University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

Keeping above the waves? The response of coastal freshwater peatlands to sea-level rise. PhD in Geography (NERC GW4+ DTP) Ref: 3682

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Tom Roland, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisor

Dr Matt Palmer, Met Office Hadley Centre

Prof Dan Charman, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Prof Andy Baird, Department of Geography, University of Leeds

Dr Alice Milner, Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London

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

There is considerable interest in how coastal saltwater ecosystems might adjust to sea-level rise and whether they will accrete rapidly enough to maintain their relative position in the tidal prism. This interest has arisen because of the importance of salt marshes and mangroves as natural coastal defences and as regionally- and globally-important (blue) carbon stores. Significantly less attention has been given to coastal freshwater wetlands, in particular peatlands such as floodplain fens. Sea-level rise caused by climate change is a potential major threat to these coastal freshwater wetlands. The ingress of saline water or higher groundwater could destroy their existing plant communities and their carbon sink function. In addition, inland areas currently protected by these wetlands may become more prone to flooding. There is some evidence that such wetlands have in the past increased their rates of peat accumulation in response to rising sea levels. However, the mechanisms involved are poorly understood, and without that understanding we cannot predict their likely response to future, rapid, increases in sea level. Understanding freshwater wetland response to sea level rise is a priority for policymakers and land managers as they adapt for a warmer world.

Project Aims and Methods

To address this critical research gap, this project will use a past-present-future approach, combining palaeoecological, process-based, and modelling work to understand the response of coastal freshwater peatlands to sea-level rise. The study will focus on two contrasting UK sites: Cors Fochno (an estuarine ombrotrophic bog in mid-Wales) and Wheatfen (a floodplain fen in Norfolk). Specifically, the project will involve: i) analysis of peat cores taken from both sites to understand their response to periods of past sea-level rise; ii) data collection to understand how current process and carbon accumulation rates adjust to hydrological and salinity changes; iii) modelling work using Met Office sea level projections in areas of freshwater peatlands, and the DigiBog peatland model to simulate past and future responses of the peatlands to changes in both climate and sea level. Wheatfen has been set up as an 'ecohydrological observatory' by members of the project team, and recently-collected datasets on fen water levels and saline surges are available. 

The work has international relevance, with a large number of at-risk low-lying wetlands around the world. It will help indicate where to prioritise management efforts and may also show where new peatlands might form as shorelines move inland. The studentship is part of a larger project of the same name involving a national team of scientists at the University of Leeds, Royal Holloway and Queen Mary, University of London, and we hope to recruit two or more PhD students to the project across the different institutions. The topic is wide in scope and there is considerable flexibility to tailor the project to your main interests.


Fieldwork at Wheatfen, Norfolk


Study site Cos Fochno, mid-Wales

Candidate Requirements

A suitable candidate would have an interest and curiosity in using past and present environmental change to inform future changes and inform policy and management efforts. There is flexibility in the project to focus on laboratory, field and/or modelling aspects, and enthusiasm for one or more of these aspects is essential, alongside a willingness to learn new techniques and approaches. A background in environmental sciences, geography, earth sciences is the most likely route but degrees in other areas are possible because all specialist training will be provided during the project.

Collaborative Partner

The Met Office has a strong academic partnership scheme and hosts numerous PhD students. You will be directly supported by the Lead Scientist for Sea Level and benefit from the expertise of the wider sea level research team. The team have expertise on predictability of regional sea level and assembling sea level projections, and are connected with the Met Office Hadley Centre Climate Programme that advances our understanding of regional climate change and associated impacts. You will have the opportunity of working at the Met Office whilst working on the sea-level aspects of the project, attend relevant workshops and seminars hosted at the Met Office, and to present your own research.


All relevant training will be tailored towards the scope of the research. You will be trained in peat core analysis to provide information on past environments including carbon accumulation, water level and salinity changes (Exeter). The Met Office are international leaders in climate projections and associated risks, including sea level, and you will receive training at the Met Office on modelling sea level projections. The DigiBog peatland model has been used widely across several projects, and you will receive training on running and developing the model at the University of Leeds. Members of the national research team (Exeter, Leeds, Met Office, QMUL, RHUL) have extensive experience working with multiple proxies to understand past environmental changes, particularly in wetland environments and past sea-level change. Field techniques for monitoring carbon accumulation and hydrological changes will be provided by members of the team. The research is highly relevant to a large number of at-risk low-lying wetlands around the world and you will have the opportunity of engaging with the site managers and relevant government organisations to inform management and policy efforts. Training on effective communication of research findings to policymakers and land managers will be provided (RHUL). There will be regular meetings between members of the national team, and you'll form an active part of this vibrant research group by presenting research and contributing to wider project discussions.

References / Background reading list 

  • Fung, F., Palmer, M., Howard, T., Lowe, J., Maisey, P., Mitchell, J.F.B. (2018) UKCP18 Factsheet: Sea Level Rise and Storm Surge, Met Office Hadley Centre, Exeter.
  • Henman, J., Poulter, B. (2008) Inundation of freshwater peatlands by sea level rise: Uncertainty and potential carbon cycle feedbacks. Journal of Geophysical Research, 113: 1–11.
  • Schuerch, M., Spencer, T., Temmerman, S., Kirwan, M.L., Wolff, C., Lincke, D., McOwen, C.J., Pickering, M.D., Reef, R., Vafeidis, A.T., Hinkel, J., Nicholls, R.J., Brown, S. (2018) Future response of global coastal wetlands to sea-level rise. Nature, 561: 231–234. 
  • Whittle, A., Gallego-Sala, A. (2016) Vulnerability of the peatland carbon sink to sea-level rise. Scientific Reports, 6: 28758.

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