2023-2023: Tectonophysics: Cynthia Ebinger

Cynthia Ebinger
Tulane University; Department of State, Bureau of African Affairs


Tulane University

Cynthia Ebinger is the Marshall-Heape Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Tulane University. Her research focuses on tectonic and volcanic processes occurring in rift zones, and their implications for earthquake and volcanic hazards, and for geothermal energy. She and her research team utilize satellite and geophysical data to image and model Earth's structure and state-of-stress, and to detect change associated with natural and anthropogenic processes. In the course of field and laboratory studies, she has worked with scientists in African and South American countries to address hazard and energy challenges and to build regional networks. Ebinger is Chair of the American Geophysical Union College of Fellows, a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, and she serves on the advisory board for the International Centre for Theoretical Physics - East African Institute for Fundamental Research geophysics program. Ebinger received an SM and PhD in marine geophysics from the M.I.T./Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program, and a BSc in marine geology from Duke University. She has served as Editor-in-Chief for Geophysical Journal International and Basin Research and as associate editor for Journal of Geophysical Research and Journal of African Research.

Department of State, Bureau of African Affairs
Office of Economic and Regional Affairs (AF/ERA)

Cynthia Ebinger serves as a geoscience analyst in the Regional Climate Group, within the Office of Economic and Regional Affairs. The mission of AF/ERA is to oversee the Africa Bureau’s broad economic, multilateral, and democratic governance issues. Cynthia is advising AF/ERA on climate adaptation and mitigation solutions, as well as aspects of the critical minerals pipeline, augmenting ongoing and planned programs in the environment, energy, and minerals sectors. She is working with scientists, economists, and analysts at State, USAID, USGS, NASA, NOAA, NSC, and international organizations to develop and evaluate infrastructure projects for the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy at country and regional levels, and to include the impact of rising sea level and changing rainfall in assessments. She is also assisting with capacity-building in Earth, oceans, atmospheres, and space sciences in Africa to enhance climate and disaster early warning and global change programs.

Abstract: Time and Length Scales of Rifting Processes

Feedbacks between chemical, physical, and biological processes at continental rift zones evolve through time scales of seconds to 107 yrs, and over spatial scales of microns to 106 m.  For example, vertical and horizontal crustal movements accompanying dynamic mantle upwelling, plate stretching, faulting, and volcanic eruptions in East Africa were modulated by global climate changes in evolving landscapes that provided oases and refugia for early hominins.  Observations across multiple seismic, magmatic, and climate variability cycles provide insights into cumulative effects, enabling comparison of intense discrete events (e.g., 8 m-wide dike intrusion) and time-averaged deformation considered in current numerical simulations of rifting. Continuous monitoring of seismic, geodetic, and potential field data, gas emissions and space-based measurements of surface deformation quantify the frequency and scale of intrusive magmatic events, subsurface fluid flow, the aseismic component of transient deformation, seasonal hydrological effects on fault systems5, and other processes.

Consideration of these highly varying scales in models of rifting processes are needed to assess natural hazards, and to safely and equitably tap resources and preserve biodiversity in these changing and sometimes hazardous environments. Continental rift zones, back-arc basins, and rifted continental margins have produced, and continue to provide, a significant portion of the world’s energy supply; they host water and heat resources, critical minerals, and offer sedimentary basins and volcanic rocks for carbon sequestration, essential components of the energy transition.  Knowledge of the interplay between dynamic, tectonic, magmatic, surface processes over different time scales is critical to our ability to evaluate the regional and local impacts of climate change, as well as the response of rift zones to human activities (e.g., groundwater extraction).  Presentations will be tailored to the interests of hosting institutions.