Nanyang Technological University

The master of the earth:
Professor Paul Tapponnier


Widely recognised as the foremost scientist of his generation in the field of neotectonics (which studies the motions of the Earth's crust), Prof Paul Tapponnier joined NTU's Earth Observatory of Singapore as the head of the Tectonics Group in 2009.

He had spent more than three decades at Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris in France, where he built France's leading centre for tectonic science – the esteemed Laboratoire Tectonique – and trained scores of scientists who are now experts in the field.

In the late 70s and early 80s, Prof Tapponnier proposed, along with Prof Peter Molnar, that much of the buckling of land in Eastern Asia – where large earthquakes frequently occurred – was the result of India colliding into Asia at the rate of more than two inches per year. This work became the first coherent global explanation for the series of land deformations that had been observed in the Himalayan and Tibetan regions.

Besides discovering the great active faults of Tibet, the professor also pioneered the use of satellite imagery in tectonics research. His technique has greatly influenced modern methods of research into the movements of the Earth.

Prof Tapponnier is among the top scientists that NTU has recruited to lead its earth sciences initiative. Backed by S$150 million in government grants, the Earth Observatory of Singapore represents a first for the region and will put NTU at the forefront of the earth sciences, with discoveries that will enable Southeast Asian communities to better address and mitigate the risks of natural disasters.

The opportunity to do ambitious research in service of Southeast Asian communities sealed the deal for Prof Tapponnier. Equally attractive was the promise of adequate funding – far more than what the renowned scientist said he could hope to secure from French government agencies, as reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Prof Tapponnier has received numerous scientific medals and other top awards for his achievements, including induction into the Légion d’Honneur, the highest award given by the French Republic for outstanding service to the nation. In 2005, in recognition of his work in Asia, he was the only French person to become a member of the American National Academy of Sciences.

He is an Honorary Fellow of the Geological Society of America and is active in scientific publishing, having served as Associate Editor of Tectonophysics, Geology and Tectonics, and Editor of Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

With interests that run the range from continental dynamics and tectonics (particularly in the Asian and Mediterranean regions) to earthquake hazard assessment and rock mechanics, Prof Tapponnier will continue to break new ground in his quest to understand the tremendous forces that have created and shaped our land.

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