QUADRAT DTP: Unravelling glacier and climate history of the Californian Sierra Nevada during the last deglaciation

   School of Geosciences

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  Prof Matteo Spagnolo, Dr D Mullan  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This fully funded, 42-month PhD project is part of the QUADRAT Doctoral Training Partnership.

The Sierra Nevada in California is a mountain range that extends for almost 600 km latitudinally (36-40°N), parallel to, and at a distance of about 250 km from, the Pacific coast. It is characterised by a considerable precipitation gradient from the wet west flank (up to 1500 mm/y) to the dry east flank (as low as 150 mm/y), and by a latitudinally-controlled temperature gradient (of a few degrees Celsius) from south to north (e.g. Moore and Moring, 2011). With peaks exceeding 4000 m asl, the Sierra Nevada currently hosts many niche glaciers which survive only due to valley-specific microclimate conditions. During the last glacial maximum (LGM) about 20,000 years ago, the Sierra Nevada was largely covered by ice, with valley glacier tongues extending many kilometres from the main divide. The last retreat of these glaciers deposited large terminal moraines, some of which have been geochronologically constrained using an innovative radiometric technique called cosmogenic nuclide exposure dating (e.g. Rood et al., 2011). The LGM climate of the Sierra Nevada was affected by the large Laurentide ice sheet to its north which pushed the Pacific jet stream south of its current position. However, while the palaeo-glacier and palaeo-climate record is relatively well known for the LGM, far less is understood on the changes that followed during the deglaciation. A scattered and incomplete glacial record tells a story of an initial very rapid deglaciation, punctuated by a hiatus in retreat registered as stillstands or even minor readvances (the Younger Dryas for example) (e.g. Phillips, 2017), possibly in phase with other Northern Hemisphere glacial histories observed for example during the decay of the Fennoscandia and British ice sheets. Several questions of the Sierra Nevada deglaciation remain unanswered and require attention. At what rate did the ice retreat? How many readvances and/or stillstands occurred? Did initial retreat from LGM occur synchronously? Were these changes linked to large-scale (ie global) climatic trends or more regional/localised (ie micro) conditions? What climate forcing(s) affected the deglaciation history?  Was the deglaciation history of the Sierra Nevada in line with that of other North American and possibly European mountains? What lessons can be learned that are applicable to future climate trends, and their effect on glaciers, across the world?

To answer some of these compelling questions, this PhD project aims to identify, sample and date Lateglacial moraines and erratics in many sites across the Sierra Nevada to provide a geographically comprehensive chronology of palaeoglacier dynamics. Glacier geometries will be reconstructed using physically-robust, 3D models. These will be used to calculate the palaeo-glacier equilibrium line altitudes which, in turn, will be combined with other, independent palaeo-climate proxies to provide a complete reconstruction of the climate (temperature and precipitation) during the deglaciation. The PhD project will particularly focus on the palaeo-glacial and palaeo-climate conditions of what are locally known as the Tioga 4 (15.75 ± 0.5 ka) and Recess Peak (13.25 ± 0.25 ka) phases, and the time interval between them.

Candidate Background:

We are looking for an enthusiastic individual with an interest in at least one of the following: glacial geomorphology and modelling, climatology, geochronology. Fieldwork, remote sensing and GIS experience are particularly welcome, but not essential.

Candidates should have, or expect to achieve, a minimum of a 2.1 Honours degree (or equivalent) in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2.2 Honours degree may be considered providing they have a Distinction at Masters level.

We encourage applications from all backgrounds and communities, and are committed to having a diverse, inclusive team.

Informal enquiries are encouraged, please contact Professor Matteo Spagnolo ([Email Address Removed]) for further information.



  • Please visit this page for full application information: How To Apply – QUADRAT
  • Please send your completed application form, along with academic transcripts to [Email Address Removed]
  • Please ensure that two written references from your referees are submitted. It is your responsibility to ensure these are provided, as we will not request references on your behalf.
  • Unfortunately, due to workload constraints, we cannot consider incomplete applications.
  • CV's submitted directly through a FindAPhD enquiry WILL NOT be considered.
  • If you require any additional assistance in submitting your application or have any queries about the application process, please don't hesitate to contact us at [Email Address Removed]
Environmental Sciences (13) Geography (17) Geology (18)

Funding Notes

This opportunity is open to UK and International students (The proportion of international students appointed through the QUADRAT DTP is capped at 30% by UKRI NERC).
Funding covers:
• A monthly stipend for accommodation and living costs, based on UKRI rates (£18,622 for the 23/24 academic year. Stipend rates for the 24/25 academic year have not been set yet)
• Tuition Fees
• Research and training costs
QUADRAT DTP does not provide funding to cover visa and associated healthcare surcharges for international students.


• Phillips, F. 2017. Glacial chronology of the Sierra Nevada, California, from the Last Glacial Maximum to the Holocene. Geogr. Res. Lett, 43, 527-552
• Moore, J.G., Moring, B.C. 2013. Rangewide glaciation in the Sierra Nevada, California. Geosphere, 9 (6), 1804–1818
• Rood, D.H., Burbank, D.W., Finkel, R.C., 2011. Chronology of glaciations in the Sierra Nevada, California, from 10Be surface exposure dating. Quat. Sci. Rev. 30, 646-661

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