Project Description

Runoff from the Himalayan glaciers serves as a vital freshwater resource for one of the most populated regions globally. Majority of these glaciers are heavily debris-covered and the debris-covered parts display associated supraglacial ponds (SGPs) whose hydrological buffering roles remain unconstrained1. Glaciers in this region are losing ice mass at an alarming rate due to a warming climate. This ice loss is visible in form of rapidly extending and evolving SGPs and proglacial lakes in the region. SGPs are characteristic surface features on relatively slow-moving, debris-covered glaciers and they grow by the coalescence of smaller ponds. SGPs are known for significant meltwater storage, progressively buffering the runoff regimes, and a more complete understanding of this buffering process is crucial to improving projections of the region’s future water resources in a changing climate. These SGPs also play an important role in increasing the ablation of debris-covered glaciers through a positive feedback mechanism. SGPs are highly recurrent and persistent with high interannual variability2 and small ponds have the potential to expand rapidly3 increasing the risks of glacial lake hazards. 

Nearly all of the SGP research has been carried out on a few selected Nepalese glaciers. The Indian Himalaya is an interesting target region for furthering such research because of its geographic extent which allows investigation across all three predominant glacier-climate regimes in this region, i.e., monsoon-dominated, westerly-dominated, and precipitation-transition zone. Interestingly, a regional-scale analyses of SGPs in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) is missing and through this project, we plan to target this research gap. We aim to perform these analyses for selected glacierised basins within all the three climate regimes of the IHR, for which sufficient glacio-hydrological, climatic, and remote sensing datasets are available. 

The project objectives are: 

  1. Identifying glacierised basins with sufficient data (glacio-hydrological, climatic, and remote sensing) coverage as the target study regions.
  2. Developing semi-automated approaches to map SGPs on a variety of remotely-sensed datasets, extendable to any glacierised region globally.
  3. Multitemporal mapping of SGPs in the study regions. 
  4. Characterising SGPs based on several physical determinants such as their dimensions, rate of change, albedo, etc. and studying the variations across the IHR.
  5. Linking the spatiotemporal evolution of SGPs with the climate evolution in the IHR.

Essential and desirable candidate skills:

Essential: GIS

Desirable: Programming skills in Matlab, Python, R etc. are not essential, but will be beneficial


Anshuman Bhardwaj

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: Anshuman Bhardwaj
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

Matteo Spagnolo

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Matteo Spagnolo
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Geosciences

Brice Rea

Additional Supervisor:

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

Lydia Sam

Additional Supervisor:

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

Shaktiman Singh

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Shaktiman Singh
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Geosciences


References: (1) Irvine‐Fynn et al. (2017) Geophysical Research Letters, 44(23), 11-894. (2) Miles et al. (2017) J. Glaciol., 63, 88–105. (3) Sakai et al. (2009) J. Glaciol., 55, 909–917

Research Methods

The work will involve a number of research methods, including: 

  1. Remote sensing and fieldwork-based mapping 
  2. GIS analysis of mapped landforms
  3. Analysis of climate data
  4. Geostatistical analyses

Expected Training Provision

Throughout this 3.5-year project, the candidate will undertake a training programme which will develop a suite of transferrable-skills, 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 satellite image mapping, geospatial and time series data analyses and will be best suited to students with a background in the geosciences or a related discipline. The skills developed and published outputs will enhance the candidate’s post-PhD opportunities across a wide spectrum of potential careers. 


Detailed population-scale spatiotemporal analysis of supraglacial ponds is important due to their role as ablation hotspot and their link with the englacial hydrological network. Understanding of their characteristics and spatiotemporal variation can therefore be increasingly significant for the Himalayan glaciers showing continuous negative mass balances. In this context of climate change and glacier shrinkage, mountain ranges 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. This highlights the importance and relevance of the project. 

Proposed Supervision

The lead supervisor, Anshuman Bhardwaj, 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 will also benefit from supervision/advisory support from other members of staff of the Cryosphere and Climate Change Group in Aberdeen (Matteo Spagnolo, Brice Rea, Lydia Sam, and Shaktiman Singh). 

There will be regular (typically every 15 days) meetings between the student and the lead supervisor, and at least one monthly meeting with the entire supervisory team. While the student will be based in Aberdeen, it is anticipated that they will spend some months, especially in the second and third year, at Queen’s University Belfast to facilitate the collaboration with Donal Mullan. 

Proposed Timetable

1st year: Reviewing the literature; downloading and archiving of relevant remote sensing data, remote sensing mapping of recent and historical imagery; planning and conducting fieldwork to observe the SGPs.  

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

3rd year: Completion of spatiotemporal mapping, 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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