Glacier cave stability and safety

Glacier caves are formed by meltwater cutting its way through the ice and thereby serve as the drainage system for the meltwater of the glacier. Due to their inaccessibility, the geometry and position of these caves is largely unknown. As are the exact mechanism of their formation.

During summer the caves form and are kept open due to the pressure of the water. During winter some of the caves close due to the creep of the ice and mechanical instability. Some caves remain however open and allow access to the inner parts of a glacier. Due to their mystical beauty some of the caves have become tourist magnets and guided ice cave tours have become a fast growing business (especially in Iceland and Svalbard).

The stability of these cave systems is however unknown and it is not surprising that several fatal and near-fatal accidents have already happened in the past, when parts of cave systems collapsed.

An example video of a collapsing roof can be seen here:

The task during this master project will be to learn more about the stability of ice caves and the mechanisms that lead to their collapse. The student will develop methodological experiments to assess the stability of cave passages and conduct fieldwork in ice caves on Svalbard to assess the stability of different cave systems. Potential methods can be mapping of ice caves and geomorphological investigations, measurement of ice creep, installation of sensor platforms, laser scanning of cave passages and modeling of ice stresses using Finite Element Packages.

Fieldwork on Svalbard is planed in October 2018, April 2019 and in October 2019 and partly funded by the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund, which is administrated by The Governor of Svalbard. The outcome of the study should lead to guidelines for safety assessment of glacier caves, which will help guiding companies planning their trips.


  • Development of experiments to assess glacier cave stability
  • Development of experiments to assess safety of glacier cave travels
  • Programming of sensor platforms
  • Analysis of obtained data
  • Mechanical modeling of ice stresses
  • Development of guidelines for safe travel in ice caves
Fieldwork inside of a glacier cave


Tags: Glaciology, Geohazards, Speleology, Numerical Modeling
Published May 25, 2018 11:58 AM - Last modified May 25, 2018 12:07 PM

Scope (credits)