Section 5.5: Earth Surface Process Modelling

Research approach

In our research group, we develop computer models to simulate the processes responsible for the evolution of the Earth´s surface, such as bedrock incision by rivers and glaciers in mountain ranges, or the slow weathering of rock in low relief continental interiors. In doing so, we provide a framework to integrate field observations and laboratory measurements, and make predictions about places where no data exists or concerning the future evolution of the Earth´s surface.

Our group employs a range of researchers who all share a common interest in computer models, but who are from a variety of research backgrounds, including geology, geophysics and mathematics. We also work closely with colleagues in other sections of the GFZ as well as other German and international research institutions and universities.

Section 5.5. Seminars

Seminars in Section 5.5: Earth Surface Process Modelling

Find out more

Visit from Nikos Theodoratos, ETH Zurich

Nikos Theodoratos, a PhD student at ETH Zurich, visited the Earth Surface Process Modelling group (Section 5.5) at GFZ on October 17-19, 2018 in preparation for his submitting a proposal to the Swiss National Foundation to obtain funding for a post-doctoral position in our section. During his PhD studies at ETH in Zurich, Nikos has written a very insightful paper (published in ESURFD) on the scaling of the Stream Power Law.

Following his visit, Nikos sent us the following message:

“Dear Section 5.5, Thank you for your hospitality and for the opportunity to present my work at your seminar! I especially appreciated the effort you put into connecting me with researchers from other GFZ groups and the University of Potsdam, which led to many discussions with very interesting people. Your office, located in an old observatory and surrounded by nature, is a very stimulating and fun place to work at; I really enjoyed my time there.

Warm regards, Nikos”

GeoMod2018 conference in Barcelona

From October 1-4, several members of Section 5.5 (Jean, Igor, and Xiaoping) attended the GeoMod2018 conference in Barcelona, dedicated to the latest results of analogue and numerical modelling in Geosciences. The presenters' areas of expertise varied widely (e.g., tectonics, volcanic processes, surface processes, lithosphere dynamics, rock physics, and geofluids), and all were generally happy with their own work and the interesting feedback received.

Our section members presented their latest ideas, methods and results of numerical modeling of surface processes. For example, Jean presented "Efficient algorithms for the simulation of Earth surface processes", Igor showed his latest result of "Application of a model for point-wise prediction of stream flow statistics using climatic and geomorphologic data on Walnut Gulch (Arizona)", and Xiaoping presented the new method of sediment transport and deposition on land. They enjoyed very much the feedback to their presentations.

Thermo 2018 Conference in Quedlinburg

From 16-21 September, Jean, Audrey, Jessica, and Jiao attended the Thermo 2018 conference in Quedlinburg, Germany. This international conference is held every two years, focusing on the development in methodology and application of low-temperature thermochronology. There were many interesting and inspiring talks, posters, and discussions. The attendees from our section took the opportunity to present their current work.

Jean talked about the "time scale for orogenic growth and decay”. Audrey gave a talk on the “roles of erosion and isostasy in topography building” in the case of Cordillera Blanca, and presented new data and interpretation about the uplift and denudation histories of the Namibian passive margin. Jess gave an invited talk on the roles of erosion and mantle dynamics in the landscape evolution of southern Africa. After the main program of the conference, Jean gave a half-day course, introducing the new version of Pecube, a thermo-kinematic model to solve heat transport in the crust and invert thermochronological data.

Trip to Lausanne, June 2018

Section 5.5 spent the month of June in Lausanne, hosted by Prof Herman (Frédéric) at the Université de Lausanne (UNIL), a specialist in the study of glacier dynamics and glacial erosion. This was the second part of an exchange program partly funded by the Fondation Herbette. During the entire month, our section was fully integrated within the Lausanne group in the Geopolis building on the Unil campus.

We organized bi-daily short seminars (part of the now famous “Monique Seminar Series”) where each researcher presented an aspect of his/her current research and/or a novel technique he/she has developed. This served as a catalyst for further informal interactions, which, in some instances, led to formal collaborations through the setting up of common projects. Expertise was also shared on the use and development of numerical methods. The Lausanne group has much experience in the development of numerical models of glacier dynamics and glacial erosion. Several of Frédéric’s PhD students organized a two-day field trip to Zermatt and the Gorner Glacier. On the way from Lausanne, we travelled through the Rhone Valley where we discovered various geomorphological features. At several sites we dwelled in intense discussions about many topics such as the propagation of knickpoints, the relative efficiency of glacial vs fluvial erosion, or the circulation within Lake Geneva. On the second day, we visited the Gorner Glacier where Frédéric’s team explained the various field experiments they currently conduct there.

During our stay in Lausanne, several visitors joined us for a few days: Guillaume Cordonnier from Grenoble, Konstanze Stübner from Uni Potsdam, Eric Deal from MIT, Guillaume Baby from Rennes, Erika Erlanger from ETH, Olivier Beyssac from Paris and Simon Cox from Otago (NZ).

The visit led to the following collaborative projects/activities:

  • Development of an implicit method to solve the glacial erosion equations
  • Development of a TL/OSL model for incorporation into thermochronological (Pecube) software
  • Further development of a method to estimate ice thickness from ice surface geometry
  • Joint research project aimed at estimating an equivalent of Hack’s Law for glacier flow
  • Inversion of thermochronological data from the Andes ⁃ Validation of methods to interpret thermochronological data
  • Many interactions with other faculty/research staff at Unil outside of Frédéric’s group (ecologists, hydrologists, other geomorphologists, etc.)

The University of Lausanne is also ideally located along the shore of Lake Geneva. Members of the section really enjoyed it with regular swims, barbecues and runs along the lake shore, as well as many climbing excursions during the weekends. Weather was beautiful and allowed us to fully enjoy the beautiful surroundings.

(Foto: Jean Braun)

EGU annual meeting 2018

During April 8-13, most of the members of Section 5.5 attended the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna.

The diversity of sessions provided something to every taste: members of the section were seen attending talks and posters on geomorphology, hydrology, geoinformatics, glaciology, paleontology, space science ... After all, one of the advantages of a large international conference is the broad expertise on display. Members of 5.5 displayed their own expertise in the form of poster presentations at the meeting. Most opted for a traditional format, while Benoit Bovy and Kim Huppert had to deal with the particular opportunities as well as challenges of an interactive poster presentation called PICO®. The presenters' experiences varied widely, but all were generally happy with their own work and the interesting feedback received.

Towards the end of the meeting, everyone enjoyed catching up with Frederic Herman's group from University of Lausanne: there were plans to be made for the group visit coming up in June. Check back in a couple of months to see if any came to fruition!

Erik Tamre on behalf of Section 5.5

Group Retreat, Belgium, October 2017

For our first group retreat, we spent a great weekend at the end of October in the Belgian Ardennes! We enjoyed walking across lovely landscapes such as the (wet) Haute-Fagnes plateau and the valleys of Semois and Ninglinspo, where we saw some interesting geomorphological features. We also visited the city of Liège as well as the Bastogne War Museum that immersed us into the Battle of the Bulge. Of course, we also enjoyed local food specialities and fine Belgian beers!


Congratulations to Jessica Stanley and Audrey Margirier, who have been awarded a Humboldt Fellowship and a DAAD PRIME Fellowship respectively. Jessica´s Humboldt Fellowship, investigating the longterm uplift and erosion of southern Africa, began in September, while Audrey will complete a further year of research at the GFZ before moving to the University of Arizona to study with Professor Peter Reiners.  Following her year in Arizona, where she will be researching triggers for uplift and exhumation in the Ecuadorian Andes, Audrey will return to Potsdam for a further six months´ research with Professor Manfred Strecker at the University of Potsdam. 

Jessica writes, "Continental plateaus are complex manifestations of the interaction of tectonic, deep earth, and surface processes. Their formation mechanisms are not fully understood, in part because the timing and pattern of plateau uplift of is often not well known. Surface uplift is difficult to detect directly in the geologic record, but topographic uplift generally triggers an erosional response. I propose to take advantage of this relationship to constrain plateau uplift. To do this, I will constrain a landscape evolution model inversion scheme with a variety of erosion history data. This will allow me to systematically test a range of parameters to understand which uplift histories are best able to replicate the observed data, taking advantage of observations that record the erosion history on a range of spatial and temporal scales."

Audrey writes, "The growth of the Ecuadorian Andes In Ecuador has been linked to the subduction of the oceanic Carnegie Ridge. However, recent studies have suggested that a crustal sliver in western Ecuador escaping northward along the Pallatanga strike-slip zone may have influenced topographic growth in this region. The project aims at deciphering the roles of oceanic ridge subduction and/or or strike-slip motion in prompting the growth of the Ecuadorian Andes, by  performing low-temperature thermochronology to assess uplift and exhumation associated with the Pallatanga Fault, followed by an inversion of landscape evolution using thermochronological data to constrain uplift rate, timing and location of the uplift and test the roles of the ridge subduction vs. topographic growth related to strike-slip faulting."



Happy Birthday Section 5.5!

from left to right: Dominik Schneider, Kim Huppert, Erik Tamre, Jean Braun, Igor Lisac, Benoit Bovy, Xiaoping Yuan, Jessica Stanley, Audrey Margirier, Ruohong Jiao
(Jean Braun)

It´s hard to believe, but our section is now a whole year old. In the course of just a year it´s grown from a tiny team of three to a flourishing research community of 12 (soon to be 13) staff. Since June this year, we´ve welcomed Dr. Ruohong Jiao, Dr. Audrey Margirier, Dr. Dominik Schneider, Igor Lisac and Erik Tamre into our group while bidding farewell to Dr. Eric Deal. In November we´ll be joined by Dr. Katherine Kravitz who´ll be working at the fascinating (and hereto little explored) interface of biology and geomorphology.

Section Head

Jean Braun
Prof. Dr. Jean Braun
Earth Surface Process Modelling
Building A 27, Room 101
14473 Potsdam
+49 331 288-27520


Lukas Becker
Dr. Lukas Becker
Earth Surface Process Modelling
Building A 27, Room 108
14473 Potsdam
+49 331 288-27521