Fien De Doncker

Research statement

The goal of my research is to gain a better understanding of the link between glacial erosion, sliding velocities and basal conditions. With anthropogenically induced climate change, the ice dynamics, meltwater availability and mass balance of glaciers are changing, which likely alters the glaciers’ sediment export capacity. Downstream, these sediments have an important impact on society, freshwater and marine ecosystems, and the environment. I want to increase our comprehension of the glacial erosion process to eventually predict future changes in sediment delivery.

Scope of my PhD

The objective of my PhD is to investigate the relationship between glacial erosion and sliding velocity for the Greenland Ice Sheet. Specifically, existing observations suggest a non-linear relationship for alpine glaciers. No such relationship has yet been determined for the Greenland Ice Sheet. With the recent acceleration of nearly all tidewater glaciers at the border of the Greenland Ice sheet, such a non-linear relationship between erosion rates and sliding velocities would result in a tremendous amount of sediment delivered to the ocean. Calibration of this relationship for Greenland is therefore important and, with the help of future predictions of sliding velocities, could lead to a reliable estimation of global sediment export rates for glacierized basins.

Interestingly, at the alpine localities where the relationship has been calibrated, the constant that links the erosion rates to the sliding velocities has the same value at every location, even though the climatic and geological setting of the investigated glaciers varies widely. This leads to the hypothesis that there might be an erosion-velocity threshold at the bed-ice contact, controlling the process. Therefore, another aim of my PhD will be to investigate basal conditions in more detail to understand the process of glacial erosion.

I will sample sediment cores around Greenland and carry out sub-bottom seafloor studies to quantify the erosion rates of the last decades, corresponding to the period of the acceleration of the tidewater glaciers.


In June 2019, I obtained my MSc degree in Geography (Earth and Climate) at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KULeuven) and Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). In the writing of my Master’s thesis, titled “Short term glacial erosion of the Gorner glacier: constraining the relation between basal sliding velocity and glacial erosion”, I became fascinated by glacial erosion. My thesis focused on inverse methods to compute erosion rates from detrital sediment data and I used drone images to estimate sliding velocities. Most of the fieldwork for my thesis was done during two exchange semesters at UNIL, where I got the opportunity to join the ICE team. I started my PhD in October 2019 at IDYST; excited for the new lessons to learn, mountains to discover and people to meet.


LAGT prize for master thesis in 2019 at KULeuven.