University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

Modelling the influence of solar activity on climate. PhD in Physics and Astronomy (NERC GW4+ DTP) Ref: 3704

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr James Manners, Department of Physics and Astronomy, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors

Prof Chris Budd, Department of Mathematical Sciences, University of Bath

Prof Nathan Mayne, Department of Physics and Astronomy, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter

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 Earth’s climate is ultimately driven by the Sun but the effects of variations over the 11-year solar cycle and longer-term changes in solar output are not well modelled by today’s climate and decadal forecasting models. Solar variations are largest in the ultra-violet to X-ray spectral regions which are absorbed in the upper atmosphere from the stratosphere to the lower thermosphere. Accurate modelling of the upper atmosphere is crucial to understanding the “top-down” mechanisms that link these variations to their effect on surface climate. This project will build on work to extend the Met Office Weather and Climate model into the mesosphere and lower thermosphere, with the addition of physical processes to represent photochemistry and energetic particles. Coupling this extended climate model to an interactive ocean model will allow pioneering studies into the effects of solar variability on regional climate.

Project Aims and Methods

Phase 1: Model development

This work will build on an existing collaboration to extend the upper boundary of the Met Office Unified Model from the mesopause (at around 85km) to the lower thermosphere (around 150km). In particular, the mesosphere-lower-thermosphere (MLT) region is where the majority of far- and extreme-ultraviolet light is absorbed leading to processes that drive the large rise in temperature of the thermosphere. The aims of this project will be to develop and validate an accurate treatment of the photolysis and chemistry of the MLT region using the “Socrates” radiative transfer code, and the UKCA (United Kingdom Chemistry and Aerosols) scheme.

Phase 2: Coupled climate model investigations

A number of possible mechanisms exist for the influence of solar variations on the upper atmosphere to be transported to the lower troposphere, principally affecting regional rather than global climate [1]. Perhaps the largest effect is the modulation of ozone absorption which peaks in the stratosphere causing variations in stratospheric temperature that in turn alter the pressure and temperature at the surface. Experiments with the standard Met Office climate model have shown that, through this mechanism, low solar activity can drive cold winters in northern Europe and the US [2, 3]. The solar cycle has a significant effect on photochemical activity in the stratosphere, mesosphere and lower thermosphere which can lead to changes in the amount of ozone and knock-on effects on surface climate [4]. The solar cycle also influences energetic particle precipitation (EPP) through changes in geomagnetic activity. EPP leads to the production of reactive odd nitrogen (NOX) which can then be transported to the stratosphere leading to reductions in ozone [5]. Investigation of these mechanisms requires a model that extends from the surface to the upper atmosphere and also allows the ocean to respond by coupling to an ocean model. Previous studies have shown the tropospheric response to the solar cycle may be muted by fixing the sea surface temperature [6].

The aims of this phase will be to perform coupled ocean-atmosphere climate runs with the new extended model. Different solar forcing may be applied and the resulting effects analysed to investigate the “top-down” mechanisms that emerge from the model.

In this project expertise in radiative transfer modelling will come from Manners, in upper atmosphere processes and related numerical calculations from Jackson and Budd and in idealised model development from Mayne. All four will be closely involved in all aspects of the project supervision, through regular face to face and Skype meetings. The project will start with the plan as described above, but as with all research this plan will develop as the project continues. We will have weekly meetings with the student in which they will be expected to lead creatively on the evolution of the project. The student will also be expected to play an active role in both the PhD group meetings at Exeter and also on an occasional basis at the PhD meetings at Bath. In both cases they will be expected to describe their work on a regular basis. Experience has shown that this process is an excellent way to develop new creative ideas.


Solar activity in the extreme ultra-violet. Credit: SDO, NASA


Overview of the mesosphere-lower thermo-sphere region. Credit:

Candidate Requirements

On a scientific level, the candidate will need to have a background in numerical analysis/scientific computing. This could come from a good degree in physics, chemistry or mathematics. They should also have an interest in the application of this to physical / chemical processes in the atmosphere.

On a personal level, the candidate must be able to work in an interdisciplinary team and think outside of the box. They should be able to communicate their work to a non-technical audience.

CASE or Collaborative Partner

It is expected that the student will spend about one month per year at the Met Office during the course of the project. This will provide direct experience of operational space weather and climate modelling and allow them to work with, and learn from, experienced practitioners in the field. In particular the Space Weather group led by David Jackson will provide expertise and support on developing the model in the mesosphere and lower thermosphere along with datasets for verification and analysis.


The student will receive training as part of the DTP, but also attend training courses at the Met Office aimed at using and developing the Met Office model. This will include a 3-day course at Reading University in November 2020 run by NCAS (Introduction to the Unified Model). Additionally, the student will be expected to attend module lectures in one module per-semester (unexamined) of their choice, related to the project, as well as taking part in the regular, inter-disciplinary, Exeter Exoplanet Theory Group meetings, including presenting their work and contributing to wider discussions, collaborative projects and proposals. Opportunities for travel to overseas collaborators will be available, and attendance at national and international conferences encouraged.

Additionally, access to any of the courses provisioned by the local CDT in metamaterials, including scientific and soft skills training programmes, can be provided financed by the PhD post training funds. They will be registered as an aligned student with the Statistical Applied Mathematics (SAMBa) CDT at Bath. This will allow them to take part in the twice yearly Integrative Think Tanks (ITTs) at Bath which will give them intensive training in team working and problem solving skills. They will also receive training in public engagement skills at Bath and will be encouraged to take part in the annual Bath Science Festival to present their work.

References / Background reading list 

[1] Lockwood (2012): Solar influence on global and regional climates, DOI: 10.1007/s10712-012-9181-3

[2] Ineson et al (2011): Solar forcing of winter climate variability in the Northern Hemisphere, DOI: 10.1038/ngeo1282

[3] Ineson et al (2015): Regional climate impacts of a possible future grand solar minimum, DOI: 10.1038/ncomms8535

[4] Merkel et al (2011): The impact of solar spectral irradiance variability on middle atmospheric ozone, DOI: 10.1029/2011GL047561

[5] Randall et al (2015): Simulation of energetic particle precipitation effects during the 2003–2004 Arctic winter, DOI: 10.1002/2015JA021196

[6] Marsh et al (2007): Modelling the whole atmosphere response to solar cycle changes in radiative and geomagnetic forcing, DOI: 10.1029/2006JD008306

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