University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

Blue carbon and ecosystem functioning in mangroves under pressure. PhD in Geography (NERC GW4+ DTP) Ref: 3680

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Barend van Maanen, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors

Dr Christopher Vane, British Geological Survey

Dr Dunia Urrego, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, Exeter University

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

Mangrove forests provide a wealth of ecosystem services to the marine and terrestrial environments and to people. These forests are biodiversity hotspots and mangrove trees play a key role in the protection against natural hazards. Mangroves also store large amounts of carbon and are amongst the world’s most carbon-rich ecosystems. The carbon stored by mangroves is called Blue Carbon and may be crucial in counterbalancing anthropogenic CO2 emissions and mitigating climate change.  

Human activities and climate change are posing serious threats and mangrove forests are in rapid decline worldwide. Despite the many benefits they provide, land-use change in coastal areas and sea level rise are leading to the degradation of mangroves with negative impacts on the ecosystem services they provide. Lack of understanding on the long-term evolution of mangrove ecosystems hinders the design and implementation of appropriate environmental management and as a result, essential ecosystem services are already being lost.

Project Aims and Methods

The aim of this PhD project is to determine what processes control mangrove carbon accumulation and investigate the impacts of human activities in a mangrove system under pressure: the Magdalena Delta in Colombia. The Magdalena delta is undergoing rapid change: the building of dams and dikes is changing sediment supply to the coastal system and increasing pressure from urban development is driving significant mangrove degradation. You will have the opportunity to collect sediment cores from strategically selected locations from this delta and use state-of-the-art tools to unravel how mangrove carbon storage is affected by ecosystem and landscape change.

The project can be developed to fit your interests. Possible objectives are:

- Reconstruct mangrove forest evolution by analysing fossil-pollen from the collected sediment sequences.

- Quantify carbon accumulation over the past ca. 1000 years and link trends to ecosystem evolution.

- Characterize organic matter composition and determine the origin of sequestered carbon. 

- Evaluate spatial variations in carbon accumulation to elucidate effects of mangrove degradation.

- Simulate mangrove ecosystem evolution and carbon accumulation under future environmental-change scenarios.

In this project you can combine fieldwork observations, geomorphology, palaeoecology and biogeochemistry. Results from this project will be crucial to define mangrove restoration goals and develop sustainable management and conservation strategies.


The Magdalena river delta in Colombia hosts extensive mangrove forests but these valuable ecosystems are under severe pressure.


Pilot data from the Colombian mangroves have already been collected with the help of students from a local high school. This project gives you the opportunity to explore this beautiful ecosystem yourself.

Candidate Requirements

The project is suitable for candidates with a first degree in the physical sciences and a desire to develop field, laboratory and modelling skills. Experience with palaeoecological and/or geochemical analyses is a plus.

CASE or Collaborative Partner

This project is carried out in close collaboration with the British Geological Survey (BGS). You will be able to visit BGS and become an active member of their organic geochemistry lab. While at BGS, you will have access to world-class analytical facilities and will be hosted by Dr Vane.   


You will be based at the University of Exeter and part of your training will take place at the BGS in Keyworth. Training will include tropical palaeoecology, biogeochemistry, sedimentology and modelling. Fieldwork will provide opportunities to visit one of the most beautiful and valuable ecosystems in the world. Overall, this project enables you to conduct interdisciplinary research and to explore the role of tropical coastal wetlands in sequestering carbon.

References / Background reading list

Alongi, D. M. (2014). Carbon cycling and storage in mangrove forests. Annual review of marine science, 6, 195-219.

Mcleod, E. et al. (2011). A blueprint for blue carbon: toward an improved understanding of the role of vegetated coastal habitats in sequestering CO2. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 9(10), 552-560.

Upton, A., Vane, C. H., Girkin, N., Turner, B. L., & Sjögersten, S. (2018). Does litter input determine carbon storage and peat organic chemistry in tropical peatlands? Geoderma, 326, 76-87.

Urrego, L. E., Correa-Metrio, A., González, C., Castaño, A. R., & Yokoyama, Y. (2013). Contrasting responses of two Caribbean mangroves to sea-level rise in the Guajira Peninsula (Colombian Caribbean). Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 370, 92-102.

van Maanen, B., Coco, G., & Bryan, K. R. (2015). On the ecogeomorphological feedbacks that control tidal channel network evolution in a sandy mangrove setting. Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 471(2180), 20150115.

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