Remote sensing as a tool to detect sudden glacier detachment events

Remote sensing as a tool to detect sudden glacier detachment events

Glacier detachment events, where a large section of ice suddenly detaches from a glacier, have the potential to cause catastrophic damage in mountainous environments. Most notably in recent years, a large ice-rock avalanche in Uttarakhand, India in February 2021 killed more than 200 people (Shugar et al., 2020) and a detachment from the Marmolada glacier in Italy in July 2022 killed 11 people. Further such detachments have been observed in mountain glaciers worldwide and may be a more frequent hazard than originally thought (Kääb et al., 2021). However, given the rarity of their occurrence, little is known about the processes that lead up to sudden detachment, which if detected, could be used to warn of an imminent event.

GIF of satellite imagery showing two glacier collapse events in succession
Two successive glacier detachment events from the Aru range, China (Kääb et al., 2021)

As climate change accelerates the decline of the mountain cryosphere, a challenge exists in being able to robustly track these changes using observation and modelling methods. Research which analyses the events leading up to glacier collapses have shown that there are a number of observable precursors, such as expanding crevasses (Leinss et al., 2021), changes in the seismic signals from glacier movement (Roux et al., 2010), and surge-like acceleration in velocity (Kääb et al., 2018). Many of these precursors are exhibited days, or even weeks, prior to collapse. Disentangling these signals from normal glaciological processes is a key part of incorporating them within a warning system that imminent collapse is likely.

A new generation of remote sensing techniques for the mountain cryosphere (Taylor et al., 2021) may be able to detect, and predict, large glacier detachments even in the world’s remotest region. With an expanded dataset of detachment events, machine learning algorithms can be trained to separate the unique surface signals which indicate collapse and those that indicate normal glacier behaviour (as is being applied over ice sheets; Zhao et al., 2022). In addition, low-cost field sensors can be deployed liberally across high risk regions to gather vital data into on-the-ground changes in a glacier prior to collapse.

The aim of this project is to constrain the likely precursors of glacier collapse events with remote sensing. A broad range of remote sensing techniques will be used, including harnessing global satellite archives in cloud computing environments such as Google Earth Engine to conduct global-scale analyses. Very high-resolution optical and SAR images will also be used to automatically detect key surface-based features which indicate imminent collapse. Machine learning may also be used to automate the detection of precursors on a wider spatial scale.

There will also be an opportunity to deploy field-based tools, such as low-cost timelapse cameras and seismometers, in high risk areas, in partnership with regional stakeholders and policymakers. The final field site(s) will be chosen based on the assessment of risk of collapse, prior connections within the supervisory team to on-the-ground partners, and in discussion with the successful candidate. Potential sites include the Alps, Himalaya, and Peruvian Andes.

Left picture shows a man in front of a large ice cliff, Right shows a camera sensor looking at a glacier in the background
Deploying low-cost field-based sensors may help detect precursor events to imminent collapse.

1. Produce a global-scale risk map of mountain glaciers based on their vulnerability towards future collapse;
2. Use very high resolution remote sensing and machine learning techniques to detect the precursors to sudden collapse based on historical events;
3. Deploy low-cost field-based sensors in vulnerable areas to detect on-the-ground changes in glaciers which may indicate sudden collapse.

Fit to NERC Science
This project is aligned to the NERC research areas of ‘Terrestrial and freshwater environments’, ‘Climate and climate change’, and ‘Geosciences’. In addition, this project aligns closely to NERC research into digital environments, Earth observation, and monitoring of mountain glaciers under the broad lenses of impacts of climate change on the natural world.

Skills and Training

The successful student will join an interdisciplinary team based at the University of Leeds, with specialisms in remote sensing, cloud computing, and fieldwork. They will join the ‘River Basins and Process Management’ research cluster, ‘water@leeds’, and ‘Ice Club’ groups to create a wide discipline-specific support network during their time at Leeds. The student will be encouraged to attend international conferences from their first year in order to develop their computing-based skills. It is anticipated that the PhD project will lead to three academic publications.

Student Profile

The prospective student should have, or be working towards, a minimum 2:1 BSc and/or MSc degree in an appropriate discipline. Enthusiasm and passion for working in glacierised environments is essential, and an understanding of the social implications of glacier detachments is highly desired. Informal enquiries can be sent to Liam Taylor at


Kääb, A., Jacquemart, M., Gilbert, A. et al. (2021) Sudden large-volume detachments of low-angle mountain glaciers – more frequent than thought? The Cryosphere 15. pp.1751-1785.
Kääb, A., Leinss, S., Gilbert, A. et al. (2018) Massive collapse of two glaciers in western Tibet in 2016 after surge-like instability. Nature Geosci. 11. pp.114-120.
Leins, S., Bernardini, E., Jacquemart, M. and Dokukin, M. (2021) Glacier detachments and rock-ice avalanches in the Petra Pervogo range, Tajikistan (1973-2019). Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci. 21. pp.1409-1429.
Roux, P. -F., Walter, F., Riesen, S. et al. (2010) Observation of surface seismic activity changes of an Alpine glacier during a glacier-dammed lake outburst. J. Geophys. Res. 115(F3).
Shugar, D.H., Burr, A., Haritashya, U.K. et al. (2020) Rapid worldwide growth of glacial lakes since 1990. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10. pp.939–945.
Taylor, L.S., Quincey, D.J., Smith, M.W. et al. (2021) Remote sensing of the mountain cryosphere: Current capabilities and future opportunities for research. Prog. Phys. Geogr. 45(6). pp.931-964.
Zhao, J., Liang, S., Li, X. et al. (2022) Detection of surface crevasses over Antarctic ice shelves using SAR imagery and deep learning method. Remote Sens. 14(3).