University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

Understanding Antarctic Ice Sheet Stability. PhD in Geography (NERC GW4 + DTP) Ref: 3679

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr. Anne Le Brocq, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, 

Additional Supervisors 

Dr. Andrew Orr, British Antarctic Survey

Prof. Simon Vosper, Met Office

Dr Andy Elvidge, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia

Prof Tony Payne, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol 

Location: University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, Exeter, EX4 4QJ

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the GW4 Alliance of research-intensive universities: the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five unique and prestigious Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in the Earth, Environmental and Life sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in scientific research, business, technology and policy-making. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

  • A stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,009 p.a. for 2019/20) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
  • Payment of university tuition fees;
  • A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
  • A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses.
  • Travel and accomodation is covered for all compulsory DTP cohort events
  • No course fees for courses run by the DTP

We are currently advertising projects for a total of 10 studentships at the University of Exeter


Students who are resident in EU countries are eligible for the full award on the same basis as UK residents.  Applicants resident outside of the EU (classed as International for tuition fee purposes) are not eligible for DTP funding. Residency rules are complex and if you have not been resident in the UK or EU for the 3 years prior to the start of the studentship, please apply and we will check eligibility upon shortlisting.

Project Background 

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) contains ice equivalent to up to 5 metres of global sea level rise.  An understanding of how the ice sheet responds to a changing climate is critical for robustly predicting future sea level changes.  Here, we propose to investigate the past behaviour of the ice sheet, to give us an insight into how it may respond in the future.  

The Ellsworth Mountains in West Antarctica protrude through the Ice Sheet, and act like a kind of ‘dipstick’ for recording past changes in the ice sheet.  Strong winds blow off the continent over these mountains, causing snow-free (blue) ice areas to form.  These areas have the potential to tell us a lot about the history of the ice sheet (e.g. Hein et al., 2016), but to interpret the evidence we need to understand more about the winds that formed them.

Project Aims and Methods 

This project aims to investigate the role of the size of the WAIS in controlling the strength of the above mentioned winds in the Ellsworth Mountains.  The understanding of the connection between the size of the ice sheet and the wind strength will provide an insight into the past behaviour of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

The student will first use a numerical weather prediction (the Met Office Unified Model) model to investigate the impact of different sizes ice sheets on the generation of the winds (following Orr et al., 2014).  Ice sheet configurations would range from moderate retreat, to removal of the marine-based areas, through to the full removal of the WAIS.  Further, the localised wind field and the resultant ice flow can also be investigated, for example using the Elmer model (e.g. Zwinger et al., 2015). 


Sentinel Range, Ellsworth Mountains (NASA/Michael Studinger)

Candidate Requirements 

This project would suit a student with a mathematical or meteorological background, with some knowledge of numerical modelling principles and the associated technical requirements of numerical models.


The successful applicant for this project will spend time at the British Antarctic Survey, the Met Office, and the University of Bristol, receiving training in the use of both climate and ice flow models.  This will provide the student with both desirable skills and experience of working with important numerical models, but also provide opportunities for networking at a number of key institutions.

References / Background reading list 

Hein, A.S., Woodward, J., Marrero, S.M., Dunning, S.A., Steig, E.J., Freeman, S.P.H.T., Stuart, F.M., Winter, K. Westoby, M.J. & Sugden, D.E. (2016). Evidence for the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet divide for 1.4 million years. Nature Communications 7:10325 doi: 10.1038/ncomms10325

Orr, A., Phillips, T, Webster, S., Elvidge, A., Weeks, M., Hosking, S. and Turner, J.  (2014) Met Office Unified Model high-resolution simulations of a strong wind event in Antarctica.  Q J.R. Meteorol. Soc. 140, 2287-2297. 

Zwinger, T., Malm, T., Schäfer, M., Stenberg, R. and Moore, J.C. (2015) Interaction of katabatic wind and local surface mass balance at Schaffenbergbotnen Blue Ice Area, Antarctica.  The Cryosphere 9, 1415–1426.

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


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.

Reference information
You will be asked to name 2 referees as part of the application process, however we will not expect receipt of references until after the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

If you are shortlisted for interview, please ensure that your two academic referees email their references to the, 7 days prior to the interview dates.  Please note that we will not be contacting referees to request references, you must arrange for them to be submitted to us by the deadline.

References should be submitted by your referees to us directly in the form of a letter. Referees must email their references to us from their institutional email accounts. We cannot accept references from personal/private email accounts, unless it is a scanned document on institutional headed paper and signed by the referee.

All application documents must be submitted in English. Certified translated copies of academic qualifications must also be provided.

The closing date for applications is 1600 hours GMT Monday 6 January 2020.  Interviews will be held between 10 and 21 February 2020.  For more information about the NERC GW4+ DPT please visit

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

Data Sharing
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.


Application deadline:6th January 2020
Value:£15,009 per annum for 2019-20
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries