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Arctic and Antarctic ocean fluorescence: Towards a new view of the health and structure of the living polar oceans. PhD in Geography (NERC GW4 + DTP)

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, January 06, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Lead Supervisor
Dr Robert Brewin, Departmenr of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors
Dr Giorgio Dall’Olmo, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Remote Sensing Group,
Dr Angus Atkinson, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Plankton Ecology Group
Dr Katy Sheen, University of Exeter, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Location: University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Penryn, Cornwall, TR10 9FE

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

Project Background

Climate change is having a profound impact on our planet. Nowhere is this impact more evident than in polar regions, where rapid changes in sea-ice extent, glacial melt-water rates, ocean temperatures and icebergs, are occurring. Polar biology is fuelled by microscopic phytoplankton that help modulate climatically relevant elements like carbon. Changes in the physico-chemical environment are impacting polar phytoplankton, shifting their habitat range, species composition and phenology, with consequences for iconic top-level predators like seals, whales, penguins and polar bears, that rely on plankton, directly or indirectly, as a food source. This PhD project will harness cutting-edge technology to gain new insight into polar phytoplankton. You will investigate the health and composition of polar phytoplankton to develop new understanding on how these organisms are impacted by the physico-chemical environment and by top-down predators, and how they are expected to change in the future. You will achieve this by using measurements of phytoplankton fluorescence, collected from autonomous robotic floats, underwater gliders and marine mammals, as well as pioneering satellite and ship-based optical data.

Project Aims and Methods

This project aims to develop novel phytoplankton data products on taxonomic composition and physiological status (e.g. Behrenfeld et al. 2009; Browning et al. 2017; Brewin et al. 2017) in polar waters, by integrating satellite ocean-colour data with autonomous and ship-based optical ocean observations. You will focus on the interplay between spectral ocean-colour in the 400-600 nm range (information on taxonomic and pigment structure) with that in the 600-700 nm range (phytoplankton fluorescence).

These new products will be analysed in the context of changes in the physico-chemical environment (sea-ice extent, glacial melt-water rates, and iceberg numbers and distributions), and changes in top-down control (e.g. grazing by zooplankton, through comparison with polar zooplankton datasets, e.g. Atkinson et al. 2019), with the ultimate goal of answering the question ‘How is polar phytoplankton composition and health responding to climate change?’.

To achieve this aim, the candidate will process underway optical data collected from past and planned research cruises (AMT and NERC PICCOLO, with a potential opportunity to partake in an oceanographic expedition to Antarctica) and from autonomous observations (Biogeochemical-Argo floats and seal tags) collected in polar waters. These data will be used to develop and train new polar phytoplankton data products, harnessing information from the entire ocean colour spectrum (400-700 nm) and the enhanced spatial and temporal scales achieved by merging satellite and autonomous ocean observations. These new polar phytoplankton products will be evaluated in the context of bottom-up control (e.g. physico-chemical ocean datasets from satellites, in-situ observations and models) and top-down control (e.g. comparison with polar zooplankton datasets such as in Atkinson et al. 2019). The candidate will be allowed freedom and flexibility to modify the project design and direction, depending on their interests, within the scope of the project’s aims.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2020 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £15,009 per annum for 2019-20.


References / Background reading list

- Atkinson, A., Hill, S.L., Pakhomov, E.A., Siegel, V., Reiss, C.S., Loeb, V.J., Steinberg, D.K., Schmidt, K., Tarling, G.A., Gerrish, L. & Sailley, S.F. 2019. Krill (Euphausia superba) distribution contracts southward during rapid regional warming. Nature Climate Change, 9(2), p.142.

- Behrenfeld, M.J., Westberry, T.K., Boss, E.S., O'Malley, R.T., Siegel, D.A., Wiggert, J.D., Franz, B.A., McLain, C.R., Feldman, G.C., Doney, S.C. and Moore, J.K., Dall'Olmo G., Milligan A. J., Lima I., Mahowald N., 2009. Satellite-detected fluorescence reveals global physiology of ocean phytoplankton. Biogeosciences, 6(5), p.779.

- Brewin, R.J.W, Dall'Olmo, G., Pardo, S., van Dongen-Vogels, V. & Boss, E.S. 2016. Underway spectrophotometry along the Atlantic Meridional Transect reveals high performance in satellite chlorophyll retrievals. Remote Sensing of Environment, 183, pp.82-97.

- Brewin, R.J.W, Ciavatta, S., Sathyendranath, S., Jackson, T., Tilstone, G., Curran, K., Airs, R.L., Cummings, D., Brotas, V., Organelli, E. & Dall'Olmo, G. 2017. Uncertainty in ocean-color estimates of chlorophyll for phytoplankton groups. Frontiers in Marine Science, 4, p.104.

- Browning, T.J., Bouman, H.A. & Moore, C.M. 2014. Satellite‐detected fluorescence: Decoupling nonphotochemical quenching from iron stress signals in the South Atlantic and Southern Ocean. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 28(5), pp.510-524.

- Dall’Olmo, G., Brewin, R.J.W., Nencioli, F., Organelli, E., Lefering, I., McKee, D., Röttgers, R., Mitchell, C., Boss, E., Bricaud, A. & Tilstone, G. 2017. Determination of the absorption coefficient of chromophoric dissolved organic matter from underway spectrophotometry. Optics Express, 25(24), pp.A1079-A1095.

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