Scott D. King, professor of geophysics and planetary science in the Department of Geosciences, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science, has been elected as a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU), the world's largest Earth and space sciences association, annually recognizes a select number of individuals for its highest honors. Since 1962, its Union Fellows Committee has selected fewer than one new fellow for every thousand members. King joined 53 other fellows in the 2023 Class.

A member of the Department of Geosciences since 2007, King is best known for developing the theory of edge-driven convection. He recognized that volcanic activity that occurs away from tectonic plate boundaries occurs in spatial association with the edges of the old and stable parts of the crust that have survived merging and splitting for at least 500 million years.

King noted that the cold vertical edge of these stable regions will cool the adjacent mantle causing it to sink — driving small-scale, edge-driven convection. Studies of volcanism in Africa, Bermuda, the Canadian Rocky Mountains, China, the Colorado Plateau, and South America support the hypothesis.

“Edge-driven convection has important implications for the volcanic history of continent/ocean boundaries that are not tectonically active, including right here on the Eastern seaboard,” said King.

King was selected a fellow because of his outstanding scientific achievements, contributions to furthering scientific advancement, and exemplary leadership. He also embodies the American Geophysical Union’s vision of a thriving, sustainable, and equitable future powered by discovery, innovation, and action, according to the organization. Equally important, the organization said, he has conducted himself with integrity, respect, and collaboration while creating deep engagement in education, diversity, and outreach.

“Scott has led fundamental advances in our understanding of the inner workings of Earth and other planetary bodies, through numerical simulation of the ways that planetary interiors convect,” said Steven Holbrook, head of the Department of Geosciences. “He is a leader in linking those models to global seismic images, and in creating and supporting open-access computational methods for the geoscience community. He is a dedicated teacher, mentor, and friend, and we are delighted that he has received this well-deserved recognition by his peers.”

Out of this world

In recent years King has he applied his fluid mechanic insight to address several outstanding problems within other planets. In addition to his work on Earth, he has published papers on Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Ceres and his "bucket list" includes publishing research on every planet in the solar system.

On Venus, King exploited an observation that had been previously overlooked by the community to show that the global resurfacing favored by many scientists to explain the small number of impact craters on the surface would bury cold, dense material deep within the interior causing it to wobble much like a tire out of balance.

On Ceres, the largest object in the main asteroid belt, King showed that the absence of large impact craters, the unusually high plateau, and the stress features observed near that plateau can be explained by a single, transient buoyant upwelling from deep within the interior as the decay of radioactive elements heats the initially cold dwarf planet. This favors the theory that the interior of Ceres is more like “creamy nougat” than the “crunchy jawbreaker” that some have suggested, according to King.

King has been selected as a guest investigator on two NASA missions: Dawn at Ceres, which orbited the dwarf planet Cere, and InSight, which placed a seismometer and heat flow probe on the surface of Mars. He is currently a member of the VenSAR instrument team. VenSAR is a NASA contributed synthetic aperture radar that will be part of the European Space Agency’s EnVision mission to Venus.

“It is an honor to be an AGU fellow,” King said. “I am taking this opportunity to pause and reflect on the many people who helped me become a better scientist, then thinking about how I can help others.”

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