PhD Studentship: Rock Glaciers and Water Supply in Asia

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 NERC GW4+ DTP involves the four research-intensive universities across the South West – Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter – and six Research Organisation partners. For further details about the programme please see

Studentships will be awarded on the basis of merit and will commence in September 2014. For eligible students the award will cover UK/EU tuition fees and an annual stipend (in 2013/14 this was £13,726 for full-time students, pro rata for part-time students) for three and a half years.

Dr Stephan Harrison, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter. Professor Richard Betts, Met Office.

Project description:  Mountain hydrology plays a crucial role in maintaining social and economic development in many arid regions of the world through continuous provision of water supplies. However, climate change is leading to recession and eventual disappearance of mountain glaciers. This glacier recession will threaten future water supplies adversely with negative implications for development.

In many Asian arid mountain ranges considerable ice is enclosed within rock glaciers. These landforms are an important component of hydrological systems, forming extensive potential reservoirs of water. With a surface cover of rock debris, the ice content is insulated from low amplitude and high frequency temperature changes and, as a result, rock glaciers are predicted to respond more slowly than ice glaciers to climate warming. Consequently, they have the potential to play an important future role in hydrological systems with global warming, producing water supplies to mountain communities as glaciers recede. 

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Despite this, there are important barriers in understanding how rock glaciers may regulate mountain hydrology. First, there have been few systematic inventories of rock glaciers, despite the pressing need to assess the potential of rock glaciers to contribute to water supply. Second, while much is known of the recession of ice glaciers in response to climate change, much less is known of the rock glacier response. Third, there is incomplete understanding of the amount of ice contained within rock glaciers, especially at the regional scale, and this hampers assessments of the importance of these landforms to providing reliable water supply to susceptible regions.

The proposed research will address the lack of a systematic inventory of rock glaciers in Asia and assess their response to recent climate change, and aims to provide a spatial database from which the PhD student can begin to investigate the amount of ice contained within rock glaciers and their importance as water sources to valley communities. Our approach will be based around freely available remotely-sensed data from the last 41 years. The Landsat data archive ( will be used to provide regional scale data for assessment of rock glacier distributions A spatially explicit understanding of the distribution of rock glaciers across this area will provide a unique scientific basline from which rock glacier responses to observed climate change over this period can be assessed. Modelling of future temperatures using RCM data will allow us to assess the ways in which rock glaciers will respond to future warming.

Closing date: 10th January 2014

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