Argentine geoscientist Victor Alberto Ramos was named the winner of the 2017 TWAS-Lenovo Science Prize today for his work on the formation of the Andes, both shedding light on the story behind his home continent and studying the cause of strong earthquakes along the mountain range.
Ramos is a 1998 TWAS Fellow and an Earth scientist at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina. He was honoured for work which has contributed enormously to the understanding of how the Andes and the underlying landmasses formed hundreds of millions of years ago.
The TWAS-Lenovo Prize is one of the most prestigious honours given to scientists from the developing world, and was announced at a meeting of the TWAS Council today in Trieste, Italy. The annual prize, now in its fifth year, includes an award of USD100,000 provided by the Chinese technology company Lenovo, the global leader in consumer, commercial, and enterprise technology that is the largest PC company in the world.
"We are excited to congratulate Prof. Ramos for his great achievement as an influential geologist in the world," said Lenovo Senior Vice President George He. "His research on South American geology and his practice of applying his research into educating younger scientists has been quite phenomenal. It's our honor to present this year's TWAS-LENOVO Science Prize to Prof. Ramos, and we look forward to more fruitful years of Professor Ramos in the future."
"Prof. Ramos has for many years distinguished himself with pioneering basic science," said TWAS President Bai Chunli. "But his work has valuable practical applications in fields ranging from mining and oil exploration to earthquake preparedness. And it underpins progress on several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – by protecting the poor from earthquakes, for example, and building resilient infrastructure."
Ramos has dedicated more than 50 years of his life to understanding the geological evolution of the Andes. He worked almost 20 years in the Argentine Geological Survey, mapping different sectors of the Argentine-Chilean Andes, and since 1984 has been teaching tectonics at the University of Buenos Aires.
He said winning the award was a thrill – and that he was caught completely unaware by the news.
“It was a big surprise, because the people from the university did it without letting me know they were submitting me as a candidate,” he said. "My studies contribute to understanding the mechanisms of formation of the Andes, mainly the tectonic or structural evolution related to the present growth of the mountain chain. This is important for the people living in the Andes because they can learn and improve the awareness for eventual geological hazards, such as floods, earthquakes, landslides, and more."
The Rise of the Andes
In his first years as a scientist, in the 1960s, Ramos did field work in the Southern Andes of Argentina and Chile. He made a number of important discoveries about the geologic history of the mountain range.
He and his colleagues were the first to determine that, in a long a stretch along the mountains, the tectonic plates were locked in what’s called “flat slab subduction”. The plates were sliding almost directly horizontal against each other for a stretch that went on for hundreds of kilometres.
The process causes some of the most destructive quakes possible, because for large stretches of land the bottom plate is literally sliding along under the top plate before sinking into the Earth’s mantle. This horizontal slide creates intense friction, which in turn causes the top plate to warp, deform and break more dramatically, pushing the mountains more quickly into the sky every time they shift.
After that, he and his team worked on what’s called the Basement of the Andes – the earth’s crust that the Andes mountains evolved on top of. The crust underneath part of the mountains is special, because it’s actually not from South America. It’s from Laurentia, the name Earth scientists had for the landmass of North America hundreds of millions of years ago.
About 500 million years ago, the land that is today South America was combined with Africa and much of Asia in a primeval supercontinent called Gondwana. Most South American bedrock originated there. The idea that the bedrock under part of the Andes was from Laurentia instead was controversial at the time, but nonetheless Ramos and his team spent years looking for evidence to support the hypothesis – mostly by identifying trilobite fossils unique to Laurentia underneath the mountains.
The result of their findings was what Ramos called his most important contribution: Learning that a block of terrain detached from Laurentia and migrated through the oceanic crust over millions of years until finally colliding with Gondwana, giving birth to what we know as part of the Andes today.
That foreign block of bedrock is now in central Chile and the western part of Argentina. Establishing this gave rise to a better understanding of the region and its deep history. Still, it took years of discussion and debate until the data was confirmed and Ramos’s findings became the scientific consensus.
“We proposed that back in 1985, and at the time nobody believed it,” said Ramos. “There was terrific discussion at the time, but 25 years later they invited me to become a member of Chilean Academy of Science, accepting that a big chunk of Chile had collided against Gondwana.”
But that discovery was only the beginning.
“This was only the first block that arrived and collided against the continent,” Ramos said. “Chilenia, another block, arrived later, and this block was almost entirely in Chile.”
Similar geological events have happened as many as seven times, with smaller landmasses from the north slamming into the southern continent, creating layers within today’s bedrock. This kind of event, called accretionary tectonics, has been discovered elsewhere, such as in Canada and China. But until Ramos’ work, it was unknown to be a part of the Andes formation.
Ramos’ research in the region continues, and he and his colleagues are continuing to explore the story of the Earth’s landmasses in new and exciting ways. Right now, for example, they are exploring how Patagonia, the southern tip of South America, may have come from outside West Gondwana, colliding with the supercontinent at around the same period. They’re also working on understanding the marine plates around the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands, finding some rock samples that they believe will change the popular interpretation of how they formed.
“The British geologists in the last 50 years thought they were a piece of Africa,” Ramos said, “and we’re trying to demonstrate they’re a part of South America for more than 200 million years.”
He’s also part of an effort to extend the Jurassic period of history – a time famous for the presence of dinosaurs, which currently is considered to have been from 201.3 million years ago to 145 million years ago. The boundary of the period is determined by fossils, such as those left behind by nanosized plankton. In Argentina, those fossils are associated with volcanic rocks that are easy to date using radioactive dating. In Europe, they have the same fossils, but no volcanic rocks to date accurately. This allows researchers to get a more exact estimate of just when the Jurassic period came to an end.
Ramos and his team are studying ash from the Neuquén Basin in Argentina using radioactive dating. They have proposed that evidence there shows that the Jurassic should end about 140 million years ago instead – effectively extending the Jurassic by 5 million years.
This is the fifth year of the TWAS-Lenovo Science Prize, the successor to the Ernesto Illy Trieste Science Prize that previously ran for eight years. During its first four-year cycle (2013-2016), the TWAS-Lenovo Prize focused on recognizing outstanding work in the basic sciences, with the subject area changing each year: physics and astronomy in 2013; biological sciences in 2014; mathematics in 2015; chemical sciences in 2016.
Its second four-year cycle began this year with competition in the field of Earth sciences. The prize will continue for three more years, honouring work in engineering in 2018, agricultural science in 2019 and social science in 2020.
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The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries – TWAS – works to advance sustainable prosperity through research, education, policy and diplomacy. TWAS was founded in 1983 by a distinguished group of scientists from the developing world, under the leadership of Abdus Salam, the Pakistani physicist and Nobel Prize winner. Today, TWAS has more than 1,200 elected Fellows from 96 countries; 15 of them are Nobel laureates. The Academy is based in Trieste, Italy, on the campus of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP). Through more than three decades, its mission has focused on supporting and promoting excellence in scientific research in the developing world and applying scientific and engineering research to address global challenges. TWAS receives core funding from the government of Italy and essential programmatic funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) administers TWAS funds and personnel.