Nicola Mari

Planetary Geologist ● Volcanologist ● Cosmochemist

Biography

In brief - who am I?

I’m a Postdoc Researcher in Planetary Geosciences at the University of Pavia (Italy), as a Co-Investigator of the BepiColombo mission (in collaboration with ESA and INAF), in order to reveal the geochemistry of Mercury lava surface and to calibrate the on board VIHI instrument.

I obtained my PhD in Martian Geochemistry at the University of Glasgow (UK), as part of the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Research Group. I used geochemistry on Martian lava flows (Martian meteorites), lent in collaboration with NASA and the Natural History Museum of London, to reveal the interior temperature and composition, volcanic processes, and planetary evolution of Mars. In 2020 I found the first evidence of volcanic convection in a magma chamber on Mars – a discovery that received worldwide media attention.

I also use various cosmochemical approaches to analyze other extraterrestrial material. Occasionally, I use my scientific data to inform present and future space missions activities.

On Earth, I investigated the magmatic system of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano (Iceland) and of Pacaya and Fuego volcanoes (Guatemala). I also conducted a research period about active italian volcanoes at the italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) and often contribute to the study of geological hazards in Italy. In the academy, I’ve been an Associate Lecturer at the University of Glasgow (UK) and a Panelist for NASA in evaluating grant proposals. I’m greatly involved with scientific divulgation both in organizing conferences and in the media.

Prologue

“No, Nicola! don’t go there! …it’s dark!”. These were the words that mostly signed my first 2 years of existence. The darkness. I was always fashinating by the mystery and the unknown. The last frontier of the unknown for the mankind it is represented by the cosmos, the mysteries of our Universe. Understanding the cosmos and the planets was my passion from when I was 3 years old, I passed almost every day of my childhood drawing planets, also imagining how the surfaces of these alien worlds could look like.

Chapter 0 - Predestined

During my adolescence my passion for Planets has grown parallel to that for Computer Science, so that I was confused which of the two topics could be relevant for my future life, and so for my academic application. Apparentely, life chose at my place: the icelandic Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted the day in which I had to make the choice. All the European airflights were cancelled; my airflight was one of those. I had to depart to do the academic application in Computer Science studies, but that day I decided to pursue my primordial passion by doing the application for Geology studies. I called that volcano the “volcano of destiny”. It was a lucky accident.

Chapter 1 - The power of geology (Bachelor's Degree)

My real adventure start here. During the first year of Geology in Italy I realized that it is the topic that I really like and I started to understand how a planet works (tectonics, chemistry, physics, volcanoes). I liked to read several books on geological and planetary topics and collected tons of rock, mineral, and fossil samples during my excursions that I subsequently cataloged. Also, adventures around Europe and Asia (Maldive islands) opened my mind on how planet Earth and, in general, planetary processes works. I was very enthusiastic about this world and fashinated to know how much stories and information a single mineral can tell you when you study its chemistry. The way in which I looked at the natural environment changed forever. In the end I went in Iceland to the “volcano of destiny”. In a last attempt where I tried to discover what caused the eruption (and so what really determined my destiny) I analyzed samples of lava erupted on the fateful day, finding out that a phenomenon of magma mixing triggered the explosive eruption the day before the powerful event.

Chapter 2 - A volcanic adventure (Master's Degrees)

I realized that Volcanology really fascinate me and also wanted to investigate deeper into magma mixing phenomena during volcanic eruptions – so I continued on this way. I was selected for an international project in USA in order to obtain two Master’s Degree in Geology and in Volcanology, respectively, between Italy and USA. I went overseas, in Michigan, where I continued my researches on magma mixing phenomena. In Michigan, I met researchers that gave me lava samples from Pacaya and Fuego volcanoes (Guatemala) that come from eruptions with different degree of explosivity, but similar chemistry, suspecting that magma mixing could cause this variations in explosivity (as happened in Iceland). In the meantime, I had the opportunity to explore both the Western and the Eastern coast of USA where I learned more about the geology and also met lot of people that helped me with my researches and suggestions. To complete my research, I needed other samples from the Pacaya volcano, so I joined an expedition in Guatemala to go to collect them. In Guatemala, I climbed the Pacaya volcano reaching the top, up to the main crater where I collected the last samples. Back in USA, I analyzed all the samples in laboratory and argued for a correlation between magma mixing phenomena and explosivity of volcanic eruptions, and how this could be used as an eruption trigger for other volcanoes on Earth.

Chapter 3 - Call from another world (PhD)

After my graduation, it was the moment to rediscover my primordial passions, Planets and Astronomy, but with the knowledge that I acquired about Geology and Volcanology. I combined all these things and I was lucky in winning a PhD position in UK about Martian Geology, where I had the incredible task of discovering new things about Mars formation and evolution by analysing pieces of lava flows that come from Mars (in the form of Martian meteorites). I was so lucky to end up in a really nice planetary science team, also involved in some way with the most recent space missions. Initially, I had to obtain the pieces of Mars in collaboration with NASA and the NHM of London. Also, I used to collect other geo-volcanological material, in analogue Martian environment islands like Lanzarote (Spain) and the Azores (Central Atlantic Ocean), that could be useful for my experiments and for comparison with Martian lavas. I conducted my analysis of five Martian lava flows and their isotopes, between UK and France. Literally, I had to crush pieces of Mars with my hands! By doing this, in 2019 I discovered that these lavas incorporated sulphur fragments from the Martian surface during their eruption, and that this sulphur carried evidence of hydrothermal activity and an atmosphere on Mars until around 1 billion of years ago. Also, the evidence for a very heterogeneous Martian interior was hidden into my data, with new hints to the formation of Mars. In the meantime, in a different Martian meteorite I spotted minerals that may carry chlorine from the Martian interior: by studying them, I found further evidence of volatile heterogeneity in the Martian interior. I presented these results at conferences in Russia and Japan. Subsequently, by looking in details at a Martian meteorite that was found in the Sahara I spotted weird big green crystals (called ‘olivine’) that come from the Martian mantle. I was so upset of the potential of this meteorite that I also went in the Sahara Desert, close to its fall site, trying to find other pieces of it. I was thinking to use these special olivine crystals as “thermometers” to calculate the temperature of the Martian interior. Initially, I was skeptical about my idea, but in a conference in New Mexico NASA people told me that it would be a great idea! Thus, I continued and concluded my work and in 2020 I discovered that Mars has an internal temperature similar to the primitive Earth, and that it could be still a volcanically active world today. Also, I had with me the first proof of magmatic convection on Mars! This discovery received worldwide attention from the media. Finally, I presented my final PhD discoveries about Mars at the world’s biggest geochemical conference in Hawaii.

……(to be continued)…..