Uncovering links to the past

Jo Whittaker didn't grow up dreaming of rocks, but a field trip to McMurdo Sound sealed her fate. She talks to Elizabeth Finkel about her work.

Peter Whyte

A hundred million years ago Australia, Antarctica and India nestled together as part of the supercontinent Gondwana. Then something titanic rifted them apart.

Jo Whittaker at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at University of Tasmania believes a “plume”, a gigantic lava pipe, under the Kerguelen plateau in the Southern Ocean could be to blame.

Whittaker didn’t grow up dreaming of rocks – “I was going to be an accountant” – but after degrees in science and commerce at the University of Sydney, a field trip to McMurdo Sound in Antarctica for her master’s sealed her academic fate.

Since then she’s had a meteoric rise, recognised last year with a L’Oréal award for Women in Science.

Her major goal now is to explain how plumes interact with the tectonic plates, occasionally punching through to create island chains like that of Hawaii.

Most of Whittaker’s work is at the computer, building models from satellite maps of the ocean floor and seismic soundings. But she does organise expeditions. In 2011 she sent a team out to discover the origins of two sunken plateaux – Batavia Knoll and Gulden Draak Ridge – 1,600 km west of Perth.

The scientists aboard the RV Southern Surveyor discovered these plateaux had the same mineral composition as continents, most likely pieces broken from India’s crust.

With a three-year-old son, Whittaker does not manage much cruising herself. She’ll also have to pass up an eight-week expedition to explore geothermal activity around the Kerguelen plateau this December aboard Australia’s new Marine National Facility vessel, RV Investigator. Although it would be thrilling, her son provides quite enough excitement, she says.

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