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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities

Lead Supervisor: Poul Christoffersen, Scott Polar Research Institute

Co-Supervisors: Slawek Tulaczyk, University of California Santa Cruz and Adrian Luckman, Swansea University

Brief summary: 
This project will investigate ice flow in the catchment of Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. The aim is to understand how ice flow and contemporary change in Thwaites’ catchment pose a threat for the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet as a whole.
Importance of the area of research concerned: 
Thwaites Glacier is amongst the world’s largest and loss of ice within its catchment pose a global societal threat. Since 2000, the glacier has had a net loss of more than 1000 billion tons of ice and the discharge across the grounding line has nearly doubled. The current mass loss represents 4% of all global sea level rise and if all ice in the catchment were lost, it could raise sea levels by 65 cm. With an urgent need to better understand Thwaites Glacier and its stability, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC) was set up ( The project fall under the ITGC programme and project TIME (Thwaites interdisciplinary margin evolution) which is led by the lead supervisor.
Project summary : 
Thwaites Glacier is located in the Amundsen Sea region of West Antarctica, where warm water from the Southern Ocean reaches the West Antarctic ice sheet and ice-ocean interactions are intense (Rignot et al. 2019). The project will analyse highly resolved satellite images of Thwaites Glacier, to understand how flow of ice in the catchment responds. We will specifically test the hypothesis that shear margins may exert a strong control on the future flow of the glacier due to shear margin migration. We will quantify the effects from widening of the glacier, which may accelerate the glacier’s flow and potentially undermine the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet as a whole. The project has a strong focus on ice deformation and it will explore how the flow of ice in one of Antarctica’s largest drainage basins is linked to ice-ocean interactions at the grounding line and climate change.
What will the student do?: 
The student will be trained in the field of Big Data and automated image analysis. The project will make use of high-resolution Worldview images provided through collaboration and the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration as well as Sentinel-2, etc. The project has two potential pathways. One pathway is purely satellite-based approach (Lhermitte et al. 2020). The other pathway is integration of satellite-derived data in a 3D numerical model of Thwaites Glacier (developed in Christoffersen’s ongoing ITGC research – Todd et al. 2018). In both approaches, the student will establish how ice becomes damaged when it deforms at high rate. She or he will also show damage of ice modulates shear margins, and how shear margins may exert control on ice sheet stability in West Antarctica.
References - references should provide further reading about the project: 
Rignot, E., M. Mouginot, B. Scheuchl, et al. 2019. Four decades of Antarctic Ice Sheet mass balance from 1979–2017, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, v. 116, p. 1095-1103,
Todd, J., Christoffersen, P., Zwinger, et al. 2018. A Full-Stokes 3-D Calving Model Applied to a Large Greenlandic Glacier. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface, v. 123, p.410-432, doi:10.1002/2017JF004349.
Lhermitte, S., Sun, S., Shuman, C et al. 2020. Damage accelerates ice shelf instability and mass loss in Amundsen Sea Embayment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 117 (40), p. 24735-2474.
You can find out about applying for this project on the Scott Polar Research Institute page.
Dr Poul Christoffersen
Department of Geography Graduate Administrator