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Unveiling the 4D variability in the lithospheric cradle of the Antarctic ice sheet

Unveiling the 4D variability in the lithospheric cradle of the Antarctic ice sheet

Supervisors: Dr Fausto Ferraccioli (BAS)- Science Leader Geology & Geophysics. Expert in potential field studies including aerogeophysical and satellite-based studies of the Antarctic lithosphere; Co-supervisors: Dr Chris Green (Univ Leeds)- Expert in global potential field studies and methodologies; Dr. Noel.Gourmelen (Univ of Edinburgh)- Expert in EO and subglacial hydrology; Prof. Jörg Ebbing (Univ of Kiel)- Expert in satellite gravity/satellite magnetic data and 3D lithosphere modelling.

Importance and timeliness of the research

The lithosphere beneath Antarctica remains poorly understood compared to other continents but is of major significance, as it also provides the fundamental cradle on which its vast ice sheets flow. Antarctica’s bed topography, subice geology and deeper structure all influence geothermal heat flux, a particularly ill-constrained parameter that needs to be better estimated in the timely quest to determine key basal conditions that affect ice sheet dynamics, including subglacial hydrology.

Recent advancements in Earth Observation via satellite gravity gradient and satellite magnetic missions of the European Space Agency (ESA), augmented by new international compilations of aeromagnetic, aerogravity and radar data, coupled with progress in 3D modelling methodologies provide tantalising new opportunities for better integrated Antarctic lithosphere and ice sheet studies.

Project Summary

This PhD project leverages on a new EO project of ESA, 4D Antarctica, which aims to investigate and model the Antarctic lithosphere and assess its effects on geothermal heat flux variability.

The main aim of this PhD project is to develop state of the art 2D and 3D models and interpretations of crustal and lithosphere structure and thermal structure for selected Antarctic study regions, including the PolarGAP surrounding South Pole, where the satellite EO data gap has recently been filled with new airborne geophysical observations. The project will target modelling the crust and lithosphere and its evolution beneath the Pensacola-Pole subglacial basin in East Antarctica that also hosts a variety of dynamic and static subglacial lakes. Larger scale models of the lithosphere and geothermal heat flux variability beneath the West and East Antarctic ice sheets will then be developed and compared with the better understood Ross Sea, Transantarctic Mountains and Wilkes Subglacial Basin region. Comparative studies between the Wilkes and Pensacola-Pole basins will link bedrock topography, geology, deep structure, geothermal heat flux and subglacial hydrology in both regions for the first time.

We anticipate that the project will provide key new insights into crustal and lithosphere structure beneath the South Pole frontier, new geophysical estimates of large-scale subglacial geothermal heat flux variability, novel views of the interplays between bed topography, geology, subice hydrology and ice sheet dynamics, and methodological advancements in integrated lithosphere-ice sheet studies.


The PhD student will be based in BAS and regularly visit Leeds University and Edinburgh University as well as the University of Kiel. The student will be trained in EO satellite and airborne potential field data processing and enhanced analyses, including in particular 2D and 3D modelling software methods and capabilities. Advanced Geosoft potential field software courses will be provided; IGMAS software, LitMod and other thermal modelling software training will be available via our German project partner at Kiel University. Broader training opportunities in time management, team skills and scientific writing and presentation skills will also be offered, and a 3 month placement will also be provided.