Causes and Effects of Abrupt Climate Change on Tropical Biodiversity - Geography - NERC GW4+ DTP PhD Studentship Ref: 3137

About the award

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus six Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Met Office, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

The Studentship will be awarded on the basis of merit and will commence in September 2018.  For eligible students the award will provide funding for a stipend which is currently £14,553 per annum (2017/2018), research costs and UK/EU tuition fees at Research Council UK rates for 42 months (3.5 years) for full-time students, pro rata for part-time students.


Main Supervisor: Dr. Dunia H. Urrego, Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences
Co-Supervisor: Prof. Richard D. Pancost, School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol
Co-Supervisor: Prof. Toby Pennington Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences

Location: Streatham Campus, Exeter

Project description:

Our planet has experienced multiple events of rapid climate change during the past 100,000 years that are known to affect the whole globe. The propagation of these climate events between regions is however still controversial. Some research suggests that the oceans are the key driver transmitting the signal of abrupt climate events from temperate regions to the rest of the planet. Other research indicates that both the ocean and atmosphere propagate the signal from the tropics to the temperate regions. To disentangle this controversy we need to quantify the signature of abrupt climate events in the tropical regions and to integrate climate reconstructions from the land and from the ocean. This project will combine fieldwork observations, analysis of plant microfossils, biogeochemistry and statistical modelling to quantify the signature of two abrupt climate events in the American tropics.

Image 1: Amazonian forests in North Eastern Brazil. Image 2: Key locations where the PhD project will be conducted 1. Central America, 2. Tropical Pacific, 3. Northeastern Brazil, 4. Tropical Atlantic

Project Aims and Methods

The main aim of this project is to investigate land-sea climate correlations during two abrupt climate events. Sedimentary sequences will be used to reconstruct climate changes from the land and from the ocean between 18,000 and 12,000 years ago. Climate reconstructions from the ocean will be based on sea surface temperature estimates using the geochemical marker Uk37. Climate reconstructions from the land will be based on fossil-pollen and charcoal records. This project includes two field campaigns to South America when the student will perform biodiversity assessments in different biomes and collect soil/moss samples. The data collected in the field will be used to assess vegetation-pollen relationships and will inform the interpretation of palaeorecords. Phase relationships between oceanic and land changes will be constrained using Bayesian probability models.

The project is suitable for candidates with a first degree in the physical sciences and a desire to develop field, laboratory and modelling skills. For field trips, some knowledge of Spanish or Portuguese is desirable but not required.

You will be based at the University of Exeter and part of your training will take place at the NERC LSMSF Facility in Bristol. Training will include tropical ecology, tropical palynology, statistical modelling, biogeochemistry, and sedimentology. Fieldwork will provide opportunities to visit some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world.


Heinrich, H. 1988. Origin and consequences of cyclic ice rafting in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean during the past 130,000 years. Quaternary Research 29, 142-152.

Hessler, I. et al. 2010. Millennial-scale changes in vegetation records from tropical Africa and South America during the last glacial. Quaternary Science Reviews 29, 2882-2899.

Pancost, R.D., Boot, C.S. 2004. The palaeoclimatic utility of terrestrial biomarkers in marine sediments. Marine Chemistry 92, 239-261

Pennington, R.T. et al. 2000. Neotropical seasonally dry forests and Quaternary vegetation changes. Journal of Biogeography 27, 261-273.

Urrego, D.H. et al. 2014. Millennial-scale climate variability in the American tropics and subtropics. PAGES Mag 22, 94-95.

Urrego, D.H. et al. 2016. Millennial-scale vegetation changes in the tropical Andes using ecological grouping and ordination methods. Climate of the Past 12, 697-711.

Wolff, E.W. et al. 2010. Millennial-scale variability during the last glacial: The ice core record. Quaternary Science Reviews 29, 2828-2838.

Entry requirements:      

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK.   Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Master’s degree.  Applicants with a minimum of Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply. 

All applicants would need to meet our English language requirements by the start of the  project

Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.


Application deadline:11th May 2018
Value:£14,553 per annum for 2017-18
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Recruitment

How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. “Smith – CV.pdf”, “Smith – Cover Letter.pdf”, “Smith – Transcript.pdf”.

•       CV
•       Letter of application outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to
        undertake the project.
•       Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained.  This should be an interim transcript
        if you are still studying.
•       If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your current
        proficiency in English. 

You will be asked to name 2 referees as part of the application process however we will not contact these people until the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 11th May 2018.  Interviews will be held at the University of Exeter in the week commencing 21st May 2018.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email  Project-specific queries should be directed to the supervisor.

During the application process, the University may need to make certain disclosures of your personal data to third parties to be able to administer your application, carry out interviews and select candidates.  These are not limited to, but may include disclosures to:

• the selection panel and/or management board or equivalent of the relevant programme, which is likely to include staff from one or more other HEIs;

• administrative staff at one or more other HEIs participating in the relevant programme.

Such disclosures will always be kept to the minimum amount of personal data required for the specific purpose. Your sensitive personal data (relating to disability and race/ethnicity) will not be disclosed without your explicit consent.