What we do and why ...

The Tectonics Group is interested in the physical processes that underlie the evolution of tectonic plate margins and of the dynamics of plate motion. We study the structure and motion history of Earth’s lithosphere from the surface down to the mantle in order to understand how mountains and basins form, and why plate motion localizes along faults. This motion varies with time, from slow and steady creep over periods of thousands and millions of years, to fast and unpredictable earthquakes over time spans of minutes to seconds. To assess such transient motion, we use sedimentary, metamorphic, thermochronological and geodetic methods (below) to probe deep Earth time.

The Tectonics Group

* co-supervised with Prof. Dr. Timm John (Mineralogy, FU-Berlin)

** co-supervised with Prof. Dr. Roland Oberhänsli (Mineralogy, U. Potsdam)

***co-supervised with Prof. Dr. Onno Oncken (Tectonics, FU-Berlin & GFZ-Potsdam)


Our Research

We are currently pursuing research in three broad themes:

  • Plate motion and dynamics in the Alpine-Mediterranean area
  • Coupling between mantle, crust and the surface
  • Triggers of earthquakes in the ductile regime


Some Current and Past Projects (members FU Tectonics group in boldface)

  • Motion of the microplates in the Mediterranean and their relationship to basin formation and mountain building in the Alpide belts (DFG, Le Breton, Handy, Ustaszewski)
  • Orogen-parallel motion in the Alps-Carpathians-Dinarides orogenic system (currently in Northern Albania) (DFG, Handy, Ustaszewski, Giese, Le Breton, Pleuger)
  • Paleo-earthquakes along an exhumed subduction plate interface (Western Alps) (EU, John, Handy)
  • Annealing experiments of fission tracks in apatite under hydrous vs. dry conditions (DFG, Giese, John, Milke)
  • Lateral extrusion and exhumation of orogenic crust during indentation by rigid continental lithosphere (Tauern Window, Eastern Alps) (DFG, Handy, Rosenberg)
  • Assembly and breakup of Gondwana – seismological signatures of the lithosphere-asthenosphere system in southern Madagascar (DFG, Rümpker, Tillmann, Yuan, Giese)
  • Formation of the Tibetan Plateau and its relationship to rapid exhumation of deep crust in the Eastern Himalayan (Namche Barwa, China) Syntaxis (DFG, Handy, Konrad-Schmolke, O’Brien)
  • Localization of deformation on different scales at the transition from frictional sliding to viscous flow in the continental crust (North-Pyreneen shear zone, Spain) (DFG, Handy)
  • Seismicity and stress states in the continental lithosphere (DFG, Handy)
  • Relationship of the Andean orogeny to uplift of the Altiplano Plateau (Chile, Bolivia, Argentina) (DFG-SFB, Handy, Scheuber, Medvedev)
  • Subduction and exhumation mechanisms of coherent crustal units containing high-pressure metamorphic rocks (Western Alps of France, Italy, Switzerland)
  • Late orogenic faulting and strain partitioning; Periadriatic Fault System in the Alps (DFG, Handy, Rosenberg)
  • Melt segregation and migration in ductile shear zones (DFG, Rosenberg, Handy)
  • Ascent and emplacement of granitic melts in the Earth’s crust (DFG, Rosenberg, Handy)
  • Migration of pressurized fluids along shear zones in deep continental crust (DFG, Handy, Rosenberg)


Methods We Use

We study Earth’s changing structure and surface on all scales. To do this, we employ a combination of methods, from the analysis of rock structures in the field, to microstructural and thermochronological studies of minerals in the laboratory, to mapping of large-scale structures with remote-sensing techniques. This is complemented by deformation experiments on rock-analogue materials and numerical modelling studies with computers. Our work is carried out in so-called “natural laboratories”, that is, in areas where previous studies provide a broad scientific context for the detailed study of the themes above. A key aspect of our work is using specialized methods to image Earth’s deep structure and to reconstruct past tectonic events. We therefore depend on close collaboration with specialists in other fields of the earth and natural sciences, for example in isotope geochemistry and thermochronology (for dating rocks and minerals), sedimentology and biostratigraphy (for dating sedimentary structures at Earth’s surface), metamorphic and magmatic petrology (for determining the physical conditions of mineralization at depth) and seismology (for imaging structures deep within Earth, especially in the mantle). We are currently expanding our laboratory facilities to conduct fission track dating of zircon and apatite, partly in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Potsdam and the GFZ Potsdam.


Some Close Partners Outside of the FU-Berlin


Selected Publications of the Past 10 Years (listed youngst to oldest, FU-Tectonics in boldface)

Handy, M.R., Ustaszewski, K., Kissling, E. (2015): Reconstructing the Alps–Carpathians–Dinarides as a key to understanding switches in subduction polarity, slab gaps and surface motion. International Journal of Earth Sciences. 104, 1, 1-26,DOI: 10.1007/s00531-014-1060-3

Pleuger, J. & Podladchikov, Y.Y. (2014): A purely structural restoration of the NFP20-East cross section and potential tectonic overpressure in the Adula nappe (Central Alps). Tectonics, 33(5), 656-685, doi: 10.1002/2013TC003409.

Scharf, A., Handy, M.R., Ziemann, M.A., Schmid, S.M. (2013): Peak-temperature patterns of polyphase metamorphism resulting from accretion, subduction and collision (eastern Tauern Window, European Alps) – a study with Raman microspectroscopy on carbonaceous material (RSCM), Journal of metamorphic Geology, 31(8), 863-880, DOI 10.1111/jmg.12048

Scharf, A., Handy, M.R., Favaro, S., Schmid, S. M., Bertrand, A. (2013): Modes of orogen-parallel stretching and extensional exhumation in response to microplate indentation and roll-back subduction (Tauern Window, Eastern Alps), International Journal of Earth Sciences (Geol Rundsch), 102(6), 1627-1654, DOI 10.1007/s00531-013-0894-4

Le Breton E., Cobbold, P.R., Zanella, A., 2013. Cenozoic reactivation of the Great Glen Fault, Scotland: Additional Evidence and Possible Causes. Journal of the Geological Society, London, Vol. 170, pp. 403-415.doi: 10.1144/jgs2012-067.

Le Breton E., Cobbold, P.R., Dauteuil O. and Lewis G., 2012. Variation in amount and direction of sea-floor spreading along the North East Atlantic Ocean and resulting deformation of the continental margin of North West Europe. Tectonics, 31, TC5006, doi:10.1029/2011TC003087

Giese, J., Seward, D and Schreurs, G. (2012): Low-temperature evolution of the Morondava rift basin shoulder in western Madagascar: An apatite fission track study. Tectonics, 31, TC2009, doi:10.1029/2011TC002921.

Georgiev, N., Pleuger, J., Froitzheim, N., Sarov, S., Jahn-Awe, S. & Nagel, T.J. (2010): Separate Eocene-Early Oligocene and Miocene stages of extension and core complex formation in the Western Rhodopes, Mesta Basin, and Pirin Mountains (Bulgaria). Tectonophysics, 487, 59-84.

Giese, J., Seward, D., Stuart, F.M., Wüthrich, E., Gnos, E., Kurz, D., Eggenberger, U., Schreurs, G. (2010). Electrodynamic disaggregation: Does it affect apatite fission-track and (U-Th)/He analyses? Geostand. Geoanal. Res., 34, 39-48, DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-908X.2009.00013.x

Handy, M.R., Schmid, S.M., Bousquet, R., Kissling, E., Bernoulli, D. (2010): Reconciling plate-tectonic reconstructions with the geological-geophysical record of spreading and subduction in the Alps. Earth Science Reviews, 102, 121-158.

Handy, M.R., Hirth, G. and R. Bürgmann (2007): Fault Structure and Rheology from the Frictional-Viscous Transition Downward. pp. 139-181 in: Tectonic Faults – Agents of Change on a Dynamic Earth, edited by M.R. Handy, G. Hirth, N. Hovius, Dahlem Workshop Report 95, 504 pp., The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., USA

Fusseis, F. and Handy, M.R. (2008): Micromechanisms of shear zone propagation at the brittle to viscous transition, Journal of Structural Geology, doi :10.1016/j.jsg.2008.06.005

Schrank, C.E., Handy, M.R. and F. Fusseis (2008): Multi-scaling of shear zones and the evolution of the brittle-to-viscous transition in continental crust, Journal of Geophysical Research, 113, B01407, doi:10.1029/2006JB004833.

Babist, J., Handy, M.R., Konrad-Schmolke, M. and K. Hammerschmidt (2006). Precollisional, multistage exhumation of subducted continental crust: The Sesia Zone, western Alps. Tectonics, 25, 25, pp., TC6008, doi:10.1029/2005TC001927.

Rosenberg, C.L. and Handy, M.R. (2005): Experimental deformation of partially-melted granite revisited: Implications for the continental crust. Journal of metamorphic Geology, 23, 19-28.


Tectonics courses & courses with tectonic content offered at the FU-Berlin

 *obligatory /elective courses for students in the MSc program “Geodynamics & Geomaterials” and wishing to work in the Tectonics and Sedimentology groups. Other listed courses are required for all BSc and MSc students of Geological Science


BSc Program

  • Earth Science I & II (1st & 2nd Semesters, 6 SWS, Faculty): Introduction to structure of the Earth, Plate Tectonics and its driving forces, 120-150 students
  • Beginning Map Interpretation & Profile Construction (2nd Semester, 2 SWS, Pleuger ): Basic map reading, run as parallel courses for 120-150 students
  • Beginning Field Mapping I (2nd Semester, 2 weeks, Giese, Pleuger ): Basic mapping skills, usually runs as 4-5 parallel courses for c. 100 students
  • Geology of Europe (3rd Semester, 2 SWS, Pleuger ):
  • Tectonics I (5th Semester, 2 SWS lecture, 2 SWS practical, Handy): stress & strain, rock mechanics, fracturing, faulting, folding, shearing, measurement and projection of structures (Note: this is a basic course in Structural Geology)
  • *Tectonics II (6th Semester, 2 SWS lecture, 2 SWS practical, Handy): plate kinematics & mantle dynamics, rifting, spreading, subduction, collision, strike- & oblique-slip


MSc Program

  • Surface Processes & Basin Dynamics (1st Semester, 2 SWS lecture, 2 SWS practical, Le Breton), c. 40 students
  • Dynamics of the Earth (3rd Semester, 2 SWS lecture, 2 SWS practical, Pleuger ): Modelling of plate kinematics, heat flow & mechanisms, rheology, gravimetry & isostacy, etc., for c. 30 students
  • Seminar for current research projects (2 SWS, Faculty): weekly seminar on Thursday afternoons, usually 20 students
  • *Advanced Map Interpretation & Profile Construction (1st Semester, 2 SWS, Pleuger, Groß ): Basic map reading, run as 2 parallel courses for c. 40 students
  • *Advanced Mapping & Seminar (2nd Semester, 2 weeks, Handy, Giese): Usually in complexly faulted and folded areas, 15-20 students
  • *Fabrics & Rheology of Geological Materials (4th Semester, 2 SWS lecture, 2 SWS practical, Handy): micro-deformation mechanisms, experimental rock deformation, mineral and rock rheology, usually 15-20 students
  • *Field trips to areas of special geological significance (2 weeks, Faculty)
  • *Special Themes in Geology (4 SWS, includes seminars): usually offered irregularly or on demand for 10-15 or more students
    • Geology of Mountain Belts – case studies (Handy)
    • Other courses on special offer, also at other Berlin-Posdam institutions
    • *Special Themes in Tectonics (4 SWS, Faculty)
      • Geological Cross Section Balancing (1 week during intersemester period, 2 SWS, Oncken)
      • Other courses on special offer, also at other Berlin-Posdam institutions


  • LP = Leistungspunkte, credits (for students)
  • SWS = Semesterwochenstunden (for faculty), means “number of hours of up-front teaching time per week during the semester” (full-time profs have 9 SWS, postdocs have 4 SWS)
  • Field and Short Courses: 2 SWS per week i.e., for a week of full-day courses