Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, UK.

This funded research project will deliver quantitative understanding of the dynamics of the transition from debris-covered glacier to rock glacier, 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.

About the Award

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 accomodation 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


Students who are resident in EU countries are eligible for the full award on the same basis as UK residents. Applicants resident outside of the EU (classed as International for tuition fee purposes) are not eligible for DTP funding. Residency rules are complex and if you have not been resident in the UK or EU for the 3 years prior to the start of the studentship, please apply and we will check eligibility upon shortlisting.

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.

Candidate Requirements

The project would suit a student with a first degree in the physical or geographical sciences with expertise in numerical and spatial analysis. It is expected that the candidate will take part in high-elevation, remote fieldwork using a range of geophysical techniques.

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK. Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Master’s degree. Applicants with a minimum of Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

All applicants would need to meet the University of Exeter's English language requirements by the start of the project. 

CASE or Collaborative Partner

Whilst at the BGS, the student will be integrated into a large group of geoscientists with expertise in cold region hydrology, climate change and the assessment of impacts on water resource systems. The student will have access to state-of the art glacio-hydrological (Mackay et al, 2018) and permafrost (Scheidegger et al., 2019) modelling techniques developed within BGS. They will benefit from access to the stable isotope laboratory where they will be encouraged to build on geochemical methods developed at the BGS Glacier Observatory in Iceland (MacDonald et al., 2016). They will also have access to high performance computing facilities and corporate training.


This project will require the successful candidate and supervisory team to deliver new field-based observations, satellite and UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) remote sensing-based spatial analyses, assessment of ice content using GPR (Ground-penetrating radar), geochemical analyses and numerical modelling of groundwater flow. Dr Steven Palmer and Dr Karen Anderson will provide training in the GIS and remote sensing aspects of the project, including UAV deployment and derivation of surface elevation models. Dr Stephan Harrison will provide training in geomorphological techniques and GPR operation. Dr Jonathan Mackay and Dr Johanna Scheidegger will provide training in glacio-hydrological and permafrost modelling.

How to Apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents. Please note the preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. 'Smith – CV.pdf', 'Smith – Cover Letter.pdf', 'Smith – Transcript.pdf'.

  • CV
  • Letter of application outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project.
  • Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained. This should be an interim transcript if you are still studying.
  • If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your current proficiency in English.
  • Reference information
  • You will be asked to name two referees as part of the application process, however the receipt of references is not expected until after the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

If you are shortlisted for interview, please ensure that your two academic referees email their references to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. seven days prior to the interview dates. Please note that the University of Exeter will not be contacting referees to request references, you must arrange for them to be submitted by the deadline.

References should be submitted by your referees directly in the form of a letter. Referees must email their references from their institutional email accounts. References from personal/private email accounts cannot be accepted, unless it is a scanned document on institutional headed paper and signed by the referee.

All application documents must be submitted in English. Certified translated copies of academic qualifications must also be provided.

The closing date for applications is 1600 hours GMT Monday 6 January 2020.

Interviews will be held between 10 and 21 February 2020. 

For further details, including supervisor details and a list of background reading, please see the University of Exeter website. 

Apply Now. 

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