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Evaluating the impacts of glacier recession on hydroelectric power generation

School of Social Sciences

Dundee United Kingdom Climate Science Energy Technologies Environmental Biology Hydrology Economics Geography

About the Project

Aims: This project evaluates the impacts of glacier recession on hydropower production and investment (e.g. in the Alps, Andes). The successful candidate will work with an interdisciplinary team in geoscience and economics to develop hydropower investment optimisation models that account for the rapid evolution of deglaciating environments. Specifically, the project will couple time-evolving models of meltwater production with those for energy markets and costs to improve hydropower investment decisions.

Background: Hydropower is crucial to the ongoing energy transition. By 2050, the global share of renewables in electricity generation is expected to be 50%, one quarter of which will be from hydropower (EIA 2020). In many parts of the world, hydropower schemes are supplied by meltwater from glaciers (Maran et al. 2014), but most glaciers are receding in response to climate change. This represents some significant challenges, and possibly some opportunities, for hydropower development. Some deglaciating catchments have already passed a critical threshold, known as ‘peak water’, whereby an initial increase in catchment runoff from rapidly melting glaciers has been followed by a decrease in runoff as glaciers disappear or become too small to sustain high flows (Huss and Hock, 2018). Many other catchments are likely to surpass this threshold in the coming decades, with important implications for hydropower investment.

Nonetheless, the ability of glaciers to carve basins beneath themselves or to create natural sediment (moraine) dams means that, as glaciers recede, water often ponds in meltwater lakes (Cook and Quincey, 2015). Consequently, deglaciating catchments contain substantial storage space for water that could be managed for hydropower, even if glaciers disappear completely (Farinotti et al., 2019). Management of these reservoirs is complicated. Some are located beneath steep and unstable valley sides such that lakes could be impacted by landslides or avalanches, triggering a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) with potentially catastrophic effects downstream (e.g. Kougkoulos et al., 2018). Equally, glaciers generate prodigious amounts of sediment through bedrock erosion (Cook et al., 2020), and deglaciating catchments in particular experience exceptionally high sediment fluxes as a consequence of higher meltwater flows and increased sediment inputs to rivers from unstable valley slopes. Hence, reservoirs may become rapidly silted-up, reducing their utility for water storage (Rosas et al., 2020).

The complexity of deglaciation means that maximising hydropower opportunities requires careful investment decisions. Hydropower in particular represents unique challenges compared to other forms of energy production. The siting of a hydropower plant is necessarily limited by the location of the river and reservoir (unlike, for example, building a coal-fired station), and glacier recession will make some sites unviable in the near future (e.g. through silting), whilst others in neighbouring catchments may become suitable as, for example, new lake basins emerge from beneath glaciers. Further, the interaction between electricity and water markets affects the optimality of operation or expansion decisions in both electricity and water sector assets (Rieu-Clarke and Macatangay 2019). It is vital, therefore, to understand the implications of peak water on optimal operation or expansion decisions in hydroelectric power generation.

For informal enquiries about the project, contact Dr Simon Cook ()
For general enquiries about the University of Dundee, contact

Applicants must have obtained, or expect to obtain, a first or 2.1 UK honours degree, or equivalent for degrees obtained outside the UK in a relevant discipline.

English language requirement: IELTS (Academic) score must be at least 6.5 (with not less than 5.5 in each of the four components). Other, equivalent qualifications will be accepted. Full details of the University’s English language requirements are available online:


Step 1: Email Dr Simon Cook () to (1) send a copy of your CV and (2) discuss your potential application and any practicalities (e.g. suitable start date).

Step 2: After discussion with Dr Cook, formal applications can be made via UCAS Postgraduate. When applying, please follow the instructions below:

Apply for the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in Geography & Environmental Science: Select the start date and study mode (full-time/part-time) agreed with the lead supervisor.

In the ‘provider questions’ section of the application form:
- Write the project title and ‘’ in the ‘if your application is in response to an advertisement’ box;
- Write the lead supervisor’s name and give brief details of your previous contact with them in the ‘previous contact with the University of Dundee’ box.

In the ‘personal statement’ section of the application form, outline your suitability for the project selected.

Funding Notes

There is no funding attached to this project. The successful applicant will be expected to provide the funding for tuition fees and living expenses, via external sponsorship or self-funding.


Cook, S. J. and Quincey, D. J., 2015. Estimating the volume of Alpine glacial lakes, Earth Surface Dynamics, 3, 559–575.

Cook, S.J., Swift, D.A., Kirkbride, M.P., Knight, P.G. and Waller, R.I., 2020. The empirical basis for modelling glacial erosion rates. Nature Communications, 11(1), pp.1-7.

EIA (2020) International Energy Outlook.

Farinotti, D., Round, V., Huss, M., Compagno, L. and Zekollari, H., 2019. Large hydropower and water-storage potential in future glacier-free basins. Nature, 575(7782), pp.341-344.

Huss, M. and Hock, R., 2018. Global-scale hydrological response to future glacier mass loss. Nature Climate Change, 8(2), pp.135-140.

Kougkoulos, I., Cook, S.J., Jomelli, V., Clarke, L., Symeonakis, E., Dortch, J.M., Edwards, L.A. and Merad, M., 2018. Use of multi-criteria decision analysis to identify potentially dangerous glacial lakes. Science of the Total Environment, 621, pp.1453-1466.

Maran S, VolonterioM, GaudardL (2014) “Climate change impacts on hydropower in an alpine catchment” Environmental Science & Policy 43: 15-25

Rieu-Clarke A, Macatangay R (2019) “Towards optimal treaties for transboundary watercourse management” United States Association for Energy Economics Working Paper No. 19-386

Rosas, M.A., Vanacker, V., Viveen, W., Gutierrez, R.R. and Huggel, C., 2020. The potential impact of climate variability on siltation of Andean reservoirs. Journal of Hydrology, 581, p.124396.

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