Chris Kincaid

  • Professor of Oceanography
  • Marine Geology and Geophysics
  • Phone: 401.477.2330
  • Email:
  • Office Location: Rm 209 Horn Laboratory


Dr. Chris Kincaid’s office has a spectacular view of Narragansett Bay but it is not the view that attracts a visitor’s eye –sitting right in front of the sweeping window is a relic from the Age of Aquarius—a lava lamp.

Its liquid has turned a strange color but it still works as a reminder of some of Kincaid’s research into the mysteries of Earth’s mantle. When turned on, the lamp heats the liquid, creating curling plumes that rise to the top, miniature reminders of some of the intriguing things that are happening on and in Earth when tectonic plates converge.

These areas of Earth, subduction zones being one, are being targeted by several GSO scientists including Kincaid because it has been shown that the mantle convection zones are the main drivers of the exchange of material between the deep earth and the ocean and the atmosphere.

There are three main components involved in shaping the crust/mantle system, says Kincaid—mid ocean ridges, subduction zones and mantle plumes. Most often these are studied independently.

“What we are trying to do is be the first ones to look at how these drivers of the Earth System interact with one another in a 3-D, time varying framework. For example, how do plumes behave near subduction zones or beneath spreading ridges, compared to textbook depictions?”

Kincaid and others have two different grants for this work—one involves famed Yellowstone National Park and the somewhat adjacent Pacific Northwest Cascades and another subduction zone far away in the South Pacific in the area of Tonga.

He has been able to describe the expected characteristics of upward moving mantle plumes, which result in surface hot spots (where volcanism occurs) near plate boundaries especially in subduction zones. He has been able to describe the distribution of the mantle plume responsible for the Yellowstone hot spot volcano.

There is debate about how plumes work, says Kincaid and much study needs to be done. One aspect is an effect called “rollback” that occurs when a plate descends. While most models suggest a plate descends almost straight down, there are indications that the descending plates undergo a rollback action because there is matter behind the plate that offers resistance.

To further study the rollback phenomenon, Kincaid found a researcher in Australia who was investigating the same thing and the researcher immediately invited him to come on down. The facility in Australia, he said, is a fantastic place to work and he found that in three months there he could accomplish what took him a year elsewhere. This collaboration led to the creation of a working model detailing the dynamics of subduction zones. The 4-D model has time as the fourth dimension and the time factor of one minute in the lab equals 4 million years in Earth time.

While the mantle, plumes and subduction zones are one part of his research life, he has another altogether different field of study—coastal waters. In collaboration with others he has been able to produce a model of the water inflow, outflow and flushing of Narragansett Bay. The result is a good understanding of flow in the bay during normal and abnormal climate and weather conditions.

“In the mantle community I am known more as a numerical/lab modeler but in the coastal arena I am more known as a data collection person,” he says. The coastal work was a bit more stressful, he admits, because of potential for lost gear and lost data. “The ability to bounce around a bit between laboratory and computational geophysical fluid dynamics, and running really intensive, observational field programs in the coastal ocean, keeps things fresh and continues to make science fun for me.”

His interest in science started in the 10th grade when a friend signed up for a high-level chemistry class and could not find someone else to take the plunge with him. He admits he did not care for the class but one day a friend of the teacher came in—a professor of geology. The professor took the students around the campus and told the stories of one rock after another dating back millions of years. “And it just blew me away and so I got it in my head that I wanted to study geology.” He went to Wesleyan to study geology but “I did not have the aptitude for keeping track of all the geological terms” and that led him to pursue more math and physics classes. His first job was with the US Geological Survey in Connecticut mapping New England aquifers using groundwater geophysical methods. He decided to go to graduate school and applied to Johns Hopkins where he got both his masters and doctorate. There he found people all on one floor exploring fluids—the dynamics of the outer core, the oceans, groundwater and the atmosphere. “The model there was there was no fluid we didn’t like to study—it was sort of a unifying view of earth.”

His thesis was on subduction zone dynamics but his funding came largely from work on coastal studies. After a post doc at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, he arrived at URI in 1992.

Taking a cue from then URI President Robert L. Carothers, he and another professor decided to offer an undergrad course called The Ocean Planet. It remains one of the most popular undergrad courses and he now teams up with Dr. Katherine Kelley in offering it.

Another fun course, as he calls it, is a math offering called “Foundations in Earth System’s Dynamics” which sprung from his personal experience in graduate school with a few professors who were not-ready-for prime time when it came to teaching the links between process and math. “A lot of people are intimidated by the language of math but once you find other ways to explain it—interpretive dance, building structures, even using Play Dough—they come into math without really realizing it and end up grasping the concepts. I take students at the beginning who really don’t want to look at math but at the end they like doing this stuff.”

Kincaid is a guest lecturer often in other classes, and does a lot of work with local environmental groups like Save the Bay, Save Bristol Harbor and the Narragansett Bay Commission. He likes to ski, sail and play tennis in his spare time, and has just ended a 12 year run as a youth soccer coach, picking up the RI’s Youth Soccer Coach of the Year award in 2006. But mostly he enjoys his research and teaching—“Teaching is fun.”


Coastal and estuarine physical oceanography, Geophysics, Mantle dynamics, Numerical modeling, Observational physical oceanography

Kincaid’s research focuses in two very different areas of geophysical fluid dynamics. In one, a combination of laboratory and numerical modeling techniques are employed to investigate the relationship between plate tectonics, mantle circulation and processes by which heat and mass are transferred to Earth’s surface. The combination of two very different modeling techniques, each with inherent strengths and weaknesses, provides unique constraints on three-dimensional, time varying geodynamic processes over a wide range in length scales. The GFD lab at URI-GSO is one just a few places in the world with the capabilities of simulating plate tectonic settings like spreading ridges and subduction zones using physical, or analogue models. URI students, as well as PhD candidates from neighboring Brown, Yale and Woods Hole have used the facility to investigate mantle circulation patterns in response to translating and segmented spreading ridges and convergent margins with complex subduction styles. Kincaid and students have used both styles of modeling to produce the first 4-D thermal and stress models of subduction zones and 4-D models of mantle plumes interacting with subducting plates. Results suggest that many of the textbook ideas for seismic and melting patterns in these tectonic settings, and for how plumes evolve in mantle influenced by moving plates, need to be reassessed.

A second area of research involves the relationship between circulation in coastal waters and biogeochemical transport processes. Kincaid’s group uses a combination of observational methods and both numerical and laboratory models to characterize time varying, 3-D flow patterns in estuaries like Narragansett Bay (RI) and shelf waters such as Rhode Island Sound (RIS). Current meter data have been collected over 20 years in every sub-region of Narragansett Bay and throughout RIS, defining major trends in circulation for all seasonal conditions. Modeling results have been combined with these extensive data sets to define relationships between environmental forcing conditions (e.g. winds, tides, runoff), retention circulation gyres and water quality within the most impacted regions of the Bay. Models are also being used in a mode of forensic coastal oceanography to track fates of different chemical species through the system, and make connections between highly impacted areas the most likely pollution sources. Detailed observations and modeling is also used to reveal key aspects of estuarine-shelf exchange processes, with applications to estuarine biology (e.g., larval retention within estuaries, invasive species) and chemistry (e.g. nutrient sources).

Recent Research:
1) Geophysics: Kincaid has worked with recent GSO student (and now Carnegie Postdoc) Kelsey Druken to develop four-dimensional lab models to test ideas about the formation of North America’s most notable geologic feature, Yellowstone Super-Volcano. The geology of the Pacific Northwest USA is front and center in one of the most hotly debated areas of geoscience, the existence of mantle plumes, or deep convective upwellings of warm, buoyant material. Yellowstone is often suggested to be the surface manifestation of a plume, but many geoscientists point to odd complexities in the larger system to argue against the Yellowstone plume, and plumes in general. Kincaid and Druken, in a recent Nature Geoscience paper used lab models to show that when realistic flows, driven by the nearby subducion zone, are included, plumes break apart into patterns which closely match the primary surface observations.

2) Coastal Oceanography: Our results for urban-impacted areas like Greenwich Bay and the Providence River show that persistent, stable flow structures (gyres) can lead to residence times well in excess of estimates from simple box models or earlier, low resolution numerical models. These results suggest that summertime wind driven circulation can be a determining factor in low oxygen events with estuaries like Narragansett Bay. Predictions from these data-model experiments are consistent with conditions surrounding the exceptionally high beach closure rate for Greenwich Bay during summer, 2013.


Ph.D. Geophysical Fluid Dynamics, The Johns Hopkins University 1990

M.A. Geophysics, The Johns Hopkins University 1987

B.A. Earth Science, Wesleyan University 1983

Kincaid teaches graduate courses on marine and environmental fluid dynamics, oceanographic modeling and geodynamics, along with an undergraduate course, The Ocean Planet, which covers topics ranging from planetary science to Earth system science.

Selected Publications

Druken, K., M. Long and C. Kincaid, Patterns in seismic anisotropy driven by rollback subduction beneath the High Lava Plains, Geophys. Res. Lett. , vol. 38, L13310, doi:10.1029/2011GL047541, 2011

Druken, K., C. Kincaid and R. Griffiths, Directions of seismic anisotropy in laboratory models of mantle plumes, Geophy. Res. Lett., Vol. 40, 1-6, doi:10.1002/grl.50671, 2013

Druken, K., C. Kincaid, R. Griffiths, D. R. Stegman and S. Hart. Plume-slab interaction: The Samoan-Tonga System, Phys., Earth Plan., Int. doi: j.pepi.2014.03.003, 2014

Hall, P. S., and C. Kincaid, Melting, dehydration, and the geochemistry of off-axis plume-ridge interaction, Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst., 5, Q12E18, doi:10.1029/2003GC000667, 2004

Hall, P., and C. Kincaid, Diapiric flow at subduction zones: A recipe for rapid transport, Science , 292, 2472-2475, 2001.

Kincaid, C., K. Druken, R. W. Griffiths and D. Stegman. Bifurcation of the Yellowstone plume driven by subduction-induced mantle flow, Nature Geoscience, doi:10.1038/ngeo1774, 2013.

Kincaid, C., D. Bergondo and K. Rosenberger, Circulation and exchange between lower Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound, in Ecosystem-based Estuary Management: A Case Study of Narragansett Bay, Springer Publ., ed. A. Desbonet, B. Costa-Pierce, 301-324, 2008.

Kincaid, C., The exchange of water through multiple entrances to the Mt. Hope Bay Estuary, Northeast Naturalist, 13(Spec. Issue 4), 117-144, 2006

Kincaid, C. and R. W. Griffiths, Variability in mantle flow and temperatures within subduction zones. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst., 5, Q06002, doi:10.1029/2003GC000666, 2004.

Kincaid, C., and R. W. Griffiths, Thermal evolution of the mantle during rollback subduction, Nature, 425, 58-62, 2003

Kremer, J. N., J. M. P. Vaudrey, D. S. Ullman, D. L. Bergondo, N. LaSota, C. Kincaid, D. L. Codiga, and M. J. Brush. Simulating property exchange in estuarine ecosystem models at ecologically appropriate scales, Ecological Modelling, 221: 1080-1088, 2010

Long, M., C. Till, K. Druken, R. Carlson, L. Wagner, M. Fouch, D. James, T. Grove, N. Schmerr and C. Kincaid. Mantle dynamics beneath the Pacific Northwest and the generation of voluminous back-arc volcanism. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst., 13, Q0AN01, doi:10.1029/2012GC004189, 2012

MacDougall, J. G., C. Kincaid, S. Szwaja and K. M. Fischer. The impact of slab dip variations, gaps, and rollback on mantle wedge flow: insights from fluids experiments, Geophys. Journal Int., doi: 10.1093/gji/ggu053, 2014

Pfeiffer-Herbert, A., C. Kincaid, D. Bergondo and R. Pockalny. Dynamics of wind-driven estuarine-shelf exchange in the Narragansett Bay estuary. Continental Shelf Research, 105 42-59, 2015.

Stram, D. C. Kincaid and D. Campbell, Water quality modeling in the Rio Chone Estuary, J. Coastal. Res., 21, 797-810, 2005

Ullman, D., D. Codiga, D. Hebert, L. Decker and C. Kincaid, Structure and dynamics of the midshelf front in the New York Bight, J. Geophys. Res., Vol. 117, C01012, doi:10.1029/2011JC007553, 2012

Ullman, D. S., D. L. Codiga, A. Pfeiffer-Herbert, and C. R. Kincaid. An anomalous near-bottom cross-shelf intrusion of slope water on the southern New England continental shelf, J. Geophys. Res., 119, doi:10.1002/2013JC009259., 2014

Wertman, C. A., R. Yablonsky, Y. Shen, J. Merrill, C. Kincaid and R. Pockalny. Mesoscale convective system surface pressure anomalies responsible for meteotsunamis along the U.S. East Coast on June 13th, 2013, Scientific Reports, 4:7143, DOI: 10.1038/srep07143, 2014