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Award details

University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

Glaciers and future water supplies in the Himalayas. Physical Geography PhD studentship (NERC GW4+ DTP funded) Ref: 4002

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Steven Palmer, University of Exeter.

Additional Supervisors

Prof Stephan Harrison, University of Exeter.

Dr Karen Anderson, University of Exeter.

Dr Johanna Scheidegger, British Geological Survey.

Dr Jonathan Mackay, British Geological Survey

Location: Streatham Campus, University of Exeter, Exeter, Devon

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 five Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology,  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

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

  • An stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,285 p.a. for 2020-21) 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.
  • Up to £750 for travel and accomodation for compulsory cohort events.

Project details

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), and meanwhile, other work shows that there is a trend towards increasing glacial debris-cover in the Himalaya (and worldwide). Conversely, there is very little information about state of both debris-covered glaciers, and rock glaciers in the Himalayan region, both of which are known to be widespread. As a result, the current and future contributions of melting ice to the Himalayan river basins fails to account for water stored within these poorly understood features, and thus is highly 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), the same is not true for debris-covered and rock glaciers because unlike ice glaciers, they exhibit similar albedo to the surrounding geology, making them challenging to map automatically. Therefore, current understanding of the nature, distribution and evolution of both debris-covered glaciers and rock glaciers in the Himalaya is incomplete.

Critically, while previous research conducted by members of the supervisory team has established 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. This specific region is ideal as it contains end members of the glacier-to-rock-glacier transition within a small area and is relatively easy to access. 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.

View of Ama Dablam from the debriscovered Nuptse Glacier

Candidate Requirements

The project would suit a student with an undergraduate 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, fieldwork in challenging environments, and will require the deployment of a range of cutting-edge geophysical and remote sensing techniques, and advanced geo-spatial data analysis.

Collaborative Partner

The student is expected to spend 6-12 months at BGS, where they will be integrated into a large group of environmental modellers and geoscientists based at our head office in Keyworth, Nottinghamshire. In addition to the input from BGS co-supervisors, the student will have access to a broad range of staff across multiple geoscience disciplines. They will also have access to high performance computing facilities, laboratory facilities, and corporate training. BGS has developed a range of models to simulate coupled permafrost-glacier-hydrological systems, which will be available to the student to use and develop as part of their PhD programme.


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 and will provide training in glacio-hydrological and permafrost modelling.

Background reading and references

Bolch, T., Kulkarni, A., Kääb, A., Huggel, C., Paul, F., Cogley, J. G., ... & Bajracharya, S. (2012). The state and fate of Himalayan glaciers. Science, 336(6079), 310-314.
Jones, D. B., Harrison, S., Anderson, K., & Betts, R. A. (2018). Mountain rock glaciers contain globally significant water stores. Scientific reports, 8(1), 2834.
Jones, D. B., Harrison, S., & Anderson, K. (2019). Mountain glacier-to-rock glacier transition. Global and Planetary Change, 181, 102999.
Knight, J., Harrison, S., & Jones, D. B. (2019). Rock glaciers and the geomorphological evolution of deglacierizing mountains. Geomorphology, 324, 14-24.
Shannon S, Smith R, Wiltshire A, Payne A, Huss M, Betts R, Caesar J, Koutroulis A, Jones D* and Harrison S. 2019. Global glacier volume projections under high-end climate change scenarios. The Cryosphere,

Useful links

For information relating to the research project please contact the lead Supervisor via Dr Steven Palmer,

Prospective applicants:

For information about the application process please contact the Admissions team via

Each research studentship project advertisement has an ‘Apply Now’ button linking to an application portal. Please note that applications received via other routes including a standard programme application route will not be considered for the studentship funding.


NERC GW4+ DTP studentships are open to UK and Irish nationals who, if successful in their applications, will receive a full studentship including payment of university tuition fees at the home fees rate.

A limited number of full studentships are also available to international students which are defined as EU (excluding Irish nationals), EEA, Swiss and all other non-UK nationals.

Studentships for international students will only cover fees at the UK home fees rate. However, university tuition fees for international students are higher than the UK home fees rate therefore the difference will need to be funded from a separate source which the student or project supervisor may have to find. Unfortunately, the NERC GW4+ DTP cannot fund this difference from out studentship funding Further guidance on how this will work will be issued in November.

The conditions for eligibility of home fees status are complex and you will need to seek advice if you have moved to or from the UK (or Republic of Ireland) within the past 3 years or have applied for settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme.


Entry requirements

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 our English language requirements by the start of the  project


How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our 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 2 referees as part of the application process, however we will not expect receipt of references 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 the, 7 days prior to the interview dates.  Please note that we will not be contacting referees to request references, you must arrange for them to be submitted to us by the deadline.

References should be submitted by your referees to us directly in the form of a letter. Referees must email their references to us from their institutional email accounts. We cannot accept references from personal/private email accounts, 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 Friday 8 January 2021 2359 GMT .  Interviews will be held between 8th and 19th February 2021.  For more information about the NERC GW4+ DPT please visit

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email  Project-specific queries should be directed to the lead supervisor.

Data Sharing
During the application process, the University may need to make certain disclosures of your personal data to third parties to be able to administer your application, carry out interviews and select candidates.  These are not limited to, but may include disclosures to:

  • the selection panel and/or management board or equivalent of the relevant programme, which is likely to include staff from one or more other HEIs;
  • administrative staff at one or more other HEIs participating in the relevant programme.

Such disclosures will always be kept to the minimum amount of personal data required for the specific purpose. Your sensitive personal data (relating to disability and race/ethnicity) will not be disclosed without your explicit consent.


Application deadline:8th January 2021
Value:£15,285 per annum for 2020-21
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries