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How will climate change affect extreme rainfall in mid-latitudes? PhD in Mathematics (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 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.

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).

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

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.

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