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Controls on glacier calving at Helheim Glacier in south-east Greenland


Professor Tavi Murray
Dr Ian Rutt

Project and aims

The marine-terminating outlet glaciers of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) account for over half of total ablation of the ice sheet and are presently changing speed, thinning and retreating at unprecedented rates. Understanding the processes controlling tidewater glacier retreat is essential if we are to improve our ability to predict the stability of the GrIS and hence future sea-level rise.

Although the controls of the stability of tidewater glaciers are poorly understood, it is clear that the interface between the glacier and ocean waters is key. For example, on the west coast, the 1990s speedup of Jakobshavn coincided with the incursion of warm ocean waters into the glacier’s fjord (Holland et al., 2008) and in south-east (SE) Greenland, the focus of this study, speed up occurred synchronously with anomalously warm sea surface temperatures (Murray et al., 2010). However, it is not clear how these warmer waters impact on the fast moving glacier fronts. Warmer waters will lead to high melt rates at the glacier margin invigorated by circulation at the front margin driven by buoyant, fresh subglacial water (Motyka et al., 2003). However, the front margin speeds of the major outlet glaciers are ~20 m/day or faster and even high melt rates may not significantly impact on their frontal dynamics. Such glaciers produce large volumes of calved ice which forms a mélange 10s km long in the fjord which freezes in winter and is highly mobile in summer. This mélange has been shown to stabilize glacier’s frontal margin and influence glacier calving (Amundson et al., 2010), and its formation, dynamics breakup and mechanical strength are likely to be key controls on glacier dynamics.

This PhD project will concentrate on the potential role of the ice mélange and fjord ice in stabilising the front of Helheim Glacier in SE Greenland using both in situ monitoring and remote sensing techniques. The glacier drains the largest catchment in SE Greenland and will be the site of a major monitoring project during 2011-13. As part of the field team the student will install cameras allowing summer monitoring of both mélange and fjord ice dynamics. Winter and longer-term conditions will be ascertained using remote sensed data. Analysis of these data will provide a greatly enhanced understanding of the response of Greenlandic outlet glaciers and the potential role of the ice mélange. Access to this remote glacier site within the scope of a PhD project is only feasible because of the logistics already in place.

The tidewater glaciers of south-east Greenland have been a focus of research at Swansea for more than five years and Professor Tavi Murray and Dr Ian Rutt have recently been awarded a major project to instrument the calving margin of Helheim Glacier using novel technologies with collaborators in the School of Engineering at Swansea and at Newcastle University. The student will thus gain experience of joining a major scientific project undertaking terrestrial Arctic fieldwork and may in addition gain an insight into the collection of oceanographic data. The student will be supervised by Prof Tavi Murray ( and Dr Ian Rutt ( at Swansea University.

The Glaciology Group at Swansea University is of an enviable size (five permanent academic staff, seven postdoctoral researchers, and approximately sixteen postgraduate students), providing a supportive environment for young researchers with many opportunities for exchange and discussion of ideas in addition to exposure to a wide range of research topics and methods. Furthermore, research training and opportunities to gain a range of transferable skills are provided for all postgraduate students at Group, Departmental and University levels. The student will be expected to present their research at national and international conferences as appropriate, thus gaining valuable feedback and further critical input to their research as well as networking opportunities. Postgraduate students are encouraged to participate in relevant additional training, such as the Glaciology Course run by UNIS in Svalbard

Applicant requirements

This studentship would suit a creative student with a background in geosciences or physical sciences with an interest in novel remote sensing techniques and a desire to undertake fieldwork in the Arctic.


This project is eligible for competitive funding through NERC studentships awarded to the Department. (These are open to candidates who have been ordinarily resident in the UK throughout the 3-year period preceding the date of application). Other funding opportunities may be available and self-funded students are always welcome. Contact your potential supervisor for advice and details of how to apply.

How to apply

Applicants must complete and submit the following documentation by the deadline:

  • A  completed application form for admission to a PhD in Geography – submitted via the online admissions portal: Apply (Please specify a PhD in Geography with NERC funding and project title)
  • Applicants should use the ‘Additional Supporting Information’ section of the application form to explain why the nominated award they have chosen particularly appeals to them and how they would choose to develop it
  • Academic References – all admissions applications require two references to be submitted in support. Please ensure that your chosen referees are aware of the funding deadline, as we will be using these to help us evaluate your NERC studentship application
  • Academic Transcripts – where applicable, academic transcripts must be submitted with the online admissions application by the funding deadline. We will be using these to verify your academic qualifications.

Application closing date: 13 April 2012


For details of eligibility, please visit the NERC website:

Further reading:

Amundson, J.M. et al. Ice mélange dynamics and implications for terminus stability, Jakobshavn Isbræ, Greenland. J. Geophys. Res., 10.1029/2009JF001405, 2010.

Holland, D.M. et al. Acceleration of Jakobshavn Isbræ triggered by warm subsurface ocean waters. Nature Geoscience 1, 659-664, 2008.

Luckman, A. et al. Rapid and synchronous ice-dynamic changes in East Greenland. Geophys. Res. Lett., 33, L03503, 10.1029/2005GL025428, 2006.

Motyka, R.J. et al. Submarine melting at the terminus of a temperate tidewater glacier, LeConte Glacier, Alaska, U.S.A., Annals Glaciol., 36, 57-65, 2003.

Murray, T. et al.  Ocean-regulation hypothesis for glacier dynamics in south-east Greenland and implications for ice-sheet mass changes. J. Geophys. Res., 10.1029/2009JF001522, 2010.


Automatic camera in place at the margin of Helheim Glacier during summer 2010.  The ice melange fills the fjord for some 10s km from the calving margin.