The study of active tectonics is primarily concerned with the deformation of the Earth’s surface. This process results in the growth of mountains, rifting of continents and evolution of the geomorphic landscape. We aim to understand the material properties and processes that control the distribution of strain in the Earth’s crust, from mobile belts to rigid cratons. An important consequence of the movement of the Earth’s crust is that the slow accumulation of strain in the cold, brittle upper part of the crust (which builds up over hundreds to thousands of years) must eventually be released, often in earthquakes. Understanding the fundamental processes of tectonics will contribute to mitigating the growing risk of an increasingly urbanised population exposed to such hazards1.