University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

How will climate change affect extreme rainfall in mid-latitudes? PhD in Mathematics (NERC GW4+ DTP) Ref: 3699

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Peter Watson, Department of Mathematics, Climate Dynamics Group, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors

Dr Jennifer Catto, Department of Mathematics, Climate Dynamics Group, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter

Dr Duncan Ackerley, Met Office

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 

Extreme rainfall events in middle latitudes can have huge impacts and are often caused by storms and their atmospheric fronts. For example, in December 2015, the UK was hit by two mid-latitude storms (named Desmond and Eva) in quick succession, which caused widespread flooding in the north of England, and caused economic losses estimated between 1.3 and 5.8 billion pounds. Widely publicised research showed that the extent of flooding caused by this event was made 40% more likely by global warming. To really understand the effects of climate change on these extreme events, we need a better understanding of the underlying physical mechanisms responsible for them. Furthermore, we need to quantify how well climate models represent these extremes and the uncertainty in future projections. There is now an opportunity to address these important scientific questions by using an exciting and new dataset of thousands of high-resolution model simulations run by the general public through, which will uniquely allow the study of extreme rainfall in simulations, together with the Met Office's climate predictions.

Currently there is no clear understanding of exactly why some fronts produce extreme precipitation events and others do not. A number of characteristics of these fronts will be explored in this project in order to improve our understanding. For example, the orientation of the front (lying along an atmospheric river) was crucial for the extreme impacts that Storm Desmond had in the UK. Other factors may include large-scale atmospheric dynamics and air-sea interactions. Understanding these characteristics will highlight what features are most important for climate models to capture and help us better predict the future. There could also be scope to apply this understanding to weather forecasting depending on the student's interests.

Project Aims and Methods

The goal of this project is to improve understanding of how climate change will affect extreme rainfall in mid-latitudes. This will be achieved by (1) characterising the storms and fronts that produce the extreme precipitation in observations, (2) comparing the results to those from large ensembles of model simulations to understand their errors, and (3) using large ensemble simulations for future decades to make predictions for future changes in characteristics of extreme rainfall and weather systems and to quantify the uncertainty. The results from the project could have important impacts on: the Met Office, by identifying shortcomings (or strengths) in their latest model configurations and facilitating development for climate and weather forecasting; the insurance industry, by providing estimates of future extreme precipitation risk; and UK government Climate Change Risk assessments. 

With the guidance of the supervisors, the candidate will be given the opportunity to modify the research focus and weighting of the different aspects of the project to reflect their interests and strengths. This studentship comes with a generous budget for travel and training (£15k).


Satellite image showing a large extratropical cyclone impacting the UK. The large cloud band (shown by the bright white region) is where a large amount of precipitation would be found and is related to an atmospheric front of the type that will be investigated in this project.



A snapshot image of the potential vorticity at upper levels in the troposphere (around 10km). The regions shown by red colours indicate where surface features may develop (or spin up) and produce extreme precipitation.

Candidate Requirements

The candidate must have achieved, or be expected to achieve, a first class or 2:1 degree in Meteorology, Oceanography, Mathematics, Physics, Environmental Science or related field. A Master’s level qualification with previous experience of conducting independent research is desirable. Knowledge of scientific programming languages (e.g., Matlab, Python, IDL, R) would be advantageous.

CASE or Collaborative Partner

Formal links with the Met Office (specific to this project and also on a University-wide scale) ensures that the student will have access to data from their seamless modelling system, and to expertise that will help to make use of the data. Extended work visits to the Met Office will allow the candidate to learn their computer systems, including the possibility of training on key software tools such as Python. The Met Office supervisor will facilitate the communication of results of the project to the key stakeholders, such as model developers and operational forecasters.


The candidate will be based within the internationally recognised Exeter Climate Systems Research Centre. They will receive training on data analysis of large datasets (Big Data), climate modelling, scientific writing and presenting in accordance with the postgraduate programme at the University of Exeter, GW4 initiatives such as the Water Security Alliance, and through participation in Met Office training. Further opportunities for networking and training are facilitated through networks of the supervisors.

References / Background reading list 

van Oldenborgh, G. J., Otto, F. E. L., Haustein, K., and Cullen, H.: Climate change increases the probability of heavy rains like those of storm Desmond in the UK – an event attribution study in near-real time, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. Discuss., 12, 13197–13216,, 2015

Catto, J. L., S. Pfahl (2013), The importance of fronts for precipitation extremes, J. Geophys. Res. Atmos., 118, 10791-10801, DOI: 10.1002/jgrd.50852.

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