PhD Studentship: Modelling Antarctic Winds and Ice Flow

University of Exeter - College of Life and Environmental Sciences

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 six Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Met Office, 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

The studentships will provide funding for a stipend which is currently £14,553 per annum for 2017-2018, research costs and UK/EU tuition fees at Research Council UK rates for 42 months (3.5 years) for full-time students, pro rata for part-time students.


Lead supervisor: Dr. Anne Le Brocq, Geography, University of Exeter
Co-Supervisor: Dr. Andrew Orr, British Antarctic Survey
Co-Supervisor: Prof. Simon Vosper, Met Office
Co-Supervisor: Dr. Andy Elvidge, University of East Anglia
Co-Supervisor:  Prof. Tony Payne, University of Bristol

Project description:

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).


This project would suit a student with a mathematical or meteorological background, with some knowledge of numerical modelling principles and the associated technical requirements of numerical models.

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2018 entry. The studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £14,553 per annum for 2017-18.

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