Sarah Fell

Sarah Fell


I am a PhD student with a NERC DTP scholarship researching the response of alpine river ecosystems to glacier retreat. My project combines my interests and previous study in Geography (BSc) and Ecological Conservation (MSc) to identify how the structure and functioning of river biotic communities will be impacted by a shrinking cryosphere. My fieldwork has spanned alpine regions of Austria, New Zealand and Norway.

Research interests

Alpine river ecosystem response to glacier retreat

Project overview

Sustained anthropogenic dependence upon a hydrocarbon dominated energy base continues to drive unprecedented global increases in near-surface temperatures. Climatic warming is of greatest rate and magnitude in areas of high altitude and latitude, which are also experiencing altered patterns of precipitation distribution. Subsequently, many alpine glaciers are thinning and retreating, at accelerating rates. This is altering the proportional contribution of glacier ice melt, snowpack melt, groundwater flow and precipitation to alpine rivers. As each water source has a discrete physicochemical signature and discharge regime, spatial and temporal variability within these contributions will alter stream reach habitats and in turn, influence the structure and functioning of benthic ecosystems. A more comprehensive understanding of these ecological responses is required to better inform effective freshwater management strategies in a changing climate. 

My research adopts a chronosequence approach, substituting space-for-time by sampling alpine rivers across catchments with varying permanent ice coverage, to quantitatively represent the stages of glacier retreat. Investigations focus upon understanding and informing predictions of modifications to the structure (food webs) and functioning (decomposition, respiration) of benthic ecosystems along this gradient of glacier influence, to inform alpine river conservation efforts.  


To determine how the structure and functioning of alpine river ecosystems will respond to the alterations in water sourcing induced by glacier retreat.


  1. To construct and refine a conceptual model to describe the influence of reducing catchment glacier cover upon alpine freshwater biota spanning multiple trophic groups
  2. To quantify the response of alpine benthic diatom assemblage biodiversity to a gradient of reducing catchment glacier cover
  3. To investigate alterations to the structure and allometric scaling of alpine benthic food webs along a glacier cover gradient
  4. To determine how cellulose decomposition rates and benthic microbial communities vary along chronosequences of catchment glacier cover across multiple alpine regions

Research Affiliations


NERC DTP Studentship


  • British Diatom Meeting 2017 - Mallham, UK
  • Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) 2018 - Victoria, Canada 


  • Into the Blue 2017
  • Be Curious 2018


  • 2013-2015: Land Management and Conservation Adviser, Natural England
  • 2012-2013: MSc Ecology and Conservation, Lancaster University
  • 2007-2011: BSc (Hons.) Geography, University of Edinburgh