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Glaciers and future water supplies in the Himalayas. Geography PhD studentship (NERC GW4+ DTP funded)

College of Life and Environmental Sciences

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Dr SJ Palmer , Prof S Harrison , Dr K Anderson No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Project Background:

Nearly 20 per cent of the world’s population depends on the freshwater rivers fed by glaciers in the Himalayas. Recent observations have shown most Himalayan bare-ice glaciers are melting rapidly (Bolch et al 2012), and meanwhile, other work shows that there is a trend towards increasing glacial debris-cover in the Himalaya (and worldwide). Conversely, there is very little information about state of both debris-covered glaciers, and rock glaciers in the Himalayan region, both of which are known to be widespread.

As a result, the current and future contributions of melting ice to the Himalayan river basins fails to account for water stored within these poorly understood features, and thus is highly uncertain. This is of prime importance because declining water availability will negatively impact agricultural productivity, energy production and the health of downstream populations (Shannon et al 2019). Ultimately, disruptions to the freshwater supply from melting ice could threaten the food security of more than 70 million people.

Project Aims and Methods:

While the distribution and characteristics of Himalayan bare-ice glaciers can be assessed using satellite remote sensing (Bolch et al 2012), the same is not true for debris-covered and rock glaciers because unlike ice glaciers, they exhibit similar albedo to the surrounding geology, making them challenging to map automatically. Therefore, current understanding of the nature, distribution and evolution of both debris-covered glaciers and rock glaciers in the Himalaya is incomplete.

Critically, while previous research conducted by members of the supervisory team has established that thousands of rock glaciers exist in the Himalayas (Jones et al 2018), we have no information on their ice content. As a result, we are currently unable to make assessments of their sensitivity to current and future changes in climate, and therefore how their contributions to downstream water supplies are likely to change (Jones et al 2019). In addition, we have little knowledge of how quickly some glaciers undergo the transition from debris-covered glaciers to rock glaciers, and cannot yet fully explain why some glaciers undergo this transition while others do not (Knight et al 2019).

To fill these gaps we require detailed assessments of ice content from several glaciers in the Khumbu region of the Nepali Himalaya, to represent the spectrum of transition from debris-covered glacier to rock glacier. This specific region is ideal as it contains end members of the glacier-to-rock-glacier transition within a small area and is relatively easy to access. The proposed research project will deliver quantitative understanding of the dynamics of this transition, what geophysical and climatic factors influence it, and how the glacier’s contribution to the downstream water supply evolves. The outputs of this project will be used to help deliver information on these hidden ice and water resources for local knowledge networks and improve climate resilience for remote and vulnerable communities.

Candidate Requirements:

The project would suit a student with an undergraduate degree in the physical or geographical sciences with expertise in numerical and spatial analysis. It is expected that the candidate will take part in high-elevation, fieldwork in challenging environments, and will require the deployment of a range of cutting-edge geophysical and remote sensing techniques, and advanced geo-spatial data analysis.

Collaborative Partner:

The student is expected to spend 6-12 months at BGS, where they will be integrated into a large group of environmental modellers and geoscientists based at our head office in Keyworth, Nottinghamshire. In addition to the input from BGS co-supervisors, the student will have access to a broad range of staff across multiple geoscience disciplines. They will also have access to high performance computing facilities, laboratory facilities, and corporate training. BGS has developed a range of models to simulate coupled permafrost-glacier-hydrological systems, which will be available to the student to use and develop as part of their PhD programme.


This project will require the successful candidate and supervisory team to deliver new field-based observations, satellite and UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) remote sensing-based spatial analyses, assessment of ice content using GPR (Ground-penetrating radar), geochemical analyses and numerical modelling of groundwater flow. Dr Steven Palmer and Dr Karen Anderson will provide training in the GIS and remote sensing aspects of the project, including UAV deployment and derivation of surface elevation models. Dr Stephan Harrison will provide training in geomorphological techniques and GPR operation. Dr Jonathan Mackay and Dr Johanna Scheidegger and will provide training in glacio-hydrological and permafrost modelling.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2021 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £15,285 per annum for 2020-21.


Background reading and references:

Bolch, T., Kulkarni, A., Kääb, A., Huggel, C., Paul, F., Cogley, J. G., ... & Bajracharya, S. (2012). The state and fate of Himalayan glaciers. Science, 336(6079), 310-314.
Jones, D. B., Harrison, S., Anderson, K., & Betts, R. A. (2018). Mountain rock glaciers contain globally significant water stores. Scientific reports, 8(1), 2834.
Jones, D. B., Harrison, S., & Anderson, K. (2019). Mountain glacier-to-rock glacier transition. Global and Planetary Change, 181, 102999.
Knight, J., Harrison, S., & Jones, D. B. (2019). Rock glaciers and the geomorphological evolution of deglacierizing mountains. Geomorphology, 324, 14-24.
Shannon S, Smith R, Wiltshire A, Payne A, Huss M, Betts R, Caesar J, Koutroulis A, Jones D* and Harrison S. 2019. Global glacier volume projections under high-end climate change scenarios. The Cryosphere,

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