Exploring the landscape beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet and its influence on ice behaviour

This project will investigate what the landscape beneath Antarctica is like, how it evolved, and how it interacts with the overlying ice sheet. Although the subglacial landscape of Antarctica has been increasingly well mapped over the past decades, even the most detailed surveys do not resolve the full detail of the terrain beneath the ice (Fig. 1). However, the sub-ice landscape of valleys and ridges are at a large enough scale that they influence the morphology of the ice surface, creating an opportunity to delineate these valleys using ice surface data. This project therefore aims to use existing satellite remote sensing and radio echo sounding data to resolve more detail in the sub-ice landscape. By mapping the locations of valleys and ridges that are visible on a range of ice surface datasets we will obtain a more detailed understanding of the planform landscape organisation of East Antarctica (Fig. 2). In doing this we will then be able to investigate that network of valleys in respect of: 1) The geological evolution of the landscape whereby the pattern of the network may reflect the interactions between tectonics and surface process such as river erosion that predate the growth of the ice sheet, and 2) the interaction between the ice sheet and the topography in terms of processes such as glacial erosion but also in terms of understanding changes in the size and flow pattern of the ice sheet over time. Similar work has been completed on topographic data from East Antarctica and reveals that ancient landscapes may survive beneath the modern ice sheet (Rose et al., 2012; Jamieson et al., 2014). The outcome of the project will be a clearer understanding of the sub-ice landscape and its long-term evolution as well as a better understanding of how the ice and landscape have interacted over the history of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.

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Image Captions

Figure 1: This project will investigate what the landscape beneath Antarctica is like, how it evolved, and how it interacts with the overlying ice sheet.,Figure 2: Example mapping of a likely ancient landscape buried beneath Antarctica (Jamieson et al., in preparation). The underlying data is RADARSAT and subglacial valleys and ridges are mapped in blue and red. The ancient valley network is thus visible beneath the modern ice sheet.


The approach will use satellite remote sensing datasets whose morphology reflects the morphology of the underlying landscape. This approach has been used developed by and extensively used by the supervisors (Ross et al., 2014; Jamieson et al., 2016; Chang et al., 2016). The student will explore a range of automated or interactive processes in order to best map the position and pattern of subglacial ridges and valleys. The result will be a line map (e.g. network) of valleys and ridges. The project will then aim to quantify the topological characteristics of that landscape and to interpret them in terms of their evolution. In order to understand the evolution of the Antarctic landscape, comparison to other landscape networks across the globe may be undertaken. The mapping will be ‘ground-truthed’ using existing Radio Echo Sounding (RES) data from survey flights across Antarctica whereby the student will confirm the locations of the valleys and measure their cross sectional or longitudinal morphology to understand their likely origin (e.g. U-shaped glacial troughs vs. V-shaped river valleys and glacial troughs vs. hanging valleys or cirques). There will be the opportunity to use a numerical ice sheet model to explore ice flow patterns if the student wishes, but this is not a necessity.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Develop understanding of Antarctic ice sheet history, landscape evolution and interactions between rivers, tectonics and ice. Methodological exploration and initial mapping.

Year 2

Conduct remaining mapping. Receive training on RES data analysis and terrain analysis. Analyse mapping and terrain data in respect of evolution. Begin drafting paper on methodology.

Year 3

Continue analysis, package methodology and/or any code so that is it available open source, drat papers on the Antarctic science questions. Explore whether to conduct numerical ice flow modelling (and receive training from supervisors) and conduct simple experiments.

Year 3.5

Complete write-up of papers and package as thesis.

& Skills

Applicants might have some background in glaciology or landscape evolution and have some experience of GIS or quantitative techniques, but this is not essential.
The student will gain experience of a wide range of research methods relating to remote sensing, geophysical data analysis (optionally on numerical modelling) and Antarctic science in general. The supervisory team covers the wide breadth of methods to be applied and can provide hands-on training in all aspects of the project at Durham and Newcastle Universities The student will be supported to attend international training opportunities (e.g. Karthaus summer school on ‘ice and climate dynamics’) and appropriate national and international conferences. The student will be a member of the Sea Level, Ice and Climate Research Cluster in Geography at Durham (https://www.dur.ac.uk/geography/slic/).
Broader transferable skills (e.g. communicating science, thesis writing, writing for publication, presentation skills) will be developed through various training events at Durham University offered by IAPETUS as well as through Durham’s award winning Career and Research Development (CAROD) group. At all stages the students writing skills will be developed and supported and they will be encouraged to lead papers outlining the project results. The project and supervisory team is designed to give the student broad, multi-disciplinary training including quantitative skills to ensure they have a range of applicable and transferable skills.

Students will also be encouraged to engage with Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) activities which involve wider international collaboration and discussion and will be supported in doing so by the project supervisors who are active in this area.

References & further reading

Neil Ross, Tom A. Jordan, Robert G. Bingham, Hugh F.J. Corr, Fausto Ferraccioli, Anne Le Brocq, David M. Rippin, Andrew P. Wright, Martin J. Siegert; The Ellsworth Subglacial Highlands: Inception and retreat of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. GSA Bulletin 2014; 126 (1-2): 3–15. doi: https://doi.org/10.1130/B30794.1

Kathryn C. Rose, Fausto Ferraccioli, Stewart S.R. Jamieson, Robin E. Bell, Hugh Corr, Timothy T. Creyts, David Braaten, Tom A. Jordan, Peter T. Fretwell, Detlef Damaske,
Early East Antarctic Ice Sheet growth recorded in the landscape of the Gamburtsev Subglacial Mountains, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, Volume 375, 2013, Pages 1-12, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2013.03.053.

Stewart S.R. Jamieson, Neil Ross, Jamin S. Greenbaum, Duncan A. Young, Alan R.A. Aitken, Jason L. Roberts, Donald D. Blankenship, Sun Bo, Martin J. Siegert; An extensive subglacial lake and canyon system in Princess Elizabeth Land, East Antarctica. Geology 2016; 44 (2): 87–90. doi: https://doi.org/10.1130/G37220.1

Jamieson, S.S.R. and Stokes, C.R. and Ross, N. and Rippin, D.M. and Bingham, R.G. and Wilson, D.S. and Margold, M. and Bentley, M.J. (2014) The glacial geomorphology of the Antarctic ice sheet bed., Antarctic science., 26 (6). pp. 724-741. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0954102014000212

Chang, M. and Jamieson, S.S.R. and Bentley, M.J. and Stokes, C.R. (2016) ‘The surficial and subglacial geomorphology of western Dronning Maud Land, Antarctica.’, Journal of maps., 12 (5). pp. 892-903. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17445647.2015.1097289

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