A solutions-based approach to the impacts of glacier retreat on ecosystem and human health in a changing Arctic

Supervisors: Jemma L Wadham, Sabina Strmic Palinkas (Geoscience), Anne Husebekk (Health Science), Laura Jaakola (Bioscience, Holt Climate Lab), Tom Battin (EPFL, Switzerland) 

The Arctic is warming three times faster than the global average, creating a hot spot for glacier change. Glacier thinning and retreat is widespread, with forecast changes in meltwater supply to rivers and coasts and exposure of virgin land surfaces as the ice recedes. These changes implicate a series of complex feedbacks involving the cycling of nutrients, metals and carbon due to shifts in how meltwaters and rock interact beneath shrinking glaciers and in their forefields. These have the potential to impact human lives and livelihoods via their intersection with the critical services upon which we rely, e.g., fisheries, farming, water quality and mineral resources, some of which may become classed as “hazards” under the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction 2021 framework (geo, chemical, environmental, biological). Central to understanding these impacts and potential solutions is the highly reactive, fine glacial flour released by glacial rivers and deposited in glacier forefields, which can drive different impacts depending on bedrock geology (GEO) with implications for ecosystem and human HEALTH. Glacial flours from flood basalts and some ultra-basic rock types are enriched in nutrients (P, K and micronutrients), and can be used as a soil fertility treatment for crop growth in a greening Arctic, boosting crop yields and biofortifying crops in essential nutrients for human nutrition (e.g., Se, Zn). In other bedrock terrains (e.g., ultramafic, sulphide-rich sediments) glacial flour releases toxic metals, creating challenges for ecosystem and human health. Both these impacts present opportunities for solutions-based innovation within a changing Arctic via plant-based micro-industries and prediction of potential toxicity in natural waters. This PhD fellowship proposal will evaluate these “toxin or treat” impacts (and solutions) of glacial retreat, contributing cutting-edge interdisciplinary research directly to the Arctic Resilience Accelerator’s “Food Security” and “Health Themes”, and with direct collaboration with a key partner: EPFL. They have strong synergy with EU Horizon Europe’s missions under “Adaptation to Climate Change” and “Restore our Oceans and Water” and will build UiT research capacity in these areas. 

The PhD fellow will evaluate the potential for retreating glaciers to deliver solutions to the water quality impacts of glacier change by developing soil fertility treatments using glacial flour – boosting crop growth and nutritional content; and models to understand and predict metal toxicity in rivers in deglaciating and mined terrains, underpinned by evaluation of their intersection with human health. The PhD has three components of work, achievable within a 4-year time frame (with 25% for department duties), defining three goals: 

  • To analyse a spectrum of contrasting glacial meltwaters and flours across a climate gradient (Arctic to sub-Arctic) to assess their potential toxicity or fertility properties for downstream ecosystems and their services 
  • To experimentally evaluate the potential of glacial flour as a natural soil fertility treatment for crop growth, with benefits for food security and human health (a “double win”) in the Holt Climate Lab (NIBIO/UiT) 
  • To evaluate implications of glacier-driven toxicity and fertility for ecosystem and human health 

The supervisory team for the fellow is highly interdisciplinary and crosscuts three faculties at UiT, who will provide training and supervision of the PhD fellow in glacial biogeochemistry and environmental chemistry (Wadham, Strmic Palinkas), human (Husebekk) and plant health (Jaakola). It also benefits from a collaboration with EPFL, one of the core partners of the Arctic Resilience Accelerator.  

The project is designed to be delivered within a 4-year research time frame, with approximately one year dedicated to each of its central goals. As an integrated part of these goals, the student will spend 6 months at EPFL, within the new ALPOLE : Alpine and Polar Research Centre, which will give them access to unique expertise by Prof. Tom Battin and other researchers in glacier ecosystems and allow them to gather further samples from a suite of alpine glaciers for Goal 1 of their PhD, complementing samples collected from Norwegian glaciers.  



  1. AMAP. Arctic Climate Change Update 2021: Key Trends and Impacts. Summary for Policy-makers. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP). (AMAP, Tromsø, Norway, 2021). 
  2. Meredith, M et al. in IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate Vol. Chapter 3  (eds H.O. Pörtner et al.)  118 (2019). 
  3. Milner, AM et al. Glacier shrinkage driving global changes in downstream systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, 9770-9778, (2017). 
  4. Wadham, JL et al. Ice sheets matter for the global carbon cycle. Nat Comms 10, 3567, (2019). 
  5. AMAP. Human Health in the Arctic 2021. Summary for Policy-makers. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP). 16 (Tromsø, Norway). 


Jemma Louise Wadham (Principal investigator)
Colin Sinclair (Principal investigator)