University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

CollaPsE: a Collaborative science-art Project on coastal cliff Erosion. PhD in Geography (NERC GW4+ DTP) Ref: 3690

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Georgina Bennett, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors

Mr Lee Jones, Coastal Team, British Geological Survey

Prof Iain Hartley, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Dr Christopher Hackney, School of Environmental Sciences, University of Hull

Mr Matthew Shaw, ScanLAB Projects

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 accommodation 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 

Coastal cliff erosion is a major societal problem in the UK. This project will use cutting edge techniques to determine and visualize how cliffs are responding to climate change, working with scientists at Exeter and the British Geological Survey, as well as data visualizations specialists at ScanLAB Projects. Terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) is a revolutionary technique that collects high resolution ground models with laser pulses and has been used to monitor change in a range of landforms, including coastal cliffs (e.g. Hobbs et al. 2010). This project will utilize archives of TLS data dating back to 2001 to reconstruct surface soil moisture conditions on cliffs using a novel technique developed by Nield et al. (2011). It will correlate variations in soil moisture with patterns of erosion to try to determine climatic control on coastal erosion across a range of BGS coastal observatories. Results will be communicated in compelling ways through collaboration with experts in TLS data visualization at ScanLAB Projects.

This project offers the opportunity to study a highly topical issue and growing research field, be trained in cutting edge technologies with a range of project partners from the science and art world as well as offering the potential for generating high-impact publications and visualizations of our changing coastal environment. 

Project Aims and Methods 

Climate change is resulting in more extreme precipitation events and periods of drought with many regions experiencing fluctuations between these extremes. Increased climate variability may have a significant hillslope stability and erosion through affecting soil moisture, an important control on slumping and landsliding (Bennett et al., 2016; Handwerger et al., 2019). The main aim of the project is to investigate the response of coastal cliffs in the UK to variations in surface soil moisture. The project will test the hypotheses that (1) increased soil moisture variability is leading to greater rates of coastal cliff erosion, and (2) that clay-dominated cliffs are particularly affected, as clay soils are highly sensitive to wetting and drying. The project will utilize archives of TLS data from the BGS and ScanLAB Projects to reconstruct soil moisture conditions on cliffs back to 2001 from the intensity of the laser reflections (Nield et al., 2011). It will then be possible to investigate the relationship between soil moisture variations and topographic change (i.e. erosion) between scans. This analysis will be done for a number of established BGS coastal observatories in different lithologies around the UK. It will also be possible for the student to collect their own TLS data for a region of their interest to capture soil moisture variability and geomorphic change. Alongside this TLS based analysis, the student will perform lab-based analysis of soil susceptibility to wetting and drying cycles. This will involve collection of samples from study cliffs and analysis in the lab. Finally, the candidate will work with experts in visualizing TLS data at ScanLAB Projects to co-develop compelling ways to visualize coastal change.  


Drone imagery of a landslide at Sidestrand, Norfolk, in 2019



Terrestrial laser scan intensity image of a cliff section at Brotton, Cleveland

Candidate Requirements

The candidate should have a degree in Geography, Environmental Science or a related discipline. They should be capable or interested in working with large datasets and ideally will have experience in GIS and remote sensing. They should also be interested in visualization and communication of scientific data.

CASE or Collaborative Partner

The BGS brings expertise in coastal monitoring and management and the student will gain valuable expertise in these topics through working with Lee Jones and the wider team at BGS Keyworth.

ScanLAB Projects is a creative technology practice that use 3D scanning to change the way in which we visualize our environment. In their current ‘frame rate’ project they are collecting unprecedented daily scans on cliffs in East Anglia that may be utilized in this project. The student will also gain insight into scanning and its use in visual projects and scientific outreach through working with company in London.


The student will receive training in the manipulation of scan data for extracting soil moisture and topographic change from co supervisor, Dr Christopher Hackney, at the University of Hull and from CASE partner, ScanLAB Projects. They will receive training in the acquisition of scan data from the BGS and from ScanLAB Projects. They will also receive training in the visualization and communication of scan data from ScanLAB Projects. They will receive training in soil science from Iain Hartley at Exeter and Lee Jones at BGS and in landslide research and a range of remote sensing techniques from lead supervisor Georgina Bennett. They will be encouraged to attend relevant training workshops and opportunities as they arise and will be able to attend at least one international conference and a number of national conferences over the course of the project.

References / Background reading list 

Bennett, G.L., Roering, J.J., Mackey, B., Handwerger, A.H., Schmidt, D., Guillod, B., (2016) Historic drought puts the brakes on earthflows in northern California, Geophysical Research Letters. doi:10.1002/2016GL068378

Handwerger, A.L., Fielding, E.J., Huang, M-H, Bennett, G.L., Liang, C., Schulz, W. (2019) Widespread initiation, reactivation, and acceleration of landslides in the northern California Coast Ranges due to extreme rainfall. Journal of Geophysical Research, Earth Surface. doi:10.1029/2019JF005035 

Hobbs, P., Gibson, A., Jones, L., Poulton, C., Jenkins, G., Pearson, S., Freeborough, K. (2010)
Monitoring coastal change using terrestrial LiDAR. In: Fleming, Claire; Marsh, Stuart; Giles, Jeremy, (eds.) Elevation models for geoscience. Geological Society of London, 117-127. (Geological Society Special Publications, 345).

Nield, J., Wiggs, G.F.S., Squirrell, R.S. (2011), Aeolian sand strip moibility and protodune development on a drying beach: examining surface moisture and surface roughness patterns measured by terrestrial laser scanning. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 36, 513-522

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