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Modelling Antarctic winds and ice flow.

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, April 29, 2019
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Additional Supervisors

Dr Andrew Orr British Antarctic Survey (BAS)

Prof Simon Vosper Met Office

Dr Andy Elvidge, University of East Anglia

Prof Tony Payne, University of Bristol

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 Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science.

For further details about the programme please see

Project details

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) contains ice equivalent to up to 5 metres of global sea level rise. An understanding of how the ice sheet responds to a changing climate is critical for robustly predicting future sea level changes. Here, we propose to investigate the past behaviour of the ice sheet, to give us an insight into how it may respond in the future.

Geomorphological evidence from “blue ice moraines” (Fig. 1) in the Ellsworth Mountains has been used to suggest that the central divide of the WAIS has been intact for at least the last 1.4 million years (Hein et al., 2016). This conclusion relies on an assumption about the relationship between “katabatic” (downslope) wind speeds, which maintain the blue ice areas, and the size of the ice sheet. This assumption remains untested, therefore, it is key to establish the relationship between wind speeds and ice sheet size.

Project Aims and Methods

This project aims to investigate the role of the size of the WAIS in controlling the strength of the downslope winds in the Ellsworth Mountains. The understanding of the connection between the size of the ice sheet and the wind strength will allow the assumption above to be tested, confirming whether the geomorphological evidence can be used to infer ice sheet size.

The student will first use a numerical weather prediction (the Met Office Unified Model) model to investigate the impact of different WAIS configurations on the generation of the downslope winds (following Orr et al., 2014). Ice sheet configurations would range from moderate retreat, to removal of the marine-based areas, through to the full removal of the WAIS. Further, in order to investigate the relationship between localised wind strength and moraine formation, the Elmer model will also be employed to look at the localised wind field (e.g. Zwinger et al., 2015), and the resultant ice flow (using Elmer/Ice).


The successful applicant for this project will spend time at the British Antarctic Survey, the Met Office, and the University of Bristol, receiving training in the use of both climate and ice flow models. This will provide the student with both desirable skills and experience of working with important numerical models, but also provide opportunities for networking at a number of key institutions.

Funding Notes

“NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2019 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £14,777 per annum for 2018-19.


Students from EU countries who do not meet the residency requirements may still be eligible for a fees-only award but no stipend. Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.”


Hein, A.S., Woodward, J., Marrero, S.M., Dunning, S.A., Steig, E.J., Freeman, S.P.H.T., Stuart, F.M., Winter, K. Westoby, M.J. & Sugden, D.E. (2016). Evidence for the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet divide for 1.4 million years. Nature Communications 7:10325 doi: 10.1038/ncomms10325

Orr, A., Phillips, T, Webster, S., Elvidge, A., Weeks, M., Hosking, S. and Turner, J. (2014) Met Office Unified Model high-resolution simulations of a strong wind event in Antarctica. Q J.R. Meteorol. Soc. 140, 2287-2297.

Zwinger, T., Malm, T., Schäfer, M., Stenberg, R. and Moore, J.C. (2015) Interaction of katabatic wind and local surface mass balance at Schaffenbergbotnen Blue Ice Area, Antarctica. The Cryosphere 9, 1415–1426.

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