VIRGO - A Virtual Geological Observatory

Australian Laureate Fellow Prof. Dietmar Müller and the Earthbyte Group are embarking on an ambitious new research program: building a Virtual Geological Observatory (VIRGO).

VIRGO is a knowledge-rich, 4-dimensional eScience environment that is compatible with international geodata standards. Knowledge about geological features and processes in the Earth’s crust and mantle will be generated by building a 4D model of the dynamic Earth.

VIRGO is firmly connected to international efforts for the construction of virtual observatories that enable skilled and unskilled observers to explore our world in entirely new ways. Through electronic interfaces with VIRGO, it will be possible to analyse observations from many different areas of the Earth Sciences - energy, minerals, natural and environmental hazards - in deep space-time.

This new geological observatory will allow users to categorize, cluster, and extract features from large data sets using 'visual knowledge discovery': large-scale data analysis coupled with rich interactive visualisation, enabling users to quickly digest data and build understanding in ways hitherto impossible. VIRGO will provide specific 'knowledge-exploration' pathways for policy and decision makers, educators and students, while at the same time delivering useful geoscience knowledge to users across the spectrum of expertise.

VIRGO is a large collaborative project, firmly embedded in the AuScope Data Grid and Simulation and Modelling effort to build a cutting-edge e-research infrastructure for the geosciences.

VIRGO will drive novel and creative world-class research to underpin innovations towards a sustainable supply of energy and deep Earth resources.

For more information:

Prof Dietmar Muller demonstrates VIRGO on a touchscreen

EarthByte Group

EarthByte is an e-research group focused on linking observations to kinematic and dynamic models. Research interests include: Plate Kinematics, Structural Geology, Archaean Geodynamics, Palaeo-climate modelling, Exploration Geodynamics and GeoInformatics.

The EarthByte research group collaborates with many national and international research institutions as well as major international industry partners.

EarthByte image

Plate Kinematics

Earth processes over geological timescales cannot be understood outside of a plate tectonic context. In 2008, the EarthByte Group, a leader in global plate reconstructions, published a quanitative global plate kinematic model with associated palaeo-agegrids. Our ongoing research in plate kinematics includes:

  • Development of detailed plate models of the major oceanic basins, particularly the Indian, Pacific and South Atlantic oceans
  • Testing alternative absolute plate reference frames prior to 100 Ma and the creation of a new “Subduction Reference Framework”
  • Comparison between different timescales for the Mesozoic
  • Examining the influence of mid-ocean ridge creation and destruction to ocean chemistry

Our work on global plate motions utilises GPlates plate tectonic software, which is jointly developed by the University of Sydney, Caltech and NGU.

Participants: Dietmar Müller, Maria Seton, Joanne Whittaker, Ana Gibbons.

Plate Kinematics

Global and Regional Geodynamics

This broad area of research involves linking plate kinematics, global and regional mantle convection models and geological and geophysical observations to answer questions about the vertical motions of the continents (dynamic topography), development of subduction, plate driving forces and plate reorganisations and the formation of crust in the Archean.

Participants: Dietmar Müller, Patrice Rey, Maria Seton, Joanne Whittaker, Gabriele Morra.

Global and Regional Geodynamics

Frontier Basin Exploration

Sea level has changed by up to 300m through geological time. These fluctuations, caused by plate tectonics and convection in the Earth's mantle, have created vast sedimentary basins and associated resources such as petroleum, natural gas and coal. Our frontier basin exploration project brings together global 4D databases with cutting-edge 3D numerical simulations to reconstruct how mid-ocean ridge creation and the recycling of old, cold oceanic plates into the mantle have driven surface topography and sea-level change globally since the breakup of the super-continent Pangaea. The project will provide a tectonic and mantle convection framework for frontier basin exploration. Focus areas include the Rocas Verde in South America, Australia’s sedimentary basins and the Arctic hinterland.

Participants: Dietmar Müller, Geoff Clarke, Joanne Whittaker, Maria Seton, Kayla Maloney

Palaeoclimate Modelling

We are currently involved in two climate projects: one linking ocean thermal and mechanical energy to climate change and the other identifying and quantifying mechanisms of warming during the Miocene Climatic Optimum. Our research into the Miocene Climatic Optimum is focused on the mechanisms that caused such a climate to exist in the face of low carbon dioxide concentrations, the presence of an Antarctic ice sheet and a very similar global geography about 25 million years ago. We use the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Community Atmosphere Model 3.1 (CAM) coupled to the NCAR Community Land Model 3 (CLM) and plan to extend our work to the fully coupled CCSM.

Participants: Dietmar Müller, Nicholas Herold, Judy Tong, Maria Seton

Palaeoclimate Modelling

Australian Opals

Participants: Patrice Rey, Adriana Dutkiewicz


Using the engineering finite element modelling software package ABAQUS we have modelled the horizontal compressive stress of the Indo-Australian plate for time periods dating from the Eocene. This work was carried out as part of the Tectonic Reactivation and Palaeo-Stress (TRAPS) project in collaboration with Shell, BHP Billiton, Woodside Petroleum and SANTOS in order to create a framework for predicting the tectonic reactivation of faults. This research has also been utilised by gold mining companies to assist exploration and may also prove very useful to seismic studies of Australia.

Participants: Dietmar Müller, Scott Dyksterhuis, Patrice Rey