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Available postgraduate research projects in the Department of Geology

You can you can always talk to the staff about other possible projects. Projects are listed here with a suggested level, but feel free to talk to staff about taking on a project at a different level (e.g. PGDipSci instead of BSc(Hons)).

PhD projects

Topic: Strong motion seismology

Supervisor: Mark Stirling, Professor of Earthquake Science, mark.stirling[at]
Description: We are currently seeking a suitable individual to undertake a Ph.D. on ground motion simulations for Dunedin city from large local earthquakes. The project will comprise the following three stages over 2017-19: (1) geological/geophysical data gathering; (2) 3D shear wave velocity model development, and; (3) source modelling and ground motion simulations for the local major active faults. The project will be well suited to someone who is interested in multidisciplinary seismic hazard modelling. Applicants from a range of backgrounds (e.g. geophysics and geology majors), and the attributes of self-motivation, computer-literacy (preferably Python and Matlab) and excellent English writing skills will be considered. Scholarship and tuition funding is expected to be available for the three year duration of the research, commencing early 2017.

Understanding the timing and drivers of drought in New Zealand

Supervisor: Dr. Chris Moy,
Co-supervisors: Dr. Christina Riesselman and Dr. Marcus Vandergoes (GNS Science)

Description: We are currently seeking a Ph.D. student to investigate the spatial extent, magnitude and the climatic forcing of past drought on the South Island. This PhD project will involve 1) collection of geophysical data and sediment cores from multiple lakes, 2) generation of geochemical (stable isotope and elemental) and paleoenvironmental (diatom) data sets to evaluate past changes in water balance, and 3) integration of these data sets with established paleoclimate records and climate models.

The successful applicant will take advantage of facilities available at Otago University to carry out this work: 1) a Uwitec percussion piston coring system capable of collecting sediment cores up to 25m in length; 2) multibeam and chirp instruments that are part of the Otago Near Geophysical Imaging Facility, 3) non-destructive instrumentation within the newly established Otago analytical core repository, including a Geotek multi-sensor core logger and new Itrax XRF scanner, 4) laboratory facilities for the extraction and preparation of sediments for stable isotope and diatom abundance/paleoecological analysis.

The project is ideal for individuals with multidisciplinary interests in climate science, geochemistry, paleoecology and sedimentology. We are seeking an individual that has enthusiasm for field work, experience working in a geochemistry laboratory and demonstrated research experience (MSc preferred; BSc with honors thesis considered). The selected candidate will be funded by a competitive University of Otago PhD Scholarship, which includes a 3-year stipend of NZ$ 25,000 per year (tax free and includes a fee waiver), research costs, and travel support to national and international conferences. Both New Zealand and international students are encouraged to apply. The appointment will be based in the Department of Geology and can be begin at any time from January 2019.

MSc projects

Title: Gas hydrates - seismic processing and analysis

Supervisor: Andrew Gorman
Description: This project will build on ongoing work and data from the Pegasus Basin using existing datasets from industry and academic cruises to investigate focussed accumulations of gas hydrates.
Level: MSc

Title: Mechanism for active subsidence of the Dunedin volcano

Supervisor: Mark Stirling, Paul Denys, Pilar Villamor (GNS Science)
Description: The project will seek to determine the cause of the present c. 0.8mm/yr subsidence of the Dunedin volcano, as determined from the last 1-2 decades of geodetic data from rock sites across the volcano. Elastic and/or viscoelastic modelling of post seismic deformation from late Holocene Akatore Fault earthquakes (constrained in recent paleoseismic studies) will be a definite line of investigation in the project. The project will be suitable for a student with interests in deformation modelling and active tectonics, and with a willingness to learn with deformation modelling software (as yet unspecified).
Level: MSc.

Title: Provenance of siliclastic turbidites using detrital zircons and neodymium isotopes

Supervisor: Mike Palin and Candace Martin

Description: Turbidites are widespread sedimentary deposits of economic and scientific importance. They dominate New Zealand sedimentary rocks of the Eastern Province and younger Cenozoic basins. This project will examine provenance of coarse- and fine-grained portions of turbidites in basins of known provenance (western Southland) and those from the Rakia Terrane. The work will involve careful field documentation of samples, petrography, and Nd isotope analysis of mudrocks and U-Pb dating of detrital zircons in coarser grained lithologies by LA-ICP-MS.
Recommended preparation: GEOL x62, x63 and x73
Level: MSc

Title: Otago Schist: tracing metamorphic fluids using hydrogen and carbon stable isotopes

Supervisor: Mike Palin

Description: Metamorphism of sedimentary rocks involves the loss of water-rich, carbon-chloride-sulfur-bearing fluids. These fluids play essential roles in the long-term carbon cycle, the rheology of the crust, and the formation of gold and other mineral deposits. This project will examine the stable isotopes of hydrogen and carbon – the two most abundant volatile elements – in the Otago Schist across metamorphic grade. If isotopic equilibrium was maintained during fluid generation, then the rocks should exhibit progressive heavy-isotope depletion with increasing metamorphic grade and extent of volatile loss. This would mean that fluids generated at the highest metamorphic grade would have isotopically-depleted compositions - values that are usually considered to be diagnostic of high-altitude precipitation. Such a finding could call into question interpretations of deep penetration of surface waters into active mountain belts. It would also predict the formation of carbon and hydrogen isotope alteration halos around pathways that accommodated metamorphic fluid loss – including structures that host gold mineralization.
Recommended preparation: GEOL x62 and x74
Level: MSc.

Unraveling the Murihiku - Brook Street terrane boundary in Southland

Supervisor: Mike Palin

Description: My thinking on this project is somewhat vague at present, but I’m willing to discuss options. It concerns an important boundary that may have been over-interpreted during the height of the circum-Pacific “exotic terrane” fad of the late 1970s. The Murihiku is less exotic than many might suspect.
Recommended preparation: GEOL x62, x64, x72 and x73
Level: MSc

Climate of the last millennium

Supervisors: Dr. Chris Moy, and Dr. Marcus Vandergoes (GNS Science)

High resolution paleoclimate records spanning the last 1,000 years are critical for establishing hydroclimate baselines, determining the magnitude of past temperature change and evaluating potential climate drivers. Yet, there are very few highly resolved and well dated records from New Zealand that can provide this perspective. A primary goal of the Lakes380 project ( is to evaluate how climate and landscape change impact water quality in 10% of New Zealand’s lakes (n=380) since first human arrival approx. 700 years ago. This MSc project will compile multiple records of climate change from the southern South Island to help establish a baseline of climate and environmental change.

We are seeking an enthusiastic MSc student to join our international research team to participate in the collection and analysis of sediment cores obtained from multiple NZ lakes. The student will take advantage of the new Otago analytical core repository (OAR) that will house a new -XRF core scanner capable of generating multi-element profiles at 0.1 mm resolution. The student will integrate XRF data with other downcore geochemical and physical sediment parameters in order to create a comprehensive multi-site record of climate and environmental change.

For NZ applicants with a BSc, a competitive Lakes380 scholarship that supports stipend and fees is available for the 2nd (research) year. For New Zealand BSc Honours applicants, this scholarship can be applied to the 1-year MSc (thesis only) degree. Please contact if interested.

MSc or BSc(Hons) projects

Title: Eruptive sequence of the Highcliffs Tuff Cone

Supervisors: Marco Brenna + James White
Description: An inclined tuff intruded by dykes is present within the sequence of lava flows of the Highcliffs just west of Boulder Beach on the Otago Peninsula. This project is about the characterization of the tuff deposits and the interpretation of the tuff sequence in terms of eruption processes, i.e. whether the tuff was emplaced subaerially or in a submarine environment. The project will involve extensive fieldwork in very steep terrain and hence requires a good level of fitness and confidence. Analytical work will use the petrographic microscope and SEM-EDS for petrographic and componentry characterization as well as XRF for measurement of whole-rock compositions.

Title: 3D lithological reconstruction of the Dunedin Volcano

Supervisors: Marco Brenna
Description: Coastal erosion has generated a number of outstanding exposures of eruptive sequences of the Dunedin Volcano, for example at Aramoana/Spit Beach. Descriptions of these sites are still based on the original work of Marshall and therefore a need for revision with modern technology is ripe. In this project you will utilize aerial (drone) images to construct 3D models of type-locality eruptive sequences and subsequently use visualization software to project lithological boundaries and infer flow directions and vent sites. The project will also include the petrographic characterization of lava flow packages to generate a three dimensional geological map.

Title: Magma ascent rates in the Auckland Volcanic Field

Supervisor: Marco Brenna
Description: How long will Aucklanders have to organize a volcanic emergency response after detection of deep unrest? Elemental diffusion profiles in xenocrysts in Auckland lavas can reveal timescales of crystal residence in the melt, and hence the rates of magma ascent. The project may involve a small component of fieldwork to collect samples, and a large component of laboratory work.
bHons to MSc student.

Title: Structural and lithological characterization of the Port Chalmers Breccia

Supervisor: Marco Brenna (+/- James White)
Description: The Port Chalmers Breccia exposed around Port Chalmers has historically been interpreted as a massive vent filling deposit. This project aims to better characterize structures and grading of the overall deposits in the Port Chalmers area. The project will involve a significant component of detailed fieldwork to map geological relationships, measure structural and stratigraphic data, describe lithologies and collect samples, for detailed petrological characterization of the Port Chalmers Breccia and the rocks surrounding it. The goal is to produce a revised and improved map of the Port Chalmers Breccia outcrops and to interpret its mode of emplacement.
Level: Hons to MSc student.

Title: Middle Cenozoic unconformities of Waihao Valley, South Canterbury

Supervisor: Ewan Fordyce
Description: The Eocene-Oligocene sedimentary sequence in Waihao Valley includes several unconformities of uncertain genesis. They may relate to local tectonism, otherwise rare in the Canterbury Basin Paleogene. The project will involve some days of fieldwork to log sections and collect samples, and a laboratory work on biostratigraphy and depositional settings.
Level: Hons.

Title: Quaternary Stratigraphy (and/or Structure?) of Otago Harbour

Supervisor: Andrew Gorman and Christina Riesselman
Description: This project will build on ongoing work that has has coarsely mapped about 150 m of infill sediments in Otago Harbour. Ideally, the student working on this project will integrate new multi-channel seismic boomer and CHIRP data collected from small boats early in the year with sediment samples or perhaps even shallow cores to constrain the the history of sediment infill of the harbour. It is also possible that the seismic imaging could identify the position of a fault that may control the orientation of Otago Harbour.
Level: Hons or MSc

Title: Ice deformation

Supervisor: Dave Prior
Description: A range of possible laboratory based projects involving understanding how ice deforms.
Level: Hons or perhaps MSc student.

Title: Subvolcanic features beneath an underwater volcanic complex: Moeraki Peninsula

Supervisor: James White +/- Christian Ohneiser
Description: The dikes have layered clastic deposits along them and extending from them in the plane of the basalt dike. Description, detailed mapping of features, microscopy, mineral chemistry, paleomag, AMS, textural analysis, etc. What processes cause subterranean fragmentation? Is the flow of clastic material along the dike indicative of connection with an explosive surface (seafloor) eruption?
b Hons/MSc. The peninsula with perhaps some physical experiments could probably support a pretty interesting volcanology PhD.

Title: Relationships between Alpine Fault rocks’ electrical properties and their microstructure

Supervisor: Virginia Toy
Description: This would form part of a Marsden project (if funded – this will be known in October 2018) to investigate ‘How do mid-crustal rocks’ electrical properties evolve with deformation through the earthquake cycle?’. This project would involve characterization of the microstructure and macrostructure of a benchmark suite of Alpine Fault samples using optical and electron microscopy (SEM, EBSD) as well a microCT scans. You’d be particularly looking for information about how conductive phases such as graphite and grain boundary fluid films were arranged. The data would be used to construct numerical models of the expected electrical response of the rocks and compared to measurements by other researchers in the team.
Level: MSc. Suitable to someone really interested in microstructures and SEM work, with a fairly good maths/physics background.

BSc(Hons) or PGDipSci projects

Title: Microstructural evolution of single, small-displacement faults in sandstone

Supervisor: Steven Smith
Small faults in sandstone – commonly called “deformation bands” (e.g. Fossen et al. 2007) – are extremely important in determining the fluid flow properties of petroleum reservoirs and aquifers. To understand how such faults initiate and evolve, the aim of this project is to sample single deformation bands along a displacement gradient from band tip (i.e. zero displacement) to band centre (i.e. maximum displacement). Displacement will then be correlated to the evolution of fault rock microstructure (e.g. grain size, grain shape, microfracture density and orientation, degree of strain localization) and petrophysical properties (porosity, permeability). This project will involve fieldwork, imaging and data collection on the SEM, possibly micro-CT, and both qualitative and quantitative analysis of fault rock microstructure. This project is suitable for students with good quantitative skills who did well in 275/375.
Level: BSc(Hons)

Title: Deformation and rheology of granite clasts in a calcite-dominated shear zone

Supervisors: Steven Smith, James Scott, Marianne Negrini
Spectacular calcite-mylonites are exposed in the Mt. Irene shear zone, Murchison Mountains, Fiordland (Scott & Cooper, 2006). Inside the shear zone are abundant deformed clasts of granite. This project will investigate deformation processes and conditions within the granite clasts, and the extent to which the granite clasts were coupled to the surrounding calcite-mylonites during shear. Samples are already available. This project will involve extensive microstructural work using the SEM (including detailed EBSD), and both qualitative and quantitative analysis of mylonite microstructure. This project is suitable for students with good quantitative skills who did well in 274/374 and 275/375.
Level: BSc(Hons)

Title: Geochemistry of sulfides in the vicinity of lode gold deposits in the Otago Schist with applications to exploration and environment

Supervisor: Mike Palin and Candace Martin

Description: Lode (also called mesothermal or orogenic) gold deposits hosted in metamorphic terranes are difficult to find because of their small geographic footprint and complex structural control. This project will examine ore-related trace element concentrations (Au, Ag, As, Sb, etc.) and isotope ratios (Pb) in accessory sulfides (pyrite, pyrrhotite, and arsenopyrite) in metasedimentary bedrock around known lode gold deposits of the South Island of New Zealand. The data will be used to test whether sulfide geochemistry provides an expanded exploration target for such deposits. An important aspect of the study will be to assess pathways of selected trace elements (As, Hg, Se) from bedrock sulfides to soil and groundwater during weathering.
Recommended preparation: GEOL x62 and x74
Level: BScHons

Title: Dip Hill Road Sill: contact metamorphism, vesicle structures, and hydrous alteration

Supervisor: Mike Palin

Description: The Dip Hill Road Sill will be familiar to former GEOL 252 students. Possible questions to be addressed in this project are: 1) what were the conditions of contact metamorphism in the host calcareous sandstones (and can these constrain the magma flux through the sill), 2) what do the various vesicle structures (pipes and segregation cylinders) represent, and 3) does the fracture-related hydrous alteration in the sill have a hydrothermal or weathering origin? The work will involve careful field documentation of samples, petrography, textural and mineral analysis by SEM, and trace element and possible Sr isotope analysis by LA-ICP-MS.
Recommended preparation: GEOL x62, x64 and x74
Level: BScHons or PGDipSci

Title: Microgranular enclaves at Kawakaputa Point, Southland: petrology, geochemistry ± geochronology

Supervisor: Mike Palin

Description: Dioritic intrusions along the South Coast often contain microgranular enclaves. These are spectacularly exposed at Kawakaputa Point. The goal of this project is to determine whether the enclaves represent disrupted chilled margins, mingled mafic magma, or unrelated xenoliths. The work will involve careful field documentation of samples, petrography, textural and mineral analysis by SEM, and trace element, Sr isotope analysis and possible zircon U-Pb dating by LA-ICP-MS.
Recommended preparation: GEOL x62 and x64 and x74
Level: BScHons

Title: A new look at the Greenhills Complex, Southland

Supervisor: Mike Palin
Description: The Greenhills Complex is a small layered mafic intrusion exposed on the Bluff Peninsula. The complex is a cumulate sequence of dunite-clinopyroxene-gabbro and contains the only in situ occurrence of platinum-group minerals in New Zealand. Previous mapping, petrography, and mineral compositions indicate that the cumulate sequence was produced by fractional crystallization of hydrous basalt in an open-system magma chamber. The question of how much magma recharge and/or eruption occurred during crystallization of the complex can be addressed by tracking changes in magma composition and crystallization temperature using trace elements in cumulate minerals. This project will involve field work to collect new samples, preparation and petrographic examination of new and archived samples, and in situ analysis of major and trace elements in cumulate minerals of selected samples by SEM-EDS and LA-ICP-MS.
Recommended preparation: GEOL x62 and x64
Level: BScHons

Title: Otago Schist: tectonostratigraphy using detrital zircons

Supervisor: Mike Palin

Description: The metamorphic core of the Otago Schist has recently yielded detrital zircons as young as 108 Ma (Mortimer at al., 2015) whereas unconformably overlying sediments along the flanks contain volcanics as old as 112 Ma (Tulloch et al. 2009). These results add to the growing detrital zircon evidence from the Alpine Schist (Copper et al., 2013; 2015) that the accretionary history of the Eastern Province extends to younger ages and is more complex than previously thought. The goal of this project will be to extend the database into eastern Otago. The work will involve careful field mapping and sampling, petrography, textural and mineral analysis by SEM, and zircon U-Pb dating by LA-ICP-MS.
Recommended preparation: GEOL x62 and x74
Level: BScHons

All level  projects

Title: Antarctic seismic data processing and analysis

Supervisor: Andrew Gorman and Christian Ohneiser
Description: This project will build on two seasons (2015 and 2016) of seismic data acquisition on the Ross Ice Shelf where the seafloor geology of the Ross Sea continental shelf has been imaged by thumper and explosive data.
Level: PGDipSc, Hons or MSc

Title: Ross Sea Paleoceanography and ice shelf retreat - 15 kyr to present

Supervisor: Christian Ohneiser, Christina Riesselman, Catherine Beltran
Description: This project will involve paleomagnetic techniques and/or organic geochemical techniques. Rising ocean temperatures may soon destabilise the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which will result in sea-level rise and changes in oceanic and atmospheric circulation that will have a profound impact on New Zealand. The Ross Ice Shelf protects the West Antarctic Ice Sheet from the warming ocean. Because little is known about past Ross Ice Shelf behaviour predictions of its future stability are challenging. The project will help reconstruct the Ross Ice Shelf history since the last ice age, and the oceanographic changes which forced the ice to retreat.
Level: PGDipSc, Hons, MSc or PhD

Title: Eocene-Oligocene paleoclimate of NZ constructed from drill cores

Supervisor: Christian Ohneiser, Daphne Lee, Chris Moy, Catherine Beltran
Description: There is the potential for several projects ranging in complexity and length. Drill cores acquired from hydrocarbon exploration companies provide a unique opportunity to reconstruct the climate history of New Zealand. We are in a unique position to have two Eocene-Oligocene aged drill cores that provide an insight into New Zealand’s climate at this time. These projects will involve determining how old the cores are, what orbital Milankovich cycles are present and how they controlled the sedimentary system, physical properties logging and sedimentary logging. We expect high profile publications will result from this work.

Title: Chronology of offshore Antarctic Sediment cores

Supervisor: Christian Ohneiser
Description: This project involves paleomagnetic studies from offshore sediment cores that may span from 1000’s to millions of years. In early 2016 paleomagnetic work was carried out on sediment cores from offshore Antarctica (southern Ocean Ross Sea region). The work discovered that sediment cores are unusually old, spanning between 0 to 2.5 million years. Soon we will receive additional samples for which there is no paleomagnetic age model. Work will be carried out in the Otago paleomagnetic laboratory and will surely result in some new, and unexpected results.

Title: Physical properties and paleomagnetic studies of new sediment cores from Windless Bight, Antarctica

Supervisor: Christian Ohneiser, Richard Levy (GNS)
Description: In late 2016 sediment cores will be recovered from beneath the Southern McMurdo Ice shelf. These cores will likely contain a record of the transition from ice sheet to floating ice shelf at the end of the last ice age. Only three other Ross Ice Shelf core sites so this will produce new and exciting results. Work will involve physical properties logging on the Geotek core logger and paleomagnetic sampling and analysis in uchannels.

Title: Surtsey volcano's diatreme

Supervisor: James White
Description: In late 2017 Surtsey volcano, the type example of an island-forming explosive eruption, was cored by ICDP. One core targets the internal structure of the volcano. It was drilled at an angle and terminates at a depth well below the pre-eruption seafloor, but contains only primary volcaniclastic deposits, hence indicating that the vent structure below Surtsey extends at least 100 m below the original seafloor. This project will investigate the core, including microtextures, particle shapes, thermal indicators, etc., with the aim of understanding the processes that excavated the vent, the timing of excavation, and the effects of excavation on the eruption. The work will be linked with other projects being undertaken by an international group with bases in Iceland, the US, and Europe, and is likely to involve travel to international labs and the core repository in Reykjavik.