Mathematical Geoscience Seminar

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Past events in this series
25 January 2019
Chris Farmer

Many scientists, and in particular mathematicians, report difficulty in understanding thermodynamics. So why is thermodynamics so difficult? To attempt an answer, we begin by looking at the components in an exposition of a scientific theory. These include a mathematical core, a motivation for the choice of variables and equations, some historical remarks, some examples and a discussion of how variables, parameters, and functions (such as equations of state) can be inferred from experiments. There are other components too, such as an account of how a theory relates to other theories in the subject.


It will be suggested that theories of thermodynamics are hard to understand because (i) many expositions appear to argue from the particular to the general (ii) there are several different thermodynamic theories that have no obvious logical or mathematical equivalence (iii) each theory really is subtle and requires intense study (iv) in most expositions different theories are mixed up, and the different components of a scientific exposition are also mixed up. So, by presenting one theory at a time, and by making clear which component is being discussed, we might reduce the difficulty in understanding any individual thermodynamic theory. The key is perhaps separation of the mathematical core from the physical motivation. It is also useful to realise that a motivation is not generally the same as a proof, and that no theory is actually true.


By way of illustration we will attempt expositions of two of the simplest thermodynamic theories – reversible and then irreversible thermodynamics of homogeneous materials – where the mathematical core and the motivation are discussed separately. In conclusion we’ll relate these two simple theories to other, foundational and generalised, thermodynamic theories.

  • Mathematical Geoscience Seminar
8 February 2019

Ice streams are fast flowing regions of ice that generally slide over a layer of unconsolidated, water-saturated subglacial sediment known as till.  A striking feature that has been observed geophysically is that subglacial till has been found to accumulate distinctively into sedimentary wedges at the grounding zones (regions where ice sheets begin to detach from the bedrock to form freely floating ice shelves) of both past and present-day ice sheets. These grounding-zone wedges have important implications for ice-sheet stability against grounding zone retreat in response to rising sea levels, and their origins have remained a long-standing question. Using a combination of mathematical modelling, a series of laboratory experiments, field data and numerical simulations, we develop a fluid-mechanical model that explains the mechanism of the formation of these sedimentary wedges in terms of the loading and unloading of deformable till in three dynamical regimes. We also undertake a series of analogue laboratory experiments, which reveal that a similar wedge of underlying fluid accumulates spontaneously in experimental grounding zones, we formulate local conditions relating wedge slopes in each of the scenarios and compare them to available geophysical radargram data at the well lubricated, fast-flowing Whillans Ice Stream.

  • Mathematical Geoscience Seminar
22 February 2019

Partially molten materials resist shearing and compaction. This resistance

is described by a fourth-rank effective viscosity tensor. When the tensor

is isotropic, two scalars determine the resistance: an effective shear and

an effective bulk viscosity. In this seminar, calculations are presented of

the effective viscosity tensor during diffusion creep for a 3D tessellation of

tetrakaidecahedrons (truncated octahedrons). The geometry of the melt is

determined by assuming textural equilibrium.  Two parameters

control the effect of melt on the viscosity tensor: the porosity and the

dihedral angle. Calculations for both Nabarro-Herring (volume diffusion)

and Coble (surface diffusion) creep are presented. For Nabarro-Herring

creep the bulk viscosity becomes singular as the porosity vanishes. This

singularity is logarithmic, a weaker singularity than typically assumed in

geodynamic models. The presence of a small amount of melt (0.1% porosity)

causes the effective shear viscosity to approximately halve. For Coble creep,

previous modelling work has argued that a very small amount of melt may

lead to a substantial, factor of 5, drop in the shear viscosity. Here, a

much smaller, factor of 1.4, drop is obtained.

  • Mathematical Geoscience Seminar
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