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Department of Geography



Professor Ian Willis, BSc PhD

Professor of Glaciology

Glaciologist with interests in the meteorology, thermal regime, mass balance, hydrology and dynamics of glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets and ice shelves.



  • 2021-now : Professor, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge
  • 2019-2021: Reader, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge
  • 2002-2019: Senior Lecturer, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge
  • 1994-2002: Lecturer, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge
  • 1989-1994: Assistant Lecturer, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge
  • 1985-1986: Research Assistant, Department of Geography, Polytechnic of North London

Visiting Fellowships

  • 2018-2019: Visiting Fellow, CIRES, University of Boulder, Colorado, USA (while on leave from Cambridge)
  • 2003-2004: Visiting Academic, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand (while on leave from Cambridge)
  • 1995-1997: Visiting Scholar, QRC, University of Washington, Washington, USA (while on leave from Cambridge)


My current and recent areas of research include:

  • Antarctic ice-shelf hydrology, instability and break-up
  • Surface and basal hydrology of the Greenland Ice Sheet
  • Meteorology, debris cover and surface hydrology of Himalayan glaciers
  • Surface characteristics and mass balance of Icelandic ice caps
  • Mass balance of Svalbard glaciers

My research involves a combination of field-based geophysics (ground penetrating radar, weather stations, dye tracing, borehole investigations, surveying and GPS, seismometers); ii) airborne (lidar and optical imagery) and satellite (radar and optical imagery) remote sensing; and iii) in collaboration with others, physics-based computer modelling.

Supervision of Doctoral and Masters Students

I welcome enquiries from prospective PhD students and MPhil in Polar Studies students. Please look at my current and recent research interests, my current graduate students and the titles of my past PhD students' theses and MPhil students' dissertations, then get in touch with me with your ideas about research topics that I may be able to supervise.

I am specifically seeking applicants for PhD projects associated with the NERC Doctoral Training Partnership:

Recent Doctoral theses and Masters dissertations supervised include:


  • Investigating the surface hydrology of Antarctic ice shelves through remote sensing and machine learning
  • Quantifying supraglacial debris thickness at local to regional scales
  • Wind and temperature in a glacierised Himalayan valley and their controlling mechanisms
  • Remote sensing of rapidly draining supraglacial lakes on the Greenland Ice Sheet
  • Using semi-automated methods to map glacial geomorphology from remotely sensed data
  • Spatio-temporal variability and energy-balance implications of surface ponds on Himalayan debris-covered glaciers
  • Modelling the hydrology of the Greenland Ice Sheet
  • Spatially distributed modelling of regional glacier mass balance: A Svalbard case study
  • Soft-sediment deformation beneath a surge-type glacier
  • A distributed, physically based snow melt and runoff model for alpine glaciers
  • The hydrology and dynamics of polythermal glaciers
  • Hydrological influences on the dynamics of valley glaciers
  • Seasonal and spatial variations in the surface energy-balance of valley glaciers
  • Dye tracer investigations of glacier hydrological systems


  • Evolution of basal channels, ice fracture, and surface meltwater, and implications for the stability of the Roi Baudouin Ice Shelf
  • Ice Velocity Response to Surface Melt and Supraglacial Lake Drainages at a Land-Terminating Margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet
  • Observing the Seasonal Evolution of Supraglacial Ponds in High Mountain Asia: A Supervised Classification Approach
  • An investigation into intra-seasonal and inter-seasonal patterns of meltwater storage on George VI Ice Shelf, Antarctic Peninsula, using optical and synthetic aperture radar satellite imagery.
  • Using a regional atmospheric model (RACMO2.3) and in-situ measurements to investigate atmospheric drivers of surface melt on the George VI Ice Shelf, Antartica
  • Surge or not? Seasonal observations of surge- and climate-related glacial dynamics in the West Kunlun Shan, North-West Tibet, and inferences for subglacial conditions.
  • Quantifying supraglacial debris thickness and the glaciological controls on its spatial distribution in High Mountain Asia
  • Examining surface and subsurface melt-water ponding and refreezing on the Bach Ice Shelf, Antarctica using satellite optical and radar imagery
  • Glacier surging in the West Kunlun Shan
  • Analysis of the surface hydrology of the Greenland Ice Sheet using Sentinel-1 Synthetic Aperture Radar
  • Coastal meltwater plume detection and its response to melting variations around the Greenland Ice Sheet
  • Modelling the future mass balance of glaciated Northwest Spitsbergen, Svalbard for a range of socio-economic trajectories
  • Enhanced melting beneath supra-glacial lakes on the Greenland Ice Sheet
  • Energy balance modelling at the glacier surface: model comparison and implications for mass balance calculation, Langjökull, Iceland
  • Surface reflectance characteristics of Langjökull, Iceland
  • Modelling meltwater drainage in the Paakitsoq region, western Greenland, and its response to 21st century climate change
  • Application of Wavelet Analysis for Examining Climate and Meltwater Runoff in the Paakitsoq Region, West Greenland
  • Surface Topography and change, Langjökull, Iceland
  • Climate and pro-glacial discharge interactions in the Paakitsoq region of Western Greenland
  • Recent changes in the surging outlet glaciers of Langjökull, Iceland
  • Temporal and spatial patterns of supraglacial lake drainage and implications for the hydrology of the Greenland Ice Sheet
  • Recent changes to Langjökull , Iceland: An investigation integrating airborne lidar and satellite imagery
  • A distributed, physically based model of glacier hydrology applied to Paakitsoq, Ilulissat, western Greenland
  • Numerical analysis of rapid water transfer beneath Antarctica


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


I am involved in public / media outreach activities to widen the public's interest in and involvement with my own research and with polar science more generally. Examples over the last several years include:


Interviews with and reports in the media

My own recent research activity:

Debate on Climate Change, House of Lords

Polar science more generally:

External activities

I have been an active member of the International Glaciological Society throughout my career and was a Council Member and the Treasurer 2006-2018.

I am a regular reviewer of academic manuscripts for Nature; Science; Nature Geoscience; Journal of Geophysical Research; Geophysical Research Letters; Environmental Research Letters; Journal of Glaciology; The Cryosphere; Remote Sensing of Environment; Annals of Glaciology; Journal of Hydrology; Hydrological Processes; Boreas; Progress in Physical Geography; Earth Surface Processes and Landforms; Arctic and Alpine Research.

I have reviewed book proposals for Blackwell and for Stanley Thornes Publishers.

I am a regular reviewer of grant proposals for: NERC, UK; Leverhulme UK; NSERC, Canada; NSF and NASA, USA; Swiss National Science Foundation, Switzerland; Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, Netherlands.