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Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in Polar Studies

3. The Dissertation: Research Topics for 2013/14

The central feature of the M.Phil. in Polar Studies is the 20,000 word dissertation, undertaken within the context of the research agenda of one of the Institute's research groups.

These topics are examples of the types of research undertaken by M.Phil. students; this should not be viewed as an exhaustive list of possible topics.

In all cases, applicants are encouraged to discuss their interests with the potential supervisor before applying. We also will consider applications from students with their own proposals, provided those proposals fit within the overall research agenda of the Institute. In these cases, it is vital to discuss your ideas with your potential supervisor.

Examples of recent dissertation titles are available.

Possible Projects: Humanities and Social Sciences Strand

History and Public Policy

Supervisor: Dr. Michael Bravo

Anthropology of Northern Peoples

Supervisor: Dr Piers Vitebsky

Archival Research

Supervisor: Mrs Heather Lane

Possible projects: Physical Sciences Strand

Glacier and Ice Sheet Processes

Subglacial hydrology of the Greenland Ice Sheet

Supervisor: Ian Willis and Neil Arnold

There is growing interest in the subglacial hydrology of the GrIS and there is ongoing debate about the links between increased surface melting, enhanced lubrication at the bed, and accelerations in glacier motion. We are currently using a semi-distributed conduit model (Arnold and others, 1998) to investigate the extent to which surface melt can be routed subglacially from moulins to the ice sheet margin. We have performed some sensitivity tests to investigate the role of e.g. initial conduit size, and magnitude and variability of surface inputs to modelled outputs, but there is still much work to be done. This project would work alongside a PhD student working on these issues to undertake further sensitivity tests, and to optimise key model parameters by matching outputs with measured proglacial stream discharges.

Surface topography and change, Langjökull, Iceland

Supervisor: Ian Willis, Neil Arnold, Gareth Rees

Langjökull is Iceland's second largest icecap (925km2). Recent research suggests it is currently losing mass over twice as fast as the larger Vatnajökull. In August 2007, we obtained high resolution (~2m) LiDAR data over all of the southern part of the ice cap, and much of the northern part. We also have access to: 1) a course resolution (100m) DEM for the entire ice cap from 1997 (based on dGPS profiles done ~1km apart); 2) a 25m resolution DEM for one of the southern outlet glaciers, Hagafellsjökull-Vestri, from 2001 (derived using airborne photogrammetry); and 3) numerous dGPS surface profiles and point measurements from 2005, 2006 and 2007. The project would involve using these data and GIS techniques to examine surface elevation changes across the ice cap, which could then be compared with published surface mass balance measurements.

Surface roughness characteristics of Langjökull, Iceland

Supervisor: Neil Arnold, Ian Willis, Gareth Rees

Surface roughness is an important parameter in surface energy balance equations since it controls rates of sensible and latent heat transfer between the atmosphere and glacier surface, and therefore glacier ablation. Values for the aerodynamic roughness length applicable for particular glacier surfaces are sometimes derived from measurements of micro-topography along ~3-m long profiles orthogonal to the dominant wind direction (e.g. Brock et al, 2006). But wind directions vary, through 360o, and the associated roughness the wind "feels" will vary too. This project will use high-resolution (cms) terrestrial laser scanner data, collected recently over different types of glacier surface on Langjökull, together with nearby weather station data (windspeed and direction, air temperature and vapour pressure) to derive a frequency distribution of roughness values for all wind directions. The data could then be used to calculate frequency distributions of sensible and latent heat transfer for different wind directions, which can then be cumulated for a typical summer melt season. These can then be compared with estimates of sensible and latent heat transfer derived using more traditional techniques, i.e. using a single roughness parameter.

Landsat- and airborne-derived surface radiation, Langjökull, Iceland

Supervisor: Gareth Rees, Neil Arnold, Ian Willis

Satellite-derived surface radiation data have been used to classify glacier surfaces into different facies of ice, firn, and snow (e.g. Paul, 2000). Resultant maps have been used, for example, to examine year-to-year changes in surface melt extent, or to derive surface albedo estimates for use with surface energy balance / melt models. A main limitation of satellite data is its spatial resolution, which is typically tens of metres. We have recently acquired ~2m resolution airborne multispectral data (at the same wavelengths as Landsat TM data) over most of Langjökull, Iceland. This project will involve a comparison of the Landsat TM and the airborne radiation data to examine the extent to which the Landsat TM data is able to capture the variability of surface characteristics at various spatial scales.

Sedimentation in Antarctic subglacial lakes

Supervisor: Ian Willis, Julian Dowdeswell, Neil Arnold

Antarctic subglacial lakes are now recognised as playing an important role in the hydrology, dynamics and geomorphology of the Antarctic Ice Sheet. There is growing interest in the possibility of coring into the sediments on the floor of subglacial lakes to extract proxy records of environmental change over time. This project will couple a simple 1-D fluid flow and sediment transport model to a lake sedimentation model in order to examine the sensitivity of sediment transport and deposition to key parameters such as inflow stream roughness, sediment particle size distribution, lake temperature and salinity. We have recently calculated steady state water discharges to known subglacial lakes by accumulating gridded basal meltwater fluxes (i.e. output from a balanced flux model with a prescribed geothermal heat flux and modelled strain heating fluxes) along gridded subglacial hydraulic potential gradients (calculated from surface and bed elevation data) and these will form one key input to the model. Output from the model may be tested against recent seismic data of lake sediments obtained for Lake Vostok, and possibly Lake Ellsworth.

Testing a 1-D energy and mass balance model for supraglacial snowpacks

Supervisors: Ian Willis and Neil Arnold

We have recently modified a 1-D (vertical) energy and mass balance model (SNTHERM) for use on supraglacial snowpacks and tested it against data collected at a point on the temperate Haut Glacier d'Arolla, Switzerland (Fox and others, 2008). This project would involve futher slight modification of the model and its application to the polythermal Midre Lovénbreen, Svalbard. We have a high temporal resolution (15 minute) data set of weather station meteorology, ultra-sonic depth-gauge-derived snow / ice ablation, snowpack temperature gradients, and lysimeter-derived snowpack water movement with which to drive and test the model.

Geophyscial and Geological investigations of glacier-influenced marine sediments

Supervisor: Julian Dowdeswell

The Institute holds many large datasets on the morphology of the fjords, continental shelves and slopes in the polar seas. The sediments deposited here contain a record of the growth and decay of glaciers and ice sheets over timescales ranging from centuries, to hundreds of thousands of years, depending on the area under investigation. In many settings, for example offshore of Greenland, Svalbard and the Antarctic Peninsula, sediment cores are also available to provide a chronology for the events. The detailed morphology and sedimentology of the sea floor also provides information on the nature of processes taking place at the base of former ice sheets. There are a number of detailed projects available on aspects of these datasets and the supervisor should be contacted to dicuss possible projects in depth.

Exploration of icy environments in a cold room laboratory

Supervisor: Poul Christoffersen

The newly refurbished cold rooms at SPRI are available for scientific projects within the MPhil programme. Potential projects include (i) characterisation of the thermo-mechanical properties of subglacial sediments, (ii) dynamics of freshwater ice in saline solutions, and (iii) ice shelf cavity simulations.

Flow sensitivity in Greenland outlet glaciers

Supervisor: Poul Christoffersen

Greenland outlet glaciers are, with flow-speeds up to 40 m per day, amongst the fastest and most dynamic glaciers on Earth. Satellite images show that substantial acceleration in the flow speeds of several prominent glaciers occurred between 2000 and 2005, resulting in a doubling of the ice mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet. This dramatic trend was originally thought to be a consequence of atmospheric warming, but a shift to slower speeds in 2006 is more consistent with oceanic control. This project will explore the temporal characteristics of calving retreat and speed up using either remote sensing techniques or a numerical modeling approach. The latter may be based on adaptation of existing numerical models used previously in simulations of Antarctic ice streams.

Ice-Ocean interactions in the Arctic

Supervisor: Poul Christoffersen

Warm saline water from the Atlantic plays a key role in the Arctic climate system. Atlantic Water is carried by the North Atlantic Current, which bifurcates near Iceland. The main branch of the North Atlantic Current enters the Nordic Seas and follows the Norwegian coast before it bifurcates again, flowing either west into the Barents Sea or north into the Arctic Ocean west of Spitsbergen. The second branch enters the Irminger Sea where warm Atlantic Water meets cold polar water from the East Greenland Current. The Irminger Sea forms a part of the sub-polar North Atlantic and is a critical component of Earth's global climate system as deep water formation at this location drives thermohaline circulation (Dickson and Brown, 1994).

The main aim of the project is to compile climatic datasets and assess cryopsheric impacts of global warming as well as changes in the circulation of Atlantic water in the Arctic and Nordic seas. The investigation will be quantitative and focused on environmental change in target areas proximal to major ocean currents. Research objectives include use of: (i) climate reanalysis data, (ii) atmospheric weather records; (iii) outputs from global ocean models, (iv) hydrographic ocean datasets; (v) satellite-derived changes in front position and speed of marine-terminating outlet glaciers.

Sedimentary processes in a subglacial paleolake

Supervisor: Poul Christoffersen and Ian Willis

This project will use geophysical and geological datasets to test the hypothesis that a 150-m-thick sedimentary sequence in the 620-m-deep eastern arm of Canada's Great Slave Lake represent a subglacial paleolake. The datasets, which include seismic profiles, swath bathymetry and sediment samples, will be integrated and used to generate understanding of sedimentary processes in Antarctic subglacial lakes, which remain one of least known environments on Earth. Results from this project may be relevant for the planned direct exploration of subglacial Lake Ellsworth in 2012.

Permafrost decay in the Arctic

Supervisor: Poul Christoffersen and Julian Dowdeswell

The Arctic is changing at a greater rate than any other environment on Earth. Surface temperatures are warming and permafrost is degrading, and ecosystems are adapting to new environmental conditions. New extreme and seasonal surface conditions are evident, hydrological and biogeochemical cycles are shifting, and more regularly social systems are being affected.

The aim of this project is to develop spatial and temporal understanding of permafrost decay through analyses and interpretation of satellite imagery of the Alaskan or Siberian Arctic. The investigations will include assessment of changes in surface hydrology, seasonal freeze-thaw cycles and the accelerated development of thermokarst lakes.

Calculating subglacial topography from remotely sensed imagery

Supervisor: David Vaughn (British Antarctic Survey)

Over fifty years, a considerable body of ice thickness data has been acquired over Antarctica by researchers from many nations. Together these data were used in 2000 to produce a map of the subglacial bathymetry of the continent beneath the ice, BEDMAP (see This map is widely used by geologists, glaciologists and other researchers. BEDMAP is currently being revised, and we seek to improve the techniques that we use for gridding/interpolating point data. In particular we seek to incorporate recent satellite image mosaics that contain hitherto unused information regarding the location and extent of subglacial features. The project would entail developing techniques for the incorporation of a variety of data in a single algorithm for producing subglacial topographic maps and testing the result using recently acquired data. Requires good numerical and programming skills, and a working knowledge of GIS systems.

Polar Remote Sensing:

Variability and change in circumarctic snow cover

Supervisor: Gareth Rees

This project will use freely-available satellite and surface data to construct a database describing interannual variation and long-term trends in snow cover, either in detail for a specific region of the arctic and sub-arctic or at a more general level for the entire circumpolar region. A possible extension to the project will be to investigate the relationship between trends in snow cover and in vegetation.

Optimal routing of hydrocarbon pipelines

Supervisor: Gareth Rees

Constructing pipelines to carry oil and gas across high-latitude terrain is technically challenging because of climate and topographic factors and the presence of permafrost, amongst other factors. The economic and environmental costs of mistakes can be very high. However, there is likely to be increasing need for such pipelines. The aim of this project is to develop a simple 'cost-based' model and to apply it to calculation of optimal routes for (possibly hypothetical) pipelines across Canada or the Russian North.

Location and dynamics of Arctic Treeline

Supervisor: Gareth Rees

The transition from boreal forest to arctic tundra is the world's greatest ecotone, highly significant for a number of ecological and climatological reasons. It has been the subject of intense study over the past few years as part of the International Polar Year (IPY). In order to place the IPY investigations into a global and historical context, this project will analyse coarse-resolution satellite imagery, from the MODIS and AVHRR instruments and possibly others, to study the current configuration and the recent (past few decades) variation in this region.