Young researcher studying Earth sciences wins major fellowship

Posted on Monday, February 23, 2015

University of Ottawa professor and geophysicist Pascal Audet has joined the ranks of elite young researchers selected as Sloan Research Fellows. Given annually, the fellowships go to early career scientists and scholars whose achievements identify them as rising stars and influential leaders. They are one of the oldest awards conferred by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

"This is an exciting time to be studying the Earth and how it deforms, using extremely accurate and precise instruments,” said Audet. “I am deeply honoured to receive this award. I have been extremely fortunate to be surrounded by exceptional mentors, colleagues and students who have played a large part in my success.”

“This fellowship is a crucial building block for young researchers like Pascal, who are pushing the boundaries of what's known,” said Mona Nemer, vice-president, research. “It also demonstrates the University's commitment to recruiting the best and brightest young minds to provide superb training opportunities to the next generation of researchers.”

The fellowship will allow Audet, an expert in earthquake seismology recruited by the Department of Earth Sciences in 2011, to use Global Positioning System (GPS) data coupled with gravity variations obtained from the GRACE (Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment) satellite to determine the extent to which large-scale human activity affects the deformation of the earth's underlying crust and evaluate its impact on natural hazards.

“The vast amount of data collected, shared and maintained by the scientific community contains treasures of information that can change our understanding of the Earth system, if you can just figure out where to look. I'm just having fun playing with this incredible dataset and using it to understand how our planet is constantly changing. The Sloan Fellowship will provide the flexibility to extend my playground,” said Audet.

Using the oilsands of Western Canada as a case study, Audet will investigate the impact of oil production, including how the mining and transformation of the rich bitumen to extract the oil creates vast open pit mines. According to Audet, the amount of pressure relieved from the Earth's surface on a daily basis around the oilsands may be enough to result in the deformation of the crust, as the Earth tries to readjust to the removal of mass. These readjustments may affect the stability of surrounding faults and change the seismic hazards in the area in the long term.

Recently, Audet's pioneering technique played an important role in an international study published in Nature that shows the direct link between human-induced groundwater depletion and the uplift of California's Sierra Nevada and Coast Ranges, which may increase the number of small earthquakes on the adjacent San Andreas Fault.

The Sloan fellowships are awarded in eight scientific fields. Winners are selected in close cooperation with the scientific community. To qualify, candidates must be nominated by their fellow scientists and then selected by an independent panel of senior scholars. Fellows receive $50,000 to be used to further their research.

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