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Dr Alison Banwell, BSc, PhD

Dr Alison Banwell, BSc, PhD

Institute Associate



  • May 2018 - April 2020: Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) Visiting Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Colorado, Boulder, USA (and SPRI Associate).
  • May 2015 - April 2018: Leverhulme/Newton Trust Early Career Fellow, SPRI, Cambridge.
  • Oct 2013 - Sept 2016: Junior Research Fellow at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, and SPRI Associate.
  • Jan 2013 - Sept 2013: Postdoctoral Research Scholar with Professor Douglas MacAyeal, Department of Geophysical Sciences, University of Chicago (and SPRI Associate).


  • Ph.D. Scott Polar Research Institute (St. Catharine's College), University of Cambridge, UK (2008-2012). Thesis: "The hydrology of the Greenland Ice Sheet". Funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council.
  • B.Sc. (Hons.) (First class) in Geology and Physical Geography, University of Edinburgh, UK (2004-2008).

Awards and grants

  • 2017: CIRES Postdoctoral Visiting Fellowship, University of Colorado, Boulder (1 May 2018 - 30 April 2020).
  • 2015: US National Science Foundation (NSF) Antarctic grant: 'Impact of Supraglacial Lakes on Ice-Shelf Stability' (September 1st 2015 – August 31st 2017, PI: Doug MacAyeal). $ 295,399. Field Leader and Named International Collaborator.
  • 2014: Leverhulme/Newton Trust Early Career Fellowship (1st May 2015 - 30th April 2018).
  • 2014: Antarctic Science Ltd. Bursary (£3,700)
  • 2013: 'Bowring' Junior Research Fellowship (stipendiary), St Catharine's College, Cambridge (1st October 2013 - 30th September 2016)
  • 2011: St Catharine's College (Cambridge), Graduate Prize for Distinction in Research.
  • 2011: Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge. Overall Winner at the University of Cambridge (£6,000).
  • 2011: Royal Geographical Society, Dudley Stamp Memorial Trust Grant (£500).
  • 2010: National Geographic Society (Committee for Research and Exploration), Young Explorer Grant (£3,000).
  • 2010: Svalbard Science Forum (SSF) Arctic Field Grant (£4,200).
  • 2010: International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) Network on Arctic Glaciology award for conference attendance/presentation (~£500).
  • 2010: Beatrice Shaw Fund, University of Cambridge (£900)
  • 2009: University of Cambridge Roberts Fund. To support attendance of the AG-325 Glaciology course at UNIS, Svalbard.


The influence of hydrology on the dynamics of the Greenland Ice Sheet

Variations in Greenland ice velocities are driven by the dynamic response of the subglacial hydrologic system to variability in meltwater delivery from the surface to the bed via crevasses and moulins. This process was investigated during my PhD through the development of a high spatial and temporal resolution hydrological model. The model, which was applied to Paakitsoq (west Greenland), consists of three components: i) a surface energy-balance model to calculate melt; ii) a surface routing model to transport meltwater to moulins, or to surface depressions which fill to form lakes and then drain via fractures; and iii) a subglacial routing model to transport water at the ice sheet base and to calculate water pressures. My current work, in collaboration with Dr. Ian Hewitt (University of Oxford), Dr Neil Arnold and Dr Ian Willis, focuses on developing the subglacial model component so that changes in basal friction fields, and therefore ice dynamics, can be calculated in response to changes in subglacial water pressures.

Antarctic ice-shelf instability and break-up

Ice-shelf instability and break-up, as was exhibited by the Larsen B ice shelf in 2002, remains one of the most difficult glaciological processes to observe directly, and therefore to model accurately. It is, however, vital to do so because ice-shelf breakup has the potential to influence the buttressing controls on inland ice discharge, and thus to affect sea level. Several mechanisms of ice-shelf break-up have been proposed, including that which forms the central focus of my research: Surface lakes have the ability to introduce ice-shelf fractures in response to stress associated with the ice-shelf's flexure response to lake filling and draining. For Larsen B, these fractures resulted in a chain-reaction style drainage of >2500 surface lakes in the days prior to the 
ice-shelf's demise. To better understand this process, and to understand the environmental conditions that lead to ice-shelf instability, I am currently in the process of developing models of viscoelastic ice-shelf flexure and fracture, and validating them with field observations from the McMurdo Ice Shelf in the austral summers of 2015/2016 and 2016/2017. This work is in close collaboration with Prof. Doug MacAyeal (University of Chicago).

PhD supervision

  • Rebecca Dell (University of Cambridge), "Hydrology, stability & break up of Antarctic Ice Shelves", 2017 - present
  • Andrew Williamson (University of Cambridge), "Supraglacial hydrology of the Greenland Ice Sheet", 2014 - present (submitted April 2018).
  • Grant Macdonald (University of Chicago), "Evaluating the surface hydrology of ice shelves", 2014 - present.


[Publications will appear automatically from the University's research database.]


Undergraduate teaching:

  • College Teaching Associate, St Catharine's College, Cambridge (October 2016 - April 2018).
  • Part IB supervisor: Physical and Environmental Geography II: Glacial Processes (2009 - 2018), and staff member on the Department of Geography field trip to Arolla, Switzerland (2010, 2013 and 2015) and Loetschental, Switzerland (2017).
  • Part II supervisor: Glacial Environments (2011 - 2018).

External activities

  • Organising Committee member for the NSF-funded workshop on 'Antarctic Surface Hydrology and Future Ice-Shelf Stability', Lamont Doherty, New York, 21 - 23 Feb 2018.
  • AGU Fall Meeting 2017 session convener, 'C005: Antarctic Ice Shelves: surface and basal processes, instability and breakup'.
  • AGU Fall Meeting 2013 session convener, 'Glacier, Ice Cap, & Ice Sheet Hydrology'.
  • ​Regular reviewer for peer-reviewed journals (Nature, Geophysical Research Letters, Journal of Geophysical Research, Journal of Glaciology, Annals of Glaciology) and funding bodies (NSF and NZARI)
  • Member, International Glaciological Society
  • Member, American Geophysical Union
  • Member, European Geosciences Union
  • Fellow, Cambridge Philosophical Society (2015 - present)
  • Committee member, UK Polar Network (2009 - 2012)