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Award details

The effect of precipitation patterns on tropical peatland initiation, stability and growth. NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship for 2022 Entry, PhD in Mathematics Ref: 4255

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Sarah Chadburn, University of Exeter, Mathematics

Additional Supervisors

Professor Angela Gallego-Sala, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter.

Professor Andy Baird, School of Geography, University of Leeds.

Dr Bethan Harris, UKCEH.

Eleanor Burke, 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 £15,609 p.a. for 2022/23) 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

Project details

Coring in a Panama

Flooding in the Everglades

Project Background:

Tropical peatlands are globally important and potentially vulnerable carbon stores, but are understudied, sparsely measured and have rarely been modelled. Models are crucial to help understand how they might respond to future changes in climate and management. These peatlands can be extremely sensitive to variations in their water supply (rainfall and river flooding), but due to the lack of measurements and modelling studies, exactly how they respond is currently unknown.

Recently, evidence has started to emerge from the peatland model DigiBog that sub- and inter-annual patterns of rainfall as well as the total amount of rain can drastically affect tropical peatland functioning and even whether a peatland is able to exist in a certain location. 

A new dataset from across a range of tropical peatlands is currently being collected in the project TroPeaCC led by Prof. Gallego-Sala at Exeter; a large dataset has also been collected in the Congo basin on the NERC CongoPeat project, which Exeter researchers are part of. These new datasets provide a unique opportunity to develop the scientific understanding to underpin a realistic pan-tropical peatland model, as part of wider climate change modelling efforts.

Project Aims and Methods:

During this PhD project, you will use two complementary modelling techniques, a) a point or small-scale ecohydrological model (DigiBog) and b) a global land surface model, the Joint UK Land Environment Simulator (JULES) to explore the impact of water supply and regime (in particular rainfall seasonality and intensity) on tropical peatland functioning. There are four main tasks:

1. Analysing an inter-continental dataset of water table dynamics for six pristine peatland sites across the tropics (two each in S America, central Africa, and SE Asia) that will provide ground-breaking information on hydrological conditions in tropical peatlands. Other collaboration sites for which data may become available will be added to the overall dataset.

2. Using the new datasets to test and parameterise new pan-tropical versions of DigiBog and JULES, with a focus on the dynamic interactions between peat, groundwater and rainfall.

3. Using both models under a range of possible future climates to understand the vulnerability of tropical peatlands to climate change, including changes in rainfall amount and seasonality.

4. Applying JULES to the global tropical peatland area to assess how carbon uptake or emissions from tropical peatlands affect the remaining carbon budget available to keep global warming below dangerous levels, as set out in the Paris Agreement.

You will have an opportunity to be involved in the design of the project, including bringing in your own ideas to influence the research direction. 

Candidate Requirements

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree in maths, physics, engineering, environmental science, chemistry or geography, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK. Experience in data analysis and programming is desirable. Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have a relevant 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

Project Partners; 

This project involves collaboration with both the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the Met Office Hadley Centre, which are two major national research centres at the forefront of terrestrial/freshwater and climate science respectively. UKCEH will provide access to expertise in tropical meteorology and climate, including future projections of rainfall under climate change. 


During your PhD, you will be given the opportunity to develop high-level ecological modelling skills and advanced data analysis skills. You will also be supported in writing the results of your research in high impact journals. Dedicated office space and access to high performance computing facilities will be available. You will have the opportunity to work with teams of international scientists. If global circumstances allow, you will also have the opportunity to travel to a field site and to attend national and international conferences. 

Useful links and further reading:

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




Prospective Applicants:

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

Each 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.  For further details please see the NERC GW4+ website.

Those not meeting the nationality and residency requirements to be treated as a ‘home’ student may apply for a limited number of full studentships for international students. Although international students are usually charged a higher tuition fee rate than ‘home’ students, those international students offered a NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership full studentship starting in 2022 will only be charged the ‘home’ tuition fee rate (which will be covered by the studentship). 

International applicants need to be aware that you will have to cover the cost of your student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK to do a PhD. More information on this is available from the universities you are applying to (contact details are provided in the project description that you are interested in.

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, please see the entry requirements for details.
  • Two references

Reference information
You will be asked to submit two references as part of the application process.  If you are not able to upload  your reference documents with your application please ensure you provide details of your referees.  If you provide contact details of referees only, 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 Friday 10 January 2022. Interviews will be held between 28 February and 4 March 2022.  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:10th January 2022
Value:£15,609 per annum for 2022-23
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries