Peter E. van Keken
Staff Scientist

Peter van Keken

Research Interests

Thermal and chemical evolution of the Earth; causes and consequences of plate tectonics; finite element modeling of mantle convection, subduction zone dynamics and mantle plumes; integration of geodynamics with seismology, geochemistry and mineral physics; parallel computing; scientific visualization.


B.S., University of Utrecht, The Netherlands, 1989
Ph.D., cum Laude, University of Utrecht, The Netherlands, 1993

Contact & Links


Peter van Keken
Mantle convection in the Earth introduces heterogeneity through the subduction of basalt (black tracers) in subduction zones (blue regions). As this heterogeneity warms up it mixes back into the mantle but can also form dense piles near the core-mantle boundary (dark red regions). Inner circle is the core-mantle boundary; outer circle is the surface of the Earth. Mantle mixing calculations such as these allow for quantitative tests of scenarios that have been put forward to describe the chemical and thermal evolution of the Earth’s mantle since its formation. The modeling is described in Brandenburg et al., Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 2008.

Peter van Keken studies the dynamics that underlie plate tectonics. The tectonic evolution of the Earth is driven by the slow release of heat from the Earth's interior that is conducted and advected by the slow solid-state deformation of the Earth's mantle. The melting at mid-oceanic ridges and subsequent recycling of the oceanic lithosphere at subduction zones imparts unique chemical characteristics, which over the long term cause a profound chemical evolution of the Earth's mantle as is seen in mid-oceanic ridge and hotspot lavas.

Van Keken develops computational models that use finite element techniques to solve the governing equations for slow convection in the silicate Earth. These models use constraints from mineral physics and petrology and are tested using constraints from geodynamics (such as plate velocities and surface heatflow), seismology (tomography, receiver functions, phase conversions), geochemistry (radiogenic isotope constraints on mantle composition) and petrology (mineral stability under high pressure and temperature). Significant work is performed in collaborative and interdisciplinary projects with researchers in the United States (the University of Michigan, Cornell, UC Santa Barbara, Columbia University) and abroad (Tohoku University, Oxford, Imperial, ETH Zürich).

His research has focused in recent years on the use of constraints from geochemistry in testing long-term evolution models of the Earth's mantle (Brandenburg et al., 2008; van Keken, 2013), the dynamics and seismic discoverability of mantle plumes (Hwang et al., 2011; Styles et al., 2011; Bossmann and van Keken, 2013) and the thermal structure and dynamics of subduction zones (e.g., van Keken et al., 2003; Syracuse et al., 2010; Wilson et al., 2014) with a specific focus on the role of volatiles (van Keken et al., 2011), arc magmatism (Kimura et al., 2010; 2014; Turner et al., 2012) and the nature of intermediate-depth seismicity (van Keken et al., 2012; Barcheck et al., 2012; Abers et al., 2013).

As part of his specialization in computational geodynamics van Keken develops community benchmarks (e.g., van Keken et al., 1997; 2010; King et al., 2010), develops high-resolution 3D models of subduction (Kneller and van Keken, 2007; Bengtson and van Keken, 2012; Morishige and van Keken, 2014) and tests numerical models against laboratory experiments (van Keken, 1997; Vatteville et al., 2009; van Keken et al., 2013).  He has contributed to reviews on mantle convection and its role in the geochemical evolution of the Earth (van Keken et al., 2002; 2004; van Keken, 2013), the dynamics of subduction zones (van Keken, 2003) and the nature of hot spot volcanism (Ito and van Keken, 2007; Ballmer et al., 2015).