Project highlights

  • Investigate magmatism within a passive continental rift, a fundamental and underexplored volcano-tectonic setting 
  • Develop varied skills, ranging from marine geophysical data interpretation to igneous geochemical analysis, to reconstruct the origin, timing and nature of volcanism 
  • Provide a new understanding of submarine volcanic processes and hazards within the Sicily Channel 


The Sicily Channel is an area of pronounced crustal extension, associated with focused volcanism that includes several submarine edifices. The origin and timing of this volcanism, and how it relates to regional tectonics, remains poorly understood. However, understanding the drivers of magma generation and volcanism in extensional settings is an important and fundamental aspect of plate tectonics. This investigation of the Sicily Channel will add to our understanding of the role of magmatism in passive continental rifts. 

The project takes advantage of a unique dataset collected in 2023 during marine research expedition M191 (RV Meteor). This completed extensive seafloor mapping in the Sicily Channel, alongside magnetic data, sub-bottom profiling, and a set of volcanic rock samples that will form the main basis of this PhD project. These samples include material from previously unsampled submarine volcanoes, or unknown age, through to material from a submarine eruption in 1831. The aim of the project is to establish how, when and where volcanism was generated in the region. A combination of dating, geochemical and petrological methods, and the interpretation of morphological and geophysical data will be used to provide a greatly advanced picture of magma generation and volcanic activity in the area. The project will establish: the characteristics, timing and origin of volcanism at large submarine edifices located at the end of rift segments and off the main rift, and contrast these with volcanism on the emergent structures of Linosa and Pantelleria; the nature of dispersed, monogenetic and young volcanism on the north side of the rift, including the Graham Bank eruption of 1831; the current context of submarine volcanic hazards in the region, based on an updated record of on- and off-rift volcanism. 

The project will provide the opportunity to work within an international and cross-disciplinary team, include igneous geochemists, marine geologists and geophysicists. There will be opportunities to gain expertise in varied petrological and geochemical methods, including work in overseas facilities (trace element and isotope analyses; electron probe micro-analysis) and in dating techniques, alongside gaining expertise in the interpretation of marine geological data and submarine volcanic processes. 

A map highlighting volcanic sites in the Sicily Channel rift and two photographs of rock samples.

Figure 1: (Left) Map highlighting volcanic sites in the Sicily Channel rift, overlain on a seafloor map showing the main rift grabens (in blue). (Right) Photographs of submarine volcanic rock samples collected on expedition M191 in July/August 2023, which will be analysed within this project. 


University of Birmingham


  • Dynamic Earth


Project investigator

Sebastian Watt (UoB)


Aaron Micallef (MBARI, California, USA)

Maxim Portnyagin (GEOMAR, Kiel, Germany)

How to apply


The project will work with a recently collected sample set which will form the main focus for the project. A representative suite of samples will be selected from across the study area, and potentially supplemented with onshore material from Pantelleria and Linosa, with the potential for project fieldwork. Initial thin-section characterisation will be followed by mineral-scale analysis (EPMA), whole rock chemistry (XRF, ICP-MS) and isotope geochemistry (Pb, Hf, Sr, Nd). Collectively, results will be used to determine and contrast melt generation conditions across the different centres, and to evaluate crustal storage and modificationThis will provide the framework for a new interpretation of the distribution and drivers of volcanism in this extensional setting. The timing, style and age of volcanism will be evaluated both through the interpretation of marine mapping and geophysical datasets, in conjunction with the dating of selected samples (provisionally via Ar/Ar dating).  

Training and skills

Students will be awarded CENTA2 Training Credits (CTCs) for participation in CENTA2-provided and ‘free choice’ external training. One CTC equates to 1⁄2 day session and students must accrue 100 CTCs across the three years of their PhD.  

The project student will benefit from working within a well established and international team. They will be trained in methods for analysing and interpreting volcanic datasets, including geochemical and petrological analysis, and the interpretation and modelling of geochemical data. They will also gain experience in manipulating and interpreting marine geological and geophysical data. More broadly, there will be opportunities throughout the project to develop collaborative skills within a cross-disciplinary team, including the presentation and publication of results generated within the project. 

Partners and collaboration

This project will sit within an international team and thereby offer several opportunities to engage with project partners. Within the supervisory team, partners at international institutions will provide opportunities to host the student during visits to work with data or undertake laboratory analyses. Additional opportunities for visits and input from partners within the wider research-project team will also be available. 

Further details

Further details on how to contact the supervisor for this project and how to apply for this project can be found here: 

For any enquiries related to this project please contact Sebastian Watt, [email protected]. 

To apply to this project: 

  • You must include a CENTA studentship application form, downloadable from: CENTA Studentship Application Form 2024. 
  • You must include a CV with the names of at least two referees (preferably three) who can comment on your academic abilities. 
  • Please submit your application and complete the host institution application process via:   Please select the PhD Geography and Environmental Science (CENTA) 2024/25 Apply Now button. The CENTA application form 2024 and CV can be uploaded to the Application Information section of the online form.  Please quote CENTA 2024-B46  when completing the application form. 

Applications must be submitted by 23:59 GMT on Wednesday 10th January 2024. 

Possible timeline

Year 1

Sample selection, petrological preparation and interpretation, identification of samples for further processing, bulk geochemistry and selection of samples for dating.

Year 2

Isotope geochemistry, electron probe micro-analysis, geochemical modelling and interpretation, dating.

Year 3

Full evaluation of magmatic framework for region; interpretation of development of volcanic processes and present-day hazards.

This timeline focuses on the main methods. Alongside this, there will be opportunities to present results and a plan for publication of the constituent project datasets and interpretations within Years 2 and 3. 

Further reading

Civile, D. et al. (2018) Capo Granitola-Sciacca Fault Zone (Sicilian Channel, Central mediterranean): Structure vs magmatism. Marine and Petroleum Geology 96, 627-644. 

White, C. et al. (2020) Geochemical constraints on basalt petrogenesis in the Strait of Sicily Rift Zone (Italy): Insights into the importance of short lengthscale mantle heterogeneity. Chemical Geology 545, 119650.