EPS 253: Glaciology

Graduate course, Harvard University, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 2018

An introduction graduate course that explores the physics of glaciers and ice sheets


This course explores the physics of glaciers and ice sheets. We begin by describing “synoptic scale” glaciology, i.e., at the scale of entire glaciers and ice sheets. The course then examines the smaller-scale physics of the glacier-atmosphere, -bed, and -ocean interfaces, the interactions between ice sheets and planetary climates, and the analysis of ice cores. Special attention will be given to a dozen or so deep-focus topics that may include ice shelf hydraulic fracturing, glacier sliding, the marine ice sheet instability, climatic forcing of ice sheet steady states, and ice core reconstructions. These topics will be approached using mathematical physics, geophysical data, simple computer simulations, and large-scale ice sheet models. Prerequisites. Familiarity with the analysis of partial differential equations. Matlab will be used throughout this course.

Problem Sets

Collaboration is encouraged.

Notes on topics of special focus

  1. Simple glacier models
  2. General derivation of ice flow models
  3. Basal sliding
  4. Ice-sediment interactions and interfacial premelting
  5. Marine ice sheets
  6. Subglacial hydrology
  7. Ice sheet archives
  8. Surface energy budget feedbacks

Slides from lectures

  1. General introduction
  2. Introduction to models
  3. Sliding models
  4. Ice shelves
  5. Marine Ice Sheets
  6. Ice Streams
  7. Glacier hydrology
  8. Ice sheet paleoclimate archives
  9. The surface energy budget, Part 1
  10. The surface energy budget, Part 2

Class Meetings

  • Friday 09:45 AM - 11:45 AM
  • Location: Geological Museum 204
  • Office Hours TBD or appointment-based
  • Meetings will be a mixture of traditional lectures as well as problem solving time. During problem solving sessions students will do a combination of math, programming, and data analysis surrounding the weekly deep-focus topic.

Detailed course outline

The following list is given approximately by week number. The course will tailored to students’ interests and we may not cover everything listed here in order to go into more detail on particular areas.

  1. Synoptic scale glaciology 1: observations of modern glaciers and ice sheets. Geophysical and remotely sensed observations. The geological record of past ice sheets.
  2. Synoptic scale glaciology 2: glaciers and ice sheets as thin diffusive flows. Stokes flow, ice constitutive relations, asymptotic approximations to ice flow including the shallow ice approximation. Simple ice sheet models as a framework for hypothesis testing. Flow energetics. The time scales of glacier response.
  3. The glacier-atmosphere interface: mass and energy balances. Components of the SMB and SEB. Temperature-melt relationships. Firn compaction. Ice sheet topographic feedbacks. Why do Martian ice sheets appear so different from those on Earth?
  4. The glacier-bed interface 1: basal sliding. The classical theory of glacier sliding. Bed plasticity and ice streams.
  5. The glacier-bed interface 2: glacier hydrology. Simple models of the components of the glacier hydrological system. Glacier outburst flooding. Subglacial lakes. Interfacial chemistry and subglacial effective pressure.
  6. The ice-ocean interface 1: ice shelves and the shallow shelf approximation. Grounding line position, glacial isostatic adjustment, and the marine ice sheet instability.
  7. The ice-ocean interface 2: ice shelf buttressing, the spectrum of glacier calving behavior, basal mass balance, tidewater glaciers. Ice shelf hydraulic fracture.
  8. Ice and climate 1: Ice sheet steady states. The global temperature-ice-albedo feedback. Mechanical analysis of ice flow on Snowball Earth and Europa.
  9. Ice and climate 2: The Quaternary ice sheets. The Last Glacial Maximum. Heinrich Events. Outbursts floods and their impact on climate.
  10. Ice and climate 3: Contemporary changes. Minimal glacier models and the record of glacier length changes. Current evolution of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Attribution of certain changes to human activity (or not).
  11. Ice core studies. Age-Depth relations. Temperature and accumulation reconstructions. Stable isotopes, fractionation. Ice core disturbances due to interfacial premelting.
  12. Final presentations.

Final Project

Students will work alone or in groups to answer a glaciological research question that they formulate with the assistance of the Instructor. It’s recommended that students begin to formulate their research question by visiting office hours throughout the term. The final project will consist of:

  1. a written report of about the length of a paper in Geophysical Research Letters,
  2. an open repository of any codes developed for the project, and
  3. a 15 minute “AGU” style talk.


  • 50% Problem Sets
  • 50% Final Project

The Harvard Honor Code

“Members of the Harvard College community commit themselves to producing academic work of integrity – that is, work that adheres to the scholarly and intellectual standards of accurate attribution of sources, appropriate collection and use of data, and transparent acknowledgement of the contribution of others to their ideas, discoveries, interpretations, and conclusions. Cheating on exams or problem sets, plagiarizing or misrepresenting the ideas or language of someone else as one’s own, falsifying data, or any other instance of academic dishonesty violates the standards of our community, as well as the standards of the wider world of learning and affairs.”

Academic Accommodations

Any student needing academic adjustments or accommodations is requested to speak with the Lecturer by the end of the second week of the term.


  • Cuffey, Kurt M., and William S. B. Paterson. The Physics of Glaciers. Academic Press, 2010.
  • Benn, Douglas, and David J. A. Evans. Glaciers and Glaciation. Routledge, 2014.
  • Hooke, Roger LeB. Principles of Glacier Mechanics. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • van der Veen, Cornelis J. Fundamentals of Glacier Dynamics. CRC Press, 2013.