, which is even more difficult ….”. It has been deeply rewarding and the highest privilege to have a part in shaping and enriching the scientific futures of so many talented, dedicated and outstanding people, now members of the world geoscience community. I have been very touched by all of these messages and to see such evidence of the strength of the global CCFS network. So, as always, for the future, we must remember to carpe diem at every opportunity! Professor S.Y. O’Reilly


Professor S.Y. O’Reilly