Manolis Veveakis: Cracking Geophysical Enigmas Worldwide

Manolis Veveakis studies the physics of the deep underground to find better ways to predict earthquakes, stabilize mines, safely dispose of nuclear waste and more

Manolis Veveakis has joined the faculty of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke University. With the goal of continuing and expanding on Duke’s strengths in geomechanics, Veveakis applies his developing theories and models to a range of challenges, from understanding why nuclear waste disposal facilities fail to uncovering why a mountain suddenly and violently came crashing down into a lake.

Geomechanics is a field of many scales. Sometimes it deals with how fluids move through and affect tiny pores in rocks, other times on miles of earth cyclically slipping across entire fault lines. But no matter the application, these movements all have two things in common: they take place more than a mile underground and are very difficult to model.

“Understanding what’s happening down there requires a hybrid framework,” explained Veveakis, who joins Duke from the University of New South Wales – Sydney. “Small-scale experiments help us construct computational models of large phenomena, which we use to try to understand events taking place all across the world. And the data taken from the field go back into the models to help them become more accurate and predictive.”

One example of where Veveakis’s research has taken him is Vajont, Italy, home of the Vajont Dam. After the dam was completed in 1959 as one of the largest in the world, it suffered a massive landslide in 1963 that caused an 820-foot-tall megatsunami, completely destroying several villages and towns and causing 1,910 deaths. Why the land suddenly increased from a slow creep of a few inches per year to 75 miles per hour remained a mystery for 40 years, until Veveakis helped crack the case.

More recently, an accident happened in New Mexico, where a barrel of nuclear waste had exploded in an underground nuclear dump. With costs potentially topping $2 billion, the accident was quickly blamed on the switch from a mineral substance used to soak up liquids in sealed drums to an organic one—kitty litter. But why exactly that switch caused the accident remains a mystery.

“It’s a different environment when you’re that deep underground,” said Veveakis, who has been recruited to help find the answer. “The temperatures, chemistry and behavior of materials are all totally different than what you see on the surface.”

Back in the lab, Veveakis will continue to refine his theories and models of how these systems work, so that he can ultimately offer design solutions to such problems. For example, the work he did at Vajont Dam has changed the criteria needed for mine slopes to be deemed safe and clarified what parameters need to be monitored to ensure their stability.

The end goal is to develop models that can recreate conditions anywhere. While the geology of the Earth is not uniform, even that far underground, the conditions are similar enough that a good understanding of geophysics should be able to be applied all over the world.

As for why he’s moving his work to Duke when his work takes him all over the globe, Veveakis says it’s all about the people.

“I know there are legends in research at Duke,” said Veveakis. “One of them is Tomasz Hueckel, who has helped shape the field of geophysics for several decades. It will be a big challenge to continue to expand on the work already being done at Duke, but I know I will help Duke improve, and vice versa.”