University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

Quantifying Globally Significant Carbon Sequestration in Large River Systems. PhD in Geography (NERC GW4+ DTP) Ref: 3692

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Prof Rolf Aalto, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors

Prof Andrew Nicholas, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Dr Michael Singer, School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, Cardiff 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 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 

The vast majority of organic carbon (C-org) is stored in sediments and sedimentary rocks (these stores exceed the C-org in the atmosphere, biosphere, and ocean by a factor of > 1000x). For example, large river systems transport and bury huge quantities of C-org throughout giant lowland basins that form some of the largest sedimentary deposits on Earth. Such deposits may be laid down in coordination with ENSO-driven flooding (Aalto et al., 2003), or typhoons that are shifting as climate changes (Darby et al, 2016). Riverine processes and C fluxes may therefore represent a significant player in Earth’s carbon cycle (Aufdenkampe et al., 2011), especially given that rising global sea levels may lead to accelerated sediment and carbon sequestration. Despite the potential significance of these processes, the mechanisms, rates and implications of C burial over annual to century timescales are poorly understood and quantified. This project will address these knowledge gaps.

Project Aims and Methods 

This project will investigate carbon deposition in river sediment by measuring carbon concentrations for a large set of previously dated sediment cores collected across 1000s of kilometres of floodplains in the Amazon, the lower Mekong, Papua New Guinea, the Danube, and elsewhere. With all the project cores already in cold storage at Exeter, and all necessary lab equipment available to students, research can be focused and efficient in terms of producing datasets of lasting and likely global significance. Previous measurement of similar samples has led to important insights, such as the observation that the island of Papua New Guinea exports more sediment-associated carbon to the ocean than the entire Amazon basin (Alin et al., 2008). While making new measurements of carbon loading at Exeter, the student will also benefit from existing datasets and interdisciplinary collaborations with biogeochemists and geomorphologists in the USA and France. 

The resulting lab data will allow carbon burial rates and fluxes to be quantified across a range of major river basins, and will be used to test and constrain existing models (developed at Exeter) of C cycling and sequestration in fluvial environments. This will lead to novel insights into the significant role that river floodplain deposits may play in modulating Earth’s carbon cycle.


Coring in Papua New Guinea – samples to be measured

Candidate Requirements

This project will appeal to students who like to measure things, particularly those with experience in a research lab environment. Experience with spatial analysis and modelling would also be beneficial.


Besides the wide range of general GW4+ training, the student would receive specialist training in laboratory analysis of core samples, with a focus on organic matter, plus training in GIS and modelling. The student would have opportunities to collaborate with researchers in the USA, plus potentially travel to one of the international field areas to collect additional samples (though not necessary given existing core collection).

References / Background reading list 

R Aalto, L Maurice-Bourgoin, T Dunne, DR Montgomery, CA Nittrouer, JL Guyot, 2003, Episodic sediment accumulation on Amazonian flood plains influenced by El Nino/Southern Oscillation, Nature, 425, 493-407.

SR Alin, R Aalto, MA Goni, JE Richey, WE Dietrich, 2008, Biogeochemical characterization of carbon sources in the Strickland and Fly rivers, Papua New Guinea, JGR Earth Surface, 113, F1.

AK Aufdenkampe, E Mayorga, PA Raymond, JM Melack, SC Doney, SR Alin, RE Aalto, K Yoo, 2011, Riverine coupling of biogeochemical cycles between land, oceans, and atmosphere, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 9, 1, 53-60.

SE Darby, CR Hackney, J Leyland, M Kummu, H Lauri, DR Parsons, JL Best, AP Nicholas, R Aalto, 2016, Fluvial sediment supply to a mega-delta reduced by shifting tropical-cyclone activity, Nature, 539, 276.


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