PhD Student, Himalayan Glaciology, Scott Watson @CScottWatson: A Day in the GeoLife Series

NAME: Scott Watson

CURRENT TITLE: PhD Student at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom (2015 – present)

AREA OF EXPERTISE: Himalayan glaciology/remote sensing

EDUCATION: BSc Geography at the University of Leeds (2009 – 2012). MSc River Basin Dynamics and Management with Geographic Information System (GIS) at the University of Leeds (2012 – 2013)

WEBSITE: Rocky Glaciers

TWITTER: @CScottWatson

What’s your job like?

Brilliant! My PhD is investigating the role of ice cliffs and supraglacial ponds for accelerating ablation on debris-covered glaciers in the Himalayas, specifically around the Everest region. This involves a combination of remote sensing analysis using various sources of satellite imagery and three field campaigns on the Khumbu Glacier in Nepal (home to Everest Base Camp). The work will help parameterise the role of cliffs and ponds in dynamic models used to forecast the future evolution of glaciers in the region. Since starting my PhD, I’ve developed new skills using remote sensing and GIS software; made and analysed 3D models using Structure-from-Motion technology; published two papers and a book chapter; and conducted two field campaigns on the Khumbu Glacier in Nepal, the first of which involved four weeks in a tent at 5,000 meters (m) altitude! I’ve also presented my research to specialist and non-specialist audiences at several outreach events. Having the opportunity to help present our team’s work to over 13,000 people at the week-long Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in London was one I’ll never forget.

Himalayan glaciology

Climbing the slopes of Lobuche East with the terminus of the Khumbu Glacier visible down below. Photo credit: Scott Watson

What’s your typical day like?

I think the only constant is lots of tea drinking. Before fieldwork, I was using various sources of fine-resolution satellite imagery to quantify the spatial and temporal change of supraglacial ponds in the Everest region. This involved a lot of digitising and error checking so days were quite repetitive, but it was interesting to see the results emerge. Following fieldwork, I have a lot of data to start processing including 3D models of ice cliffs, supraglacial pond bathymetry, and differential global positioning system (GPS) measurements for the ground control of new satellite imagery. Usually I’m multitasking because my models can take weeks to process, so I leave it churning away in the background whilst working on a paper or other analysis. Time flies, but I have clear goals and regular meetings with my supervisors to discuss ideas.

What’s fun?

Discovering new things and the fieldwork. My project involves three field campaigns on the Khumbu Glacier where I’m monitoring the evolution of several supraglacial ponds and ice cliffs. I use a brilliant technology called Structure-from-Motion to monitor the retreat of cliffs in 3D, rather than traditional point-based measurements using ablation stakes. Abseiling down ice cliffs and paddling around the supraglacial ponds in an inflatable boat was also a unique and fun experience. Carrying all my field kit to and from London Heathrow using public transport was less fun. I’m also a keen runner and climber, so having the opportunity to work at over 5,000 m in the Himalayas is amazing, as well as to climb my first 6,000 m peak.


Downloading data loggers deployed in a supraglacial pond. Photo credit: Scott Watson


Abseiling down an ice cliff on the Khumbu Glacier. Photo credit: Scott Watson

What’s challenging?

Probably the biggest challenge I’ve faced during my PhD is securing funding to cover fieldwork costs. I spent a lot of my first year writing grant applications, but thank fully, most have paid off. It’s often hard to switch off from work when faced with a series of research questions, which are evolving all the time. This is where regimented hours (tuned to avoid traffic) and a love of running up big hills helps. I also volunteer for a local youth organisation, which completely changes my focus.

What’s your advice to students?

Ask lots of questions, look for opportunities to gain experience, read plenty, make yourself useful, and be ambitious.

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