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NERC GW4+ DTP PhD project: Quantifying the impact of extreme rainfall on Welsh coal tip stability

   Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering

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  Dr Cormac Reale, Dr Thomas Kjeldsen  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP) for entry in October 2023. The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the Universities of Bath, Bristol and Exeter and Cardiff University plus five 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 multi-disciplinary training, designed to produce tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science.

Supervisory Team:

Lead Supervisor: Dr Cormac Reale, University of Bath, Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering

Co-Supervisor: Dr Thomas Kjeldsen, University of Bath, Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering

Co-Supervisor: Dr Andrea Diambra, University of Bristol, Department of Civil Engineering

Project Background 

Wales has almost 2500 disused coal tips, nearly 85% of which are located in the South Wales valleys with 327 considered high risk. On the 16th of February 2020, extreme rainfall from Storm Dennis led to a number of coal tip landslides including a large failure at Tylorstown, where 60,000 tonnes of material rapidly ran out into the Rhondda Fach river. Whilst there were no casualties at Tylorstown, there was significant damage totalling £20 million and the event has highlighted how low the safety margin of these assets is. Currently Welsh Government estimates that £600 million is needed over the next 10 years, to ensure the safety of this legacy mining infrastructure and protect local people and their property. 

The impact of climate change is of particular concern as the safety margin of these coal tips reduces further during periods of heavy or extended rainfall. With extreme weather events like storm Dennis projected to become more commonplace over the coming decades this is a further cause for concern. Current risk assessment methods are qualitative and do not account for climate triggers and urgently need to be improved. There is a need for an advanced dynamic coal tip assessment strategy which reacts in real-time to weather forecasts enabling active risk management ensuring safety. Through understanding which assets are riskiest we can remediate these structures first further reducing the likelihood of serious incidence. 

Project Aims and Methods 

This project aims to develop a quantitative coal tip risk assessment methodology combining satellite meteorological data and mapping, with hydrology and soil mechanics. The project seeks to understand how fundamental soil material parameters such as strength and stiffness respond to changes in key environmental variables such as rainfall, evaporation, soil moisture etc. Relationships will be established through laboratory testing and statistical analyses. This knowledge will link meteorological data to soil properties and will underpin a stochastic slope stability model analysing real-time coal tip performance. The model will be backtested and calibrated using historical landslide events, before being coupled with meteorological forecasts to assess the likelihood of future changes in coal tip condition. 

The project is an ambitious undertaking which will provide a motivated student with opportunities to interface with several scientific disciplines, including: civil engineering, mathematics and statistics, and meteorology/climatology as well as exposure to government and industry organisations involved in landslide risk management. The student will be supported by a supervision team with specialities in geotechnical engineering (Cormac Reale and Andrea Diambra), laboratory testing (Andrea Diambra), risk analysis (Thomas Kjeldsen and Cormac Reale) and hydrology (Thomas Kjeldsen), thus allowing a great deal of flexibility in how the project develops and the choice of methodologies. 

While clear guidance will be provided in the early stages of the PhD on the best approach to take, it is intended and expected that the project will evolve with the interests of the student, both in terms of core scientific focus and methodology. 

Candidate requirements 

The project will suit someone with a first-class honours degree in engineering, science, or mathematics with an interest in risk assessment, soil mechanics, hydrology and satellite monitoring. Applicants with relevant industry experience are also welcomed. Skills developed during the project will prepare the student for a future career in risk assessment of natural hazards in academia, government or industry. 

Applicants for a studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a UK Honours degree at 1st or 2.1 level, or international equivalent.

Non-UK applicants must meet the programme’s English language requirement by 01 February 2023 (the only exemption is if you will be awarded a UK degree or degree conducted in English before your PhD start date).

Project partners 

The successful student will become part of the newly formed Climate Change Research Centre at the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering in the University of Bath, but will work closely with the University of Bristol and collaborate with the Welsh Government Coal Tip Task Force. 


Beyond the day-to-day supervision, there will be opportunities to attend international courses and workshops, such as the “Landslide Risk Assessment and Mitigation” (LARAM) or the “Alert Geomaterials” doctoral schools. There will be an opportunity to have a short secondment with the Welsh Government Coal Tip Task Force. Some minor fieldwork will be associated with the project, such as obtaining soil samples and install monitoring equipment at test sites. The applicant will have access to lab facilities at both Bath and Bristol and associated training.

Enquiries and Applications:

Informal enquiries to Dr Cormac Reale, [Email Address Removed]

Formal applications via online application form for a PhD in Civil Engineering.

Identify your application as NERC GW4+ DTP competition in Section 3 Finance (question 2) and quote project title and supervisor’s name in the ‘Your research interests.' 

More information on our website.

We encourage student applications from under-represented groups. We value a diverse research environment. If you have circumstances that you feel we should be aware of that have affected your educational attainment, then please feel free to explain in your application form. The best way to do this is a short paragraph at the end of your personal statement.

Project keywords: geotechnical engineering, hydrology, geographical information systems gis, remote sensing, environmental physics, data science

Funding Notes

Candidates may be considered for a NERC GW4+ DTP studentship tenable for 3.5 years. Funding covers tuition fees, a stipend (£17,668 p/a in 2022/23) and a generous allowance for research expenses and travel. Studentships are open to both Home and International students; however, International applicants should note that funding does NOT cover the cost of a student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK. In line with guidance from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the number of awards available to International candidates will be limited to 30% of the total.

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