Glacial sensitivity to landscape evolution measured with detrital thermochronometry

Theme: Solid Earth Dynamics

Primary Supervisor:

Matthew Fox

Earth Sciences, UCL

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Secondary Supervisor:

Pieter Vermeesch

Earth Sciences, UCL

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Additional Supervisor(s):
Hugh Sinclair (Edinburgh)

Project Description:

The rate of change of Earth’s ice sheets is uncertain in a changing climate. Past ice sheet configurations during periods of warmer climate provide analogues for Earth’s future. Recent work has focused on sub-glacial drilling to identify changes in sediments associated with ice sheet collapse in the past. For example, the Thwaites glacial drilling project ( and the SWAIC 2C project ( have recently recovered sediment from below major glaciers in the West Antarctic. This sediment provides a unique opportunity to not only constrain deglaciation in the past but also the topography in the past. This is crucial because glaciers grow on topography that is eroding and uplifting due to glacial erosion and regional tectonics.

We will use cutting edge detrital thermochronometric methods to reconstruct landscape evolution. The basis of this thermochronometry is that as valleys incise, rocks at the base of the valleys are brought to Earth’s surface and cool. It is this cooling that can be measured with thermochronometry. Traditional approaches, where bedrock is accessible, rely on the potential to measure differences in cooling rates, and timings, between valley bottoms compared to surrounding peaks. In Antarctica, this is not possible because the valley bottoms are covered by ice. Detrital methods exploit the processes of glacial erosion and sediment transport to gain indirect access to samples from below the ice. Using this approach, we can build three dimensional thermal models to constrain likely topographic evolution.

The project will be integrated with the Thwaites and SWAIS2C projects through collaborations with BAS, Imperial College London and Exeter. We will have access to sediment cores from these unique locations
to establish a fundamentally new data set to constrain landscape evolution. This will provide exciting training opportunities in topics from sedimentology to ice sheet modelling.

Policy Impact of Research:

The extent of ice sheets back through time provide a unique record of climate change. However, ice sheet extent is also a function of evolving topography that is dissected by glaciers and uplifted by tectonics. This project attempts to resolve this topographic evolution.

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