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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities

Supervisor: Poul Christoffersen (Geography/SPRI)  

Importance of the area of research:

The systematic manner by which glaciers worldwide have retreated over decades is now be overshadowed by the Greenland ice sheet, which is losing mass at a faster and even more sustained pace. The most severe changes occur in the drainage basins of marine-terminating glaciers, which flow rapidly and drain 88% of the Greenland ice sheet, making it the single largest source of global sea level rise.

The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that the widespread acceleration of Greenland glaciers was a response to interaction with the ocean, but observations have since shown that many of these glaciers respond sensitively to the growing volume of meltwater produced on the surface due to climate change (ref. 1).

This project will use fibre-optic sensors installed in boreholes to quantify the impact of water and heat transferred to the base of the Greenland ice sheet via hydrological conduits. With more meltwater produced over longer periods and at increased elevation (ref. 2), the project’s ultimate goal is to understand how previously isolated regions of the ice-sheet bed are affected by the formation of hydrological connections to the surface.

Project summary:

This project will quantify the impact of atmospheric heat brought the base of the Greenland ice sheet when water from the surface penetrates through fractures (ref. 2). The project will use Raman scattering and distributed fibre-optic sensing to record the temperature distribution of >1-km-thick ice in Greenland.

With accurate temperature measurements taken every 10 to 20 minutes along every metre of the optical fibre, Raman scattering offers the ability to establish the full vertical profile of ice temperature as well as changes in response to seasonally varying heat fluxes. The latter includes not only heat contained in surface meltwater before it penetrates through the ice sheet, but also heat which is generated by and released as viscous heat dissipation when surface water cascades through the ice sheet and flood the bed via fractures (ref.3).

What the student will do:

The PhD student in this project will assist with the experimental design and the installation of distributed fibre-optic sensors in boreholes drilled to the base of the Greenland ice sheet. S/he will be welcomed as a team member of the RESPONDER project, which is investigating how hydrological networks on the Greenland ice sheet evolve over seasons and multiple years, and how that evolution impacts the flow of the ice sheet ( The student will undertake two field seasons in Greenland, with helicopter access to the field site provided through the RESPONDER project, which is funded by the European Research Council.

The student will be responsible for processing and analysing field data using established Raman scattering methods. The student will also be responsible for developing theoretical models of ice temperature, using analytical and/or numerical approaches to gain a theoretical understanding from which future predictions can be made.

Please contact the lead supervisor directly for further information relating to what the successful applicant will be expected to do, training to be provided, and any specific educational background requirements.


Csatho, B. M. et al. Laser altimetry reveals complex pattern of Greenland Ice Sheet dynamics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111, 18478-18483, doi:10.1073/pnas.1411680112 (2014).

Cooley, S. & Christoffersen, P. Observation bias correction reveals more rapidly draining lakes on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Journal of Geophysical Research-Earth Surface, in press (2017).

Mankoff, K. D. & Tulaczyk, S. M. The past, present, and future viscous heat dissipation available for Greenland subglacial conduit formation. Cryosphere 11, doi:10.5194/tc-11-303-2017 (2017).

Follow this link to find out about applying for this project.

Other projects available from the Lead Supervisor can be viewed here.

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