School of GeoSciences

School of GeoSciences



Chair of Stratigraphy, Grant Institute of Earth Science,
School of Geosciences, The University of Edinburgh

Associate Professor, Department of Petroleum Engineering,
Heriot-Watt University

Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (FRSE)

Fellow of the Geological Society since 1982 (Council Member 2005-08)

Head of the Earth & Planetary Sciences Research Group in The School of Geosciences

Vice President of the European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers (EAGE)

Work Address & Contact Details:

Grant Institute of Earth Science,
School of Geosciences,
The University of Edinburgh,
The King's Buildings,
West Mains Road,
EH9 3JW,
Scotland, U.K.

e-mail address:

Telephone: 0131-650-8518 (direct line)
Telephone: 0131-650-1000 (switchboard)
Fax Number: 0131-668-3184
Telex: 727442 (UNIVED G)

Click here to e-mail John now:

Recent Research Work Highlights

Most recently John has lead an international team that has undertaken geoscientific tests to investigate whether Odysseus homeland, ancient Ithaca could have been located on the western Kefalonian peninsula called Paliki. If the theory proves to be correct, geoscience will have contributed to the resolution of a problem that has perplexed classical Greek scholars and archaeologists for centuries, namely: why doesn't the modern island of the same name fit with Homer's original geographical description in the Odyssey that it is low-lying, is surrounded by other islands (to the east) and lies facing dusk (furthest to the west)?

Please click here for a low-resolution .pdf file of the Geoscientist Article that appeared on the subject that was published in September 2006

Please click here for a link to the Geotimes Article that appeared on the subject that was published in January 2007

and here for an extra link to a subsequent Geotimes Article that updated American Geological institute readers following the release of new results

The latest results from offshore seismic interpretation, gravity profiling and micropalaeontological dating from the borehole drilled in October are now available and lend support to the radical new hypothesis being proposed.

Please click here for the latest geological results that was published on January 9th 2007

The worldwide interest in the project and the results gleaned from the most recent geophysical and geological fieldwork are such that Radio New Zealand interviewed John recently and Channel 4 presented them on their evening News programme broadcast between 1900-2000h on Tuesday 9th January.

Please click here to listen to John discussing the latest geological results with Radio New Zealand

Publication in Earth and Planetary Science Letters

John was co-author of a paper published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters (volume 234, pp401-419) entitled: "Spatio-temporal evolution of strain accumulation derived from multi-scale observations of Late Jurassic rifting in the northern North Sea: A critical test of models for lithospheric extension". The paper reports the results of collaboration with colleagues at Edinburgh, Washington and Woods Hole. A pdf file of the paper can be downloaded from the following address:

Please click here for a .pdf file of the article

Publication in Nature (18 March 2004): An alternative origin for the "Silverpit crater"

John's work in the North Sea resulted in a 'Communication Arising' in Nature in 2004. The full citation for the article is: Underhill, J.R. 2004. An alternative origin for the "Silverpit crater". Nature (18 March 2004); doi:10.1038/nature02476

Recent interpretation of three-dimensional seismic data in the Southern North Sea has led to the recognition of a concentric, multi-ringed depression ("the Silverpit Crater"), the genesis of which has been attributed to a meteor impact. Whilst this interpretation has understandably excited the scientific community, an independent evaluation of the well-calibrated and densely-spaced seismic data suggests that the structure has a different origin. The new interpretation attributes its formation to salt withdrawal at depth rather than extraterrestrial impact.

Silverpit Seismic

Seismic line (a) and corresponding geological cross-section (b) through the Silverpit area.

The figure shows a seismic line that transects the centre of the "Silverpit Crater" and demonstrates the structural relief of folding and the exact coincidence between the synclines and thinning of Upper Permian Zechstein Group evaporites at depth. The implication is that the feature is simply one of a number of unusual but similar structures that resulted from salt withdrawal at depth rather than meteor impact. The stratigraphic relationships imply that the structure did not result from a single episode of evaporite mobility but had a long-lived growth history starting in the Mesozoic and continuing in the Cenozoic.

Please click here for a .pdf file of the Silverpit Article that appeared in Nature

Please click here for a .pdf file of the Figure from the Nature article

Go to The Geological Society of London's Breaking News Page on this topic.

Main Research Interests

John's primary research interests are in the use of seismic and sequence stratigraphic methods through fieldwork and subsurface interpretation to investigate and quantify the structure, stratigraphy and depositional history of sedimentary basins. Recent studies have focused upon understanding the development and evolution of structural styles, the tectonic controls on sediment dispersal and the petroleum habitat in rift-related, tectonically inverted, contractional and salt-influenced basins such as the North Sea, the Wessex Basin of Southern England, the Gulf of Suez, the Western USA, the East African Rift, the South Atlantic and the Hellenides of Western Greece. Access to well-calibrated and extensive 3-D seismic coverage from the North Sea rift province has provided a superb natural laboratory in which to demonstrate and quantify the effects of, and feedback resulting from, thermal doming and extensional fault growth. Most recently, restoration for the effects of Jurassic deformation have also revealed the hitherto unknown and poorly understood nature of Triassic basin development in the area.

Finally, through his association with the Grant Institute's Tethyan Research Group, John continues to pursue his long-standing interest in contractional tectonics and basin development in the Hellenide fold-and-thrust belt and the neotectonic development of the Eastern Mediterranean. Most recently, John has returned to the Ionian Islands in order to investigate the role that outer arc deformation and uplift has had in controlling complex and apparently anomalous outcrop patterns (e.g. in SE Kephalonia).

The image to the right is a Time Structure Map of the Base Cretaceous Seismic Reflector in the East Shetland Basin in the Northern North Sea. Illumination is from the west (left). Warmer colours reflect higher structural relief; cooler colours depict depth. The image nicely illustrates how far extensional fault growth and linkage had advanced on the western flank of the North Viking Graben by the end of Late Jurassic rifting.

Base Cretaceous TWT image

Ionian Thrust, Poros

The three photographs here depict aspects of the tectonics of SE Kephalonia that John is currently investigating.

The image on the left gives a view looking NNW of the easterly dipping Triassic and Jurassic carbonates that lie in the immediate hangingwall of the Ionian Thrust in the Poros area.

Poros, SE Kephalonia

The middle photograph shows evidence in the form of wave-cut notches for rapid uplift that has affected the region; the lower tier is known to have risen out of the sea during the devestating earthquake of August 1953.

Palaeokastron, SE Kephalonia

This image was taken from a vantage point to the SW of the village of Pastra. Recent fieldwork in the area has demonstrated that the hillside behind the village (termed Palaeokastron or Proni) consists of Miocene conglomerates onlapping onto Mesozoic limestones.

Underhill on fieldwork

This image is taken at a vantage point overlooking Upheaval Dome in Canyonlands, Utah. The structure has been subject to competing theories ast to whether it was the result of bolide impact or salt mobility.

National and International Recognition

John was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (FRSE) on 1st March 2004

John was elected and served on The Geological Society Council between 2005 and 2008

Committee Membership:

John is an active member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Earth Sciences, to which he was appointed in 2003. The group meets on a monthly basis at The House of Parliament, Westminster, London. The meetings provide a forum through which to brief MPs and Lords on matters relating to Earth Science. During the past year issues as diverse as 'Blood Diamonds', 'The Geological Sequestration of Carbon Dioxide' and 'Controls on Coastal Erosion of the UK Coastlines' have been addressed.

He was a member of the NERC Assessment Panel for Petroleum-Related MSc Courses in 1992 that evaluated the degree courses at Aberdeen University, Imperial College, Royal Holloway and Bedford New College and Reading University


John has recieved the following national and international awards:

Geological Society Wollaston Fund, 2000

American Association of Petroleum Geologists' Matson Award for Excellence in Presentation, Annual Meeting, Calgary, 1992

Distinguished Lecturer Award: European Association of Petroleum Geoscientists Meeting, Paris, 1992

Geological Society's President's Award, 1990

Distinguished Lecturer Award: Inaugural European Association of Petroleum Geoscientists Meeting, Berlin 1989

Best Student Talk, Tectonics Studies Group, Glasgow 1983;

Invited Lecture Tour:

American Association of Petroleum Geologists Distinguished Lecturer, US & Canada Tour, 1998-99

School of Geoscience Duties:

Final Year Geology Degree Course Organiser: 2002-2005

Convenor of the Earth Sciences, Board of Examiners: 2005-2008

Director of Undergraduate Studies (DoS): 1999-2003; 2008-

External Examiner Duties

BSc and MSci University of Oxford

MSc Courses in Tectonics and in Basin Dynamics at Royal Holloway & Bedford New College (RHBNC), The University of London

MSc Course in Petroleum Geology, The University of Aberdeen, 1995-1998