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

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, January 06, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Lead Supervisor
Dr Steven Palmer, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors
Prof Stephan Harrison, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter
Dr Johanna Scheidegger, British Geological Survey
Mr Jonathan Mackay, British Geological Survey
Dr Karen Anderson, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Location: University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, Exeter, EX4 4QJ

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the GW4 Alliance of research-intensive universities: the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five unique and prestigious Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in the Earth, Environmental and Life sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in scientific research, business, technology and policy-making. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

- A stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,009 p.a. for 2019/20) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
- Payment of university tuition fees;
- A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
- A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses.
- Travel and accommodation is covered for all compulsory DTP cohort events
- No course fees for courses run by the DTP

We are currently advertising projects for a total of 10 studentships at the University of Exeter

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), but a lack of reliable and consistent data severely hampers scientific knowledge about the state of both debris-covered glaciers, and rock glaciers in the region, which are known to be widespread. As a result, the current and future contributions of melting ice to the Himalayan river basins remains 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), our understanding of the nature, distribution and evolution of both debris-covered glaciers and rock glaciers is incomplete. While we do know 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. 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.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2020 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £15,009 per annum for 2019-20.


References / Background reading list

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.

MacDonald, A. M., Black, A. R., Ó Dochartaigh, B. E., Everest, J., Darlin, W. G., Flett, V., Peach, D. W. (2016) Using stable isotopes and continuous meltwater river monitoring to investigate the hydrology of a rapidly retreating Icelandic outlet glacier. Annals of Glaciology, 57(72), 151-158.

Mackay, J. D, Barrand, N., Hannah, D., Krause, S, Jackson, C., Everest, J., Aðalgeirsdóttir, G. (2018) Glacio-hydrological melt and run-off modelling: application of a limits of acceptability framework for model comparison and selection. The Cryosphere, 12 (7). 2175-2210.

Scheidegger, J., Jackson, C., McEvoy, F., Norris, S. (2019). Modelling permafrost thickness in Great Britain over glacial cycles. Science of The Total Environment, 666, 928-943.

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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