Dr Nicolas Flament awarded 2021 Anton Hales Medal
Earth scientist recognised for significant contribution to our understanding of the planet
The Australian Academy of Science has awarded University of Wollongong (UOW) academic Dr Nicolas Flament the prestigious 2021 Anton Hales Medal in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the geosciences.
Dr Flament, a senior lecturer in UOW’s School of Earth, Atmospheric and Life Sciences, works at the interface between geodynamics and geology. He has made significant contributions to our understanding of the planet by connecting the evolution of the deep Earth with the evolution of its surface.
In his PhD research, Dr Flament challenged the previously accepted view that global sea levels had been relatively constant over Earth’s history. He showed that the Earth was largely a water world during the first half of its history because the interior of the planet was hotter than at present.
His findings have important implications for the oxidation of the atmosphere and the evolution of early life.
“We proposed that two-and-a-half billion years ago much of the Earth was a water world,” he said.
Because the interior of the planet was much hotter then, Dr Flament added, “this would have made the ocean basins shallower, and essentially they would have contained less water, and that water would have been spilled over the continents”.
Since 2010 Dr Flament has worked with world-leading researchers in tectonics and geodynamics to reconstruct plate motions and mantle flow over tens of million years. He was part of a small team that developed a new generation of reconstructions of past mantle flow that makes it possible to investigate mantle flow deeper in Earth’s history than other methods.
In a first-of-its-kind study, Dr Flament and his colleagues used these new models to link the uplift of the Great Dividing Range of Australia to mantle flow and to reconstruct the evolution of the eastern Australian landscape back to the Age of Reptiles (150 million years ago).
Anton Hales Medal—Dr Nicolas Flament from Australian Academy of Science on Vimeo.
The Anton Hales Medal recognises outstanding contributions to research in the Earth sciences and honours the late Professor Anton L Hales FAA, the founding director of the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University.
“Anton Hales is an inspiring scientist who had a very long and broad career and carried out research across seismology and paleomagnetism,” Dr Flament said. “I am impressed by the list of scientists who have previously received this award, and I am honoured to be the recipient for 2021.
“I have been very lucky to be surrounded by fantastic colleagues and mentors throughout my career. Professor Nicolas Coltice (École Normale Supérieure, Paris) and Associate Professor Patrice Rey (The University of Sydney) brought the best out of me throughout my PhD, and they motivated me and mentored me to start an academic career.
“I was very lucky to be part of the EarthByte Group (The University of Sydney), where Professor Dietmar Müller was an exceptional mentor, and to work with Professor Mike Gurnis (Caltech) on mantle convection. I have maintained close professional and personal ties with these colleagues, who continue to inspire me.”
Dr Flament said he was attracted to the Earth sciences from a young age.
“Both my parents studied geology, and as a child I learnt a lot about rocks on family bushwalks,” he said.
“After losing interest as a teenager, I was drawn to Earth sciences again as an undergraduate student as I wanted to spend time doing field work in nature.
“I find the links between the interior of the planet, its surface environments and the evolution of life fascinating. The interior of the planet shapes landscapes, modulates the composition of the atmosphere and climate and has contributed to making the planet hospitable for life. In turn, life forms shape topography and regulate the composition of the atmosphere.”
The Anton Hales Medal was one of several honorific awards made by the Australian Academy of Science on Thursday 11 March 2021.
President of the Australian Academy of Science, Professor John Shine, said the research of this year’s awardees is at the forefront of science, not only in Australia but also worldwide.
“While many of these researchers are having direct impacts on our technology and everyday lives, others are pushing the boundaries of basic research – both of which are vital to the advancement of science,” he said.
“The Academy is proud to honour such a diverse range of researchers this year, reflecting the people driving Australian science.”