Theoretical geophysicist Jerry X. Mitrovica, whose studies of the Earth’s structure and evolution have important implications for our understanding of climate and sea-level changes throughout Earth’s history, has been named professor of geophysics in Harvard University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, effective July 1.
Mitrovica, 48, is currently professor of physics at the University of Toronto, where he has been on the faculty since 1993. He has also served since 2004 as director of the Earth Systems Evolution Program at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.
“Professor Mitrovica’s research is at the forefront of current efforts to understand the relationship between sea level and the melting of ice sheets and glaciers,” says Jeremy Bloxham, dean of science in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). “This work is of tremendous importance and interest not only to his colleagues, who study the response of Greenland and Antarctica’s ice sheets to global climate change, but also to society in general.”
Mitrovica is best known for his extensive work tying Earth’s internal dynamics to surface changes associated with plate tectonics, glacial cycles, and climate change. His doctoral research demonstrated that the slow creep of mantle rocks responsible for continental drift and plate tectonics was also the cause of the intermittent flooding and uplift of continents through geological time. The thesis also developed the main theoretical tools now used to compute sea-level changes driven by ice age cycles and modern melting of polar ice sheets and glaciers.
In his subsequent postdoctoral work at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Mitrovica predicted the ongoing deformation of the Earth’s crust associated with the last ice age — a prediction that was verified a decade later by space-based GPS measurements in Fennoscandia.
In recent years, Mitrovica has used geological markers of uplift in areas of Europe and North America that were once covered by ice or water to constrain the fluidity, or viscosity, of the Earth’s rocky interior — a parameter governing the long-term evolution of the Earth. He has also shown that rapid melting of individual ice sheets will lead to distinct geometries of sea-level change, leading the way to modern efforts to “fingerprint” the sources of global sea-level rise.
Mitrovica has also studied the effects of planetary rotation and pole migration on bodies of water and shorelines on Earth and elsewhere. For example, he and colleagues reported in 2007 that mysterious undulating features that bounded a massive plain within Mars’ northern hemisphere were actually the shorelines of large, ancient oceans: The shorelines had been deformed by movement of Mars’ spin axis, and thus its poles, by nearly 3,000 kilometers sometime within the past 2 billion to 3 billion years.
Mitrovica holds bachelor’s (1983), master’s (1985), and doctoral (1991) degrees from the University of Toronto. From 1991 to 1993 he was a postdoctoral visiting scientist and then a visiting scholar at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He has also served as a visiting scholar or professor in Harvard’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and at the University of Milan, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of California, Berkeley.
Mitrovica was named a fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 2005 and a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 2007. In 2000 he received the Rutherford Memorial Medal (Physics) from the Royal Society of Canada, and in 2006 he received the European Geosciences Union’s Augustus Love Medal. He has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Geophysical Research and G3.