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Award details

University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

Assessing the fate of the Amazon forest under future disturbance - Physical Geography PhD studentship (NERC GW4+ DTP funded) Ref: 4003

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Professor Stephen Sitch, University of Exeter.

Additional Supervisors

Dr Lina Mercado, University of Exeter.

Professor Peter Cox, University of Exeter.

Andy Wiltshire, University of Exeter.

Eddy Robertson (MET OFFICE)

Location: Streatham Campus, University of Exeter, Exeter, Devon.

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology,  the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

  • An stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,285 p.a. for 2020-21) 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.
  • Up to £750 for travel and accomodation for compulsory cohort events.

Project details

Project Background:

Amazon forest dieback has long been identified as a possible tipping element in the Earth System, which would have huge negative consequences for human well-being, biodiversity, biogeochemical cycling, and climate. However, the level of global warming that could trigger dieback is not known, and neither is the extent to which this is affected by the state of the forest ecosystem itself. In the first climate model projections to include a vegetation and the carbon cycle as interactive elements, a cascade of biogeochemical and biophysical feedbacks amplified a reduction in Amazonian rainfall, causing abrupt forest loss. Later models were less pessimistic, however, no study has yet considered the interacting effects of detailed ecosystem demography, disturbance, through degradation (fire, logging) and deforestation, and climate. In this project we aim to address a key environmental question of our time (i.e. the future fate of the Amazon forest).

Project Aims and Methods:

The aim of this project is to assess the fate of the Amazon forest under scenarios of climate change and disturbance through co-occurring drought & fires and/or deforestation, providing a mechanism for forest transitions to alternative non-forest or low biomass states. The project will address the following questions: How will climate change and level of disturbance impact the Amazon forest? Does biodiversity afford Amazon forest resilience/resistance to large-scale environment stress? how does forest loss impact Amazon climate? What is the fate of the Amazon to future climate change and disturbance?

These questions will be addressed using the novel Robust Ecosystem Demography model (RED) recently developed by our team (Prof. Cox), which represents the next-generation in global vegetation models. In this project RED will be developed further to represent the functional diversity of the Amazon forest by incorporating new Plant Functional Types into RED based on empirical datasets. RED mortality and growth parameterizations will be calibrated against field inventory and remotely sensed data on forest dynamics to reproduce observed growth rates in primary and human modified tropical forests (HMTF). A second task will be to synthesise our current understanding of how forest loss impacts Amazon climate, e.g. determine how level of deforestation impacts the spatial pattern of rainfall across the basin.

This will involve analysing existing Earth System Model simulations that include land-use change (LUC) from IPCC CMIP6 experiments including dedicated Met Office UKESM LUC simulations. The RED model will then be applied for a range of future climate and disturbance (deforestation, degradation through, fires and logging) scenarios to address the research questions on the future fate of the forest and ecosystem service provision, and the role of forest biodiversity in affording forest resilience/resistance. The project offers excellent opportunities for generating new understanding and high-impact publications. There is flexibility for the candidate to decide on research direction within the topic of the project, and to be in charge of data analysis and modelling.

Candidate requirements:

The candidate will possess a strong BSc (and ideally MSc level) degree in Mathematics, Physics, Geography, Natural Sciences or a similar discipline. The candidate will be numerate, a strong problem solver and preferably have experience in numerical modelling / computer coding in R/python/FORTRAN or equivalent.

Collaborative Partner:

The new RED model will feed directly into the next generation of the MO-NERC community Earth system model UKESM. The collaborative partner will help guide the RED applications to include the impact of biophysical feedbacks based on climate model data from UKESM and other CMIP6 model output. The student will gain experience at working alongside scientists at a research institute, key to delivering the most up to date science on climate change to the IPCC.


The student will receive expert training in ecosystem and land carbon cycle science, developing and applying ecosystem demography and land-surface models, and analysing large climate model datasets. We aim for the student to visit collaborators in South America to gain experience in monitoring HMTF, e.g. based on the candidate’s interest possible chance to participate in field campaign. Additional training will include scientific writing, science communication, project management and field-based health and safety.

Background reading and references:

Aragao et al., 21st Century drought-related fire counteract the decline of Amazon deforestation carbon emissions, Nature Communications, 9:536, 2018.
Argles et al., Robust Ecosystem Demography (RED): a parsimonious approach to modelling vegetation dynamics in Earth System Models, Biogeosciences, …
Burton et al., Representation of fire, land-use change and vegetation dynamics in the Joint UK Land Environment Simulator v4.9 (JULES), Geosci. Model Dev., 12, 179-193, 2019.
Cox et al., Acceleration of global warming due to carbon-cycle feedbacks in a coupled climate model, Nature, 408, 184-187.
Moore et al., Equilibrium forest demography explains the distribution of tree sizes across North America, Environ. Res. Letts, 13, 2018.
Moore et al., Validation of demographic equilibrium theory against tree-size distributions and biomass density in Amazonia, Biogeosciences, 17, 1013-1032, 2020.
Fyllas et al.,Deriving Plant Functional Types for Amazonian forests for use in vegetation dynamics models, Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, 14, 97-110, 2012.

Useful links

For information relating to the research project please contact the lead Supervisor:

Prospective Applicants:

For information about the application process please contact the Admissions team via

Each research studentship project advertisement has an ‘Apply Now’ button linking to an application portal. Please note that applications received via other routes including a standard programme application route will not be considered for the studentship funding.


NERC GW4+ DTP studentships are open to UK and Irish nationals who, if successful in their applications, will receive a full studentship including payment of university tuition fees at the home fees rate.

A limited number of full studentships are also available to international students which are defined as EU (excluding Irish nationals), EEA, Swiss and all other non-UK nationals.

Studentships for international students will only cover fees at the UK home fees rate. However, university tuition fees for international students are higher than the UK home fees rate therefore the difference will need to be funded from a separate source which the student or project supervisor may have to find. Unfortunately, the NERC GW4+ DTP cannot fund this difference from out studentship funding Further guidance on how this will work will be issued in November.

The conditions for eligibility of home fees status are complex and you will need to seek advice if you have moved to or from the UK (or Republic of Ireland) within the past 3 years or have applied for settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme.


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 Friday 8 January 2021 2359 GMT .  Interviews will be held between 8th and 19th February 2021.  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:8th January 2021
Value:£15,285 per annum for 2020-21
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries