Geology, Tectonics, Stratigraphy (incl. Biostratigraphy and Sequence Stratigraphy), Structural Geology, Archean tectonics, early life, global geodynamics.
Field of Research (FoR)
My research interests span the lithosphere, biosphere. and atmosphere, across a broad range of disciplines relating to early Earth, from global tectonics to early life, and pretty much everything in between. This work has been achieved through multi-disciplinary collaboration with researchers from around the world and is published in 148 papers, 34 geological maps, 4 books, and three popular science articles that have had significant impact...view more
My research interests span the lithosphere, biosphere. and atmosphere, across a broad range of disciplines relating to early Earth, from global tectonics to early life, and pretty much everything in between. This work has been achieved through multi-disciplinary collaboration with researchers from around the world and is published in 148 papers, 34 geological maps, 4 books, and three popular science articles that have had significant impact (Google Scholar h-index of 50; 8837 citations).
I joined UNSW at the start of 2012, after almost two decades in government geological surveys. At UNSW, I supervise a team of Higher Degree Research students, annually present two undergraduate courses (GEOS2131 Field Methds and mapping, and GEOS3171 Earth Structures), and act as the director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology (https://www.aca.unsw.edu.au/), as well as UNSW's Big Questions Institute (http://bqi.unsw.edu.au/). In 2017-2018 I was the Head of the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, the largest school in the Faculty of Science and relinquished the position in order to devote time to my newly awarded ARC Discovery Project.
Transformative science breakthroughs include the recognition of the oldest Wilson Cycle associated with a 3.2 Ga onset of modern-style plate tectonics, a plume-related origin for Archean crust of the Pilbara and Kaapvaal cratons, a hydrothermally-dominated volcanic caldera setting for the earliest convincing evidence of life on Earth, the co-discovery of the world’s oldest stromatolites in 3.7 billion-year-old rocks from West Greenland, secular changes in the tectonics of Earth, and remains of organic matter trapped in 3.5 billion-year-old stromatolites.
Our group’s research on early life has established a connection between the earliest putative fossil remains and low-temperature hydrothermal systems (including terrestrial hot springs), and recognised that life in the early Archean was already diverse, occupying different niches. Through mapping and collaborative laboratory research, we have developed new and comprehensive geological models for the environments of Earth’s oldest fossils. This research has also helped to establish the biogenicity of ancient fossils, through a wide variety of tests based on field and laboratory studies in collaboration with experts from around the globe. The results have been widely published in major journals and have been used in the search for life on Mars in collaboration with NASA scientists. In August 2019, I led the science mission teams for both NASA’s Perseverance and the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover teams on a week-long fieldtrip through the Pilbara as training for their upcoming exploration of the Red Planet (see links at bottom of this page).
I am a regular invited keynote speaker at international conferences and have presented for many television documentary programs, including BBC’s Stargazing Live program, ABC TV’s QandA program, and many others. In 2016, I and my PhD student Tara Djokic, were the feature scientists for an hour-long 3-D IMAX movie, Earth Story, released globally in 2018-19. Tara’s research was also highlighted in a TedX talk that has received half-a-million views.
Top 10 publications
- Nutman, A.P., Bennett, V.C., Friend, C.R.L., Van Kranendonk, M.J., Chivas, A. (2016): Rapid emergence of life shown by discovery of 3,700-million-year-old microbial structures. Nature 537, 535-538. DOI 10.1038/nature19355
- Van Kranendonk, M.J. (2006): Volcanic degassing, hydrothermal circulation and the flourishing of early life on Earth: new evidence from the Warrawoona Group, Pilbara Craton, Western Australia. Earth-Science Reviews, v. 74, p. 197-240.
- Baumgartner, R., Van Kranendonk, M.J., Wacey, D., Fiorentini, M., Saunders, M., Caruso, S., Pagès, A., Homann, M., and Guagliardo, P., (2019): Nano-porous pyrite and organic matter in 3.5 billion-year-old stromatolites record primordial life. Geology, v. 47, p. 1039-1043.
- Van Kranendonk, M.J., Philippot, P., Lepot, K., Bodorkos, S., Pirajno, F. (2008): Geological setting of Earth’s oldest fossils in the c. 3.5 Ga Dresser Formation, Pilbara Craton, Western Australia. Precambrian Research 167, 93-124.
- Van Kranendonk, M.J., Smithies, R.H., Hickman, A.H., Champion, D.C. (2007): Secular tectonic evolution of Archaean continental crust: interplay between horizontal and vertical processes in the formation of the Pilbara Craton, Australia. Terra Nova, v. 19(1), p. 1-38.
- Brasier, M.D., Green, O.R., Jephcoat, A.P., Kleppe, A.K., Van Kranendonk, M.J., Lindsay, J.F., Steele, A., Grassineau, N. (2002): Questioning the evidence for Earth's oldest fossils. Nature, v. 416, p. 76-81.
- Van Kranendonk, M.J., Kirkland, C.L. (2016): Conditioned duality of the Earth System: Geochemical tracing of the supercontinent cycle through the Precambrian. Earth-Science Reviews 160, 171-187. DOI
- Van Kranendonk, M.J. (2010): Two types of Archean continental crust: plume and plate tectonics on early Earth. American Journal of Science 310, 1187–1209.
- Williford, K.H., Van Kranendonk, M.J., Ushikubo, T., Kozdon, R., Valley, J.W. (2011): Constraining atmospheric oxygen and seawater sulfate concentrations during Paleoproterozoic glaciation: in situ sulfur three-isotope microanalysis of pyrite from the Turee Creek Group, Western Australia. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 75, 5686–5705.
- Van Kranendonk, M.J., Collins, W.J., Hickman, A.H., Pawley, M.J. (2004): Critical tests of vertical vs horizontal tectonic models for the Archaean East Pilbara Granite-Greenstone Terrane, Pilbara Craton, Western Australia. Precambrian Research, v. 131, p. 173-211.
1/09/2019: ABC news online
17/06/2019: Q&A on ABC TV:
Tara’s Djokic’s TedX talk
My Research Supervision
Areas of supervision
Early life on Earth
Origin of Life on Earth, in terrestrial hot springs
Search for life on Mars
Tara Djokic (PhD): Hot spring deposits and early life in the 3.48 Ga Dresser Fm
Clare Fletcher (MPhil): Conservation of Pilbara stromatolites
Michalea Dobson (PhD, U. Auckland): Hot spring deposits and early life in the 3.48 Ga Dresser Fm
Sahand Tadbiri (PhD): Structural and magmatic history of the Sydney basin
Bonnie Teece (PhD): Organic geochemsitry of ancient rocks
Brendan Nomchong (PhD): Environment of a Paleoproterozoic microbial reef complex, Turee Creek Group, Western Australia
Georgia Soares (PhD): A new type of life in a Paleoproterozoic microbial reef complex, Turee Creek Group, Western Australia
Ruaa Alohali (MSc): Hydrocarbon potential of the Dalim field, Saudi Arabia
Janice Leung (PPhil): Tectonics of the New England Orogen (NSW)
Annaliese Meyer (Scientia PhD): Origin of digitate sinter nodules and the search for life on Mars