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NERC GW4+ DTP Studentship: Physical and Social Recovery from Large Earthquakes, Wenchuan, China

   Cardiff School of Earth and Environmental Sciences

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  Dr T C Hales, Dr Diana Contreras, Dr Ekbal Hussain  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Project Background 

The economic, social, and physical impact of large earthquakes can extend for decades after the shaking stops. Large earthquakes can trigger secondary hazards that occur at elevated rates for many years after the earthquake, destroying buildings and overwhelming infrastructure1. Following an extreme event, resources are invested in the region to support recovery. However, the supply and distribution of those resources often occurs only during the emergency phase and stop during the early recovery1,  a few weeks after the earthquake2. The 2008 Mw 7.9 Wenchuan Earthquake is one of the most fatal earthquakes of the 21st century due, in part, to the extreme landslide response. Investments in post-earthquake recovery were hampered by vast post-earthquake debris flows and floods. Large debris flows are particularly challenging from a hazard management perspective as they often start as minor events that then bulk up to 100 times their volume as they move downslope3,4 . However, the processes that cause debris flows to turn into hazardous events are poorly understood, as is the damage they cause to the new buildings and roads built during the recovery phase. These debris flows during reconstruction result in additional loss and damage, and hinder the progress towards recovery and development. This PhD will seek to understand the mechanisms that govern the bulking of debris flows, using this to develop better tools for managing risk to the built environment. 

Project Aims and Methods 

This project will seek to develop a quantitative understanding of the risk caused by large post-earthquake debris flows. The PhD will examine the epicentral region of the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake, where >35 large debris flows have occurred over the past decade, resulting in slow recovery. The project will achieve this by using a combination of remote sensing, fieldwork (COVID-restrictions permitting), and numerical modelling to answer the following questions: 

  1. What are the physical controls on the development of extremely large debris flows in Wenchuan catchments? Building on preliminary modelling work using Massflow4, you will consider how and where future large debris flows might occur. Focussing on large debris flows triggered during 2019 and 2020, you will use daily Planet satellite imagery to decipher the size, location, and bulking of these flows for specific rainfall events.  
  2. What are the impacts of extremely large debris flows on the built environment? Using high-resolution satellite imagery captured since the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake, you will map the recovery of infrastructure, including the development of new housing, industry and the implementation of structural mitigation measures. Using these images, you will map how this infrastructure was affected by large debris flows, particularly the location of damages and emergency response and post-disaster recovery progress6. 
  3. How can we produce better models for vulnerability and integrated risk assessment to large debris flows? Here we would combine the results from (1) and (2) to develop new vulnerability and risk models for mountainous regions during the post-disaster recovery phases.  

The work has been developed through a long-term collaboration with Chengdu University of Technology, China. If possible, would include fieldwork and/or an extended stay in Chendgu to examine the built environment of the Wenchuan region to ground-truth remote sensing observations. Additionally, the candidate will have the opportunity to spend time at the British Geological Survey headquarters. 

Candidate requirements 

Students should have a background in geography, geomorphology, or geosciences. Expertise or experience with numerical analysis, GIS, or remote sensing, while not essential, would be advantageous.  

Project partners  

The student will become a member of the BGS and join a cohort of over 150 research students covering all aspects of the geological sciences. They will have full access to all BGS training and research facilities, potentially top-up their research budget with BGS internal funds.  


The student will be embedded in a robust training environment. Upon arrival, the student will perform a skills audit, then sit with supervisors to determine the best training needs. The student will be based at Cardiff University, where they will have access to considerable expertise and equipment in mapping land-use change and modelling sediment transport. Students will have access to an excellent provision in professional skills development delivered by our University Graduate College, which has been shortlisted for a Times Higher award. Also, students will have access to a range of specific training through the NERC GW4+ DTP and have access to the BGS training and support schemes. 

Entry requirements

In order to be accepted you would need to have a first-class BSc degree or a second-class degree plus an MSc or good MSci. However, for international students, you would need to have a relevant degree in the subject area and have evidence of an English Language qualification. Further information on the English Language can be found here: https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/study/international/english-language-requirements/postgraduate

How to apply

In order to formally apply for the PhD you will need to go to the following web page: https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/study/postgraduate/research/programmes/programme/earth-sciences

In the black box on the right of the page please select the following options:

·Doctor of Philosophy

·Full Time

·1st October 2023

Click on ‘Apply now’.

Please ensure that you include the ‘Project Title’ you are applying for and supervisor and that you add ‘NERC DTP’ under the source of funding.

The application deadline is Monday 9 January 2023 at 2359 GMT. Interviews will take place from 22nd February to 8th March 2023. For more information about the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership please visit https://www.nercgw4plus.ac.uk.

Funding Notes

Students will receive a stipend for 3.5 years of approximately £17668 p.a., payment of their university tuition fees, a Research and Training and Support Grant (RTSG) of £11,000 and an individual training budget of £3,250. The training budget of £3,250 are for each student to undertake specialist training relating to their specialist area of research and career development and to pay for travel and accommodation.


1 Murray, J., Pedersen, F., & Ziesche, S. (2018). Evaluation of the Global Cluster for Early Recovery. Retrieved from New York https://reliefweb.int/report/world/evaluation-global-cluster-early-recovery
2. Fan, X. et al. Earthquake-Induced Chains of Geologic Hazards: Patterns, Mechanisms, and Impacts. Reviews of Geophysics vol. 57 421–503 (2019).
3. Dunford, M. & Li, L. Earthquake reconstruction in Wenchuan: Assessing the state overall plan and addressing the ‘forgotten phase.’ Applied Geography 31, 998–1009 (2011).
4. Iverson, R. M. et al. Positive feedback and momentum growth during debris-flow entrainment of wet bed sediment. Nature Geosci 4, 116–121 (2011).
5. Horton, A. J. et al. Identifying post-earthquake debris flow hazard using Massflow. Engineering Geology 258, (2019).
6.Contreras, D., Forino, G. & Blaschke, T. Measuring the progress of a recovery process after an earthquake: The case of L'Aquila, Italy. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 28, 450 – 464.
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