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Fractures and Fabrics in Glacier Ice: Sensitivity of Seismic Anisotropy for Antarctic Ice Masses

Project Description

With an Antarctic field deployment and access to novel seismic data, could you explore new applications of seismic anisotropy to address pressing questions for Antarctic ice-mass stability?

- Antarctic field deployment, acquiring new geophysical data on Thwaites Glacier, as part of the ITGC’s TIME project
- Development of cutting-edge geophysical methods in the assessment of Antarctic ice-mass stability
- Collaboration with an international team of glaciological and geophysical experts

Project Summary

Accurate predictions of the contribution of Antarctic ice to sea-level rise require reliable estimates of how ice dynamics will evolve. This takes place within a complex set of feedbacks between atmosphere, ice and ocean systems. For the ice system, we require knowledge of the internal stress regime. Glacier flow is expected to accelerate under warmer temperature regimes, leading to stress-state changes within the ice mass. Geophysics is a valuable means of estimating the present-day stress regime, such that it can then be supplied to predictive computational models of future ice mass evolution.

Englacial stress-states can be measured from seismic anisotropy. The ice crystal is itself strongly anisotropic hence, a bulk anisotropic fabric is formed when a stress regime causes crystals to align. For such fabrics, seismic energy will propagate more quickly when travelling orthogonal to the layer, than when travelling along it. This defines a regime of vertical transverse isotropy (VTI), in which the observed variation of velocity is only with the obliquity of the incidence angle, rather than with azimuth.

Anisotropy may also arise when there are preferentially-aligned crevasses. Seismic energy propagating through a crevassed zone will travel more slowly than that travelling through intact ice. This defines horizontal transverse isotropy (HTI), where velocity varies with the azimuth relative to the crevasse orientation. Each of these regimes is an indicator of fast glacier flow, hence it is important to develop effective strategies for monitoring the development of these regimes.

Ice anisotropy can be characterised from surface seismic reflection data, however there has been little analysis of the sensitivity of the acquisition geometry to varying anisotropic regimes. This is especially important to consider since field logistics often demand a compromised acquisition strategy. Building reliable models of englacial anisotropic fabrics, and simulating the seismic response to them, will lead to a set of seismic acquisition guidelines for any given glacier target.


In this project, you will consider the modelling and detectability of anisotropic fabrics in two specific Antarctic ice masses, both of which are considered critical for regional ice stability.
- HTI fabrics will be explored with relation to the intensity of basal crevassing in Larsen C Ice Shelf, on the Antarctic Peninsula. The stress regime of Larsen C is of interest given the potential link between the iceberg calving in 2017 and the stability of the wider shelf.
- VTI fabrics will be simulated for flow regimes of Thwaites Glacier, a major outlet of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Specifically, these investigations will be focused around the shear margin of the glacier, which marks the onset of fast glacier flow. A robust measurement of anisotropy will contribute to the understanding of the controls on fast glacier flow.

Anisotropy models will be developed using a discrete fracture formulation of the wave equation, implemented in WAVE software; these models will be compared against the signatures of anisotropy in real seismic data. An archive of azimuthal seismic datasets already exists for Larsen C Ice Shelf. Data from Thwaites Glacier will be acquired in two field campaigns, which you will join in 2022, to record novel 3-D seismic reflection data.

You will undertake this project under the guidance of a team of Leeds scientists, who are leading experts in glaciology, seismic modelling and anisotropic analysis. Specific objectives of the project include, but are not limited to:
1. Use of seismic modelling methods to simulate the response to anisotropic ice fabrics and crevasses.
2. Assessment of the sensitivity of the seismic response to the intensity of the ice fabric and fractures, and the seismic acquisition geometry.
3. Analysis of new field data from Larsen C Ice Shelf and Thwaites Glacier. In the latter case, this processing will be applied both for high-resolution imaging of the glacier bed and for determining basal anisotropy.

Funding Notes

The closing date for applications is 13th January 2020, with interviews to be held in Leeds in mid-February. You can submit an application via the University of Leeds “Applying for research degrees” page.

Eligibility follows standard guidelines for NERC-funded PhD research. Eligibility is therefore limited to UK or EU nationals who have ordinarily been resident in the UK for 3 years immediately prior to the commencement of the project. You must be able to commence PhD study before 1st August 2020.


For background to the project and the School of Earth and Environment, see the following useful links:

School of Earth and Environment: https://environment.leeds.ac.uk/see
International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC): https://thwaitesglacier.org/

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