PhD opportunity: Glaciers as secondary sources of anthropogenic pollutants: an emerging socio-environmental challenge

Supervisors: Dr Caroline ClasonDr Kim Ward and Professor Will Blake

Project description

Glaciers can act as a reservoir for atmospheric pollutants that fall onto their surface or that have been scrubbed from the atmosphere by snow, storing these materials for decades or longer, before releasing them into the downstream environment through melting. Evidence is mounting which suggests that pollutants, including fallout radionuclides generated by nuclear events, are not only being stored by glaciers, but are also concentrated through their interaction with ice, meltwater and glacial sediments. As glaciers melt in response to a warming climate, pollutants stored in ice are transported downstream in secondary contamination events, such that historical pollutants from sources such as Chernobyl in 1986 may be remobilised and pose a new threat for water and environmental quality.

The project will take an innovative interdisciplinary approach to evaluate (a) whether pollutants are stored and released from glaciers in potentially harmful concentrations, and (b) the potential socio-environmental impact(s) of this emerging challenge on downstream communities. This project aligns closely with emerging research led by Dr Clason on the prevalence of fallout radionuclides in glaciers northern Europe, with an interdisciplinary Royal Geographical Society ‘Environment and Sustainability Grant’ held jointly by Dr Clason, Dr Ward and Professor Blake, and a Newton Fund grant awarded to Dr Clason on glacier-fed water resources and water quality in Peru. The studentship will benefit from supervisors currently researching Arctic geography from both a physical and human perspective; providing the potential to develop a unique inter-disciplinary thesis on glaciers as secondary sources of anthropogenic pollutants within the context of climate change.

Project aims:

1.   To assess the extent to which recession of glaciers acts as a source of environmental pollutants in harmful concentrations.

2.   To evaluate the spatial variability in pollutant storage and release in different glaciated regions.

3.   To explore the potential impact of secondary contamination on downstream ecosystems.

4.   To explore the potential impact of secondary contamination on downstream communities.

To achieve these aims the successful candidate will combine quantitative and qualitative methods across natural and social science using: geochemical techniques to analyse glacier sediment samples; statistical and spatial analytical techniques to assess the prevalence of and controls on distribution of pollutants; and qualitative research methods to better understand potential social impacts on downstream communities.

The successful candidate would be trained in geochemical analytical techniques in the state-of-the-art Consolidated Radio-isotope Facility, supported by experienced technical staff. The candidate would also be trained in qualitative research methods and will have opportunities to engage with taught postgraduate material in human geography to guide them in research design, analysis, and communication techniques. The supervisory team have a demonstrated track record of expertise in glaciology, catchment science, and social environmental geography to support this interdisciplinary work.


Applicants should have a minimum of a 1st or 2.1 undergraduate degree in geography, Earth or environmental science and be enthusiastic about taking an interdisciplinary approach to research. It is desirable that applicants have a solid understanding of glacial environments, feel comfortable in learning new laboratory techniques, and are willing to undertake field research in remote locations should opportunities arise. Experience of using GIS and scientific programming (MATLAB, R, Python) would also be beneficial but not compulsory

If you wish to discuss this project further, please contact  Dr Caroline Clason.  However, applications must be in accordance with the details below.


The studentship is supported for three years and includes full home/EU tuition fees plus a stipend of £15,009 per annum.  

Applicants normally required to cover overseas fees will have to cover the difference between the home/EU and the overseas tuition fee rates (approximately £12,285 per annum).

How to apply

General information about applying for a research degree at the University of Plymouth.

Please apply via the online application form which can be found at: and click ‘Apply’.  

Please mark it FAO Nikki King, clearly stating that you are applying for a PhD studentship within the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences. Please attach a covering letter detailing your suitability for the studentship, a CV, research statement, and 2 academic references.

For more information on the admissions process, please contact Nikki King.

The closing date for applications is 12 noon on 31 May 2019. Shortlisted candidates will be invited for interview mid June. We regret that we may not be able to respond to all applications. Applicants who have not received an offer of a place by 30 June 2019 should consider their application has been unsuccessful on this occasion.