Project Description

This project uses geospatial techniques of remote sensing, GIS, and photogrammetry to reconstruct glaciers on Earth and Mars. This proposal fits well in several of the NERC’s remits. A target NERC focus area is analysis of current and past climate variability on all timescales, detection and attribution of past change, and prediction of impacts of climate change on the environment. The project specifically aims at studying palaeoenvironments, causes of change, and reconstruction of environmental change through the geologic past of Earth and Mars. Another target NERC theme is to study glacial and cryospheric systems, periglacial processes, and determination of glacial events. Finally, the project tries to investigate an otherwise lesser explored NERC research theme of Planetary Science, where the techniques and data derived from studying other extraterrestrial bodies like Mars enhance understanding of the Earth System. Present-day Mars and Earth are quite different, but geomorphic/geologic processes on the two planets have been more similar since their formation. Indeed, within our solar system, Mars is the most Earth-like planet, and has harboured planet-wide oceans, lakes, rivers, and glaciers in its geologic past. However, what suddenly changed Mars into a cold desert is an unsolved mystery and has equally relevant implications for the Earth’s future. The unprecedented climate change that the earth is currently undergoing has already started impacting its frozen water reserves and the global changes in glaciers have been extraordinary. To better understand the past and future of glaciers on Earth, there is a need to take a comparative glaciology-based approach where selected glaciers on Earth and Mars are reconstructed using the same geospatial techniques through a unified semi-automated workflow. Mars has a unique place in the solar system as it holds the key to many compelling science questions, and is accessible enough to allow rapid, systematic exploration to address and answer these questions.  

Understanding glacial-like forms (GLFs) on Mars helps to understand the evolution of the planet as a system, focusing on the interplay between the tectonic and climatic cycles and the implications for habitability and life. Since the geologic processes of both Earth and Mars are similar, reconstructing  GLFs will shed a light on the evolution of these landforms and the implications for Earth. Due to lack of field data (which is also the case for majority of the glacierised regions on Earth), this research can improve the existing techniques by using high spatial resolution remote sensing datasets for reconstructing GLFs and extracting digital elevation models (DEM). The techniques and data derived by this study therefore, will enable us to extrapolate back to the Earth systems and understand landscape evolution . Therefore, studying GLFs will provide technical improvements, and the data will also help us to understand the future of glaciers on Earth. 

For both Earth and Mars the geomorphological signature required for reconstructing the former extent of an ice mass, are ice-marginal landforms such as moraines and trimlines. This geomorphological evidence will then be used to determine the glacier’s maximum extent. Coupling this with differences in elevation between the current surface and theoretically reconstructed palaeo-glacier surfaces will reveal the glacier volume lost. 

Reconstructing Martian glacial history informs understanding of its physical environment and past climate. This project will improve our understanding of several important research questions such as (i) how was the  present-day Martian landscape formed and how might it further evolve in the future?, (ii) What might be the presence and phase state of H2O on/close to Mars’ surface?, and (iii) how has the Martian climate changed in geologically recent  history. 

The project aims will be achieved by the delivery of a number of objectives: 

  1. Identify  the GLFs with sufficient data-coverage as the study regions. 
  2. Create high resolution Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) using HiRISE or other orbiter stereopairs where needed. 
  3. Characterise surface terrain types at high spatial resolution to enable geomorphologic mapping of the GLFs. 
  4. Reconstruct the former extent of GLFs using ice flow modelling and draw possible climatic inferences. 
  5. Reconstruct the former extent of selected glaciers within similar topographic settings on Earth. 
  6. Reconstruct the formation, deformation, flow direction and mass change of GLFs and earth glaciers. 
  7. Compare and draw inferences between Martian GLFs and  glaciers on Earth in terms of their geomorphic signatures related to climate change. 

Essential and desirable skills:

Essential: GIS, photogrammetry 

Desirable: Matlab, python, R 


Lydia Sam

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: Lydia Sam
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Geosciences

Donal Mullan

Secondary Supervisor:

Profile: Donal Mullan
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Natural and Built Environment

Brice Rea

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Brice Rea
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Geosciences

Additional Supervisor:

The co-supervisory/advisory team may also consists of: 

Dr. Anshuman Bhardwaj, Senior Lecturer, School of Geosciences, University of Aberdeen 

Dr. Shaktiman Singh, Lecturer, School of Geosciences, University of Aberdeen 

Prof. Matteo Spagnolo, Personal Chair, School of Geosciences, University of Aberdeen 


Brough et al. (2016) Icarus, 274, 37-49;  

Glasser and Bennett (2009). Glacial geology: ice sheets and landforms. 

Expected Training Provision

Throughout this 3.5-year project, the candidate will develop a suite of transferrable-skills provided by the QUADRAT DTP, including field courses, quantitative and advanced skills training, an internship and a Chartered Management Institute certificate in strategic management and leadership. This project will develop skills in glacier mapping/modelling and geospatial analyses. The skills developed and published outputs will enhance the candidate’s post-PhD opportunities across a wide spectrum of potential careers. 


Climate change is a reality and glaciers are well-established markers of gauging the extent of climate change at large spatiotemporal scales. This project ventures into a new direction where comparative glaciological investigations on both, Earth and Mars, aim at developing unified approaches of reconstructing the former extents and status of glaciers. Although substantial ice cover has been identified within the mid-latitudes of Mars in the form of GLFs, there is uncertainty regarding the formation, current and former volume, and dynamic evolution and detailed geomorphology of these ice masses. This project, can also help to understand how Mars’ climate changed in geologically recent history, and this can help us learn more on the implications of changing climate on the future of Earth. The project proposal will also improve our understanding of how Mars’ present-day landscape was formed and how might it further evolve in the future, which may also tell us how Earth’s landscape might change in future in different scenarios. 

In the context of anthropogenic climate change and resulting glacier shrinkage on Earth, mountain glaciers are thought to display further transition from debris-free to debris-covered, with an increase of their relative importance on the freshwater availability, quality and timing. A contextual and comparative analysis of debris-covered GLFs on Mars can reveal significant insights about the future of glaciers on Earth. This highlights the importance and relevance of the project. 

Proposed Supervision

The lead supervisor, Lydia Sam, is a remote sensing specialist and a glaciologist based at the University of Aberdeen and the second supervisor, Donal Mullan, is a climatologist based at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB). The candidate will be based in Aberdeen but will have regular contact with QUB and, if desirable, may be able to undertake some of the PhD based in Belfast. The candidate may also benefit from supervision/advice by other members of staff from the Cryosphere and Climate Change Group in Aberdeen (Anshuman Bhardwaj, Brice Rea, Shaktiman Singh, and Matteo Spagnolo). 

Proposed Timetable

1st year: Reviewing the literature; downloading and archiving of relevant remote sensing data, generation of photogrammetric DEMs, mapping of glaciers and periglacial landscape; planning and conducting fieldwork to observe the glacial landscapes.  

2nd year: Continuation of mapping work, morphometric analyses, presentation of preliminary works in conferences, compilation of climate datasets. 

3rd year: Completion of mapping and morphometry work, correlation of mapped results with climate data, synthesis of research articles. 

Last 6 months: Communication and revision of research articles and finalising the thesis. 


  • earth-systems


Not applicable at this time.

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