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NERC Panorama DTP - Can you stop a PDC? Assessing the impact of natural and engineered barriers on deadly volcanic flows

   Energy and Environment Institute

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  Dr R Williams, Dr Natasha Dowey, Dr Pete Rowley, Dr Rob Thomas  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Pyroclastic density currents (PDCs) are a major hazard at explosive and dome-forming volcanoes, impacting communities around the world. These hot flows of ash, gas and rock are known to have high mobility, travelling at great speed in excess of 450 mph and overtopping topographic barriers, sometimes kilometres in height at great distances from source. Experiments and field analyses have suggested a variety of ways in which density-stratified pyroclastic density currents can interact with topography. They can overtop topographic barriers or partially overtop them by detaching a more dilute cloud from the dense undercurrent. The initial momentum of the current may carry the leading edge over topographic barriers on initial encroachment, or the mass flux may have to increase above a certain threshold before the current is able to overtop the obstacle. Alternatively, the topography may have to be modified by deposits accumulating against the topographic barrier before a sustained density current can surmount the barrier. Conversely, PDCs have been recorded to have been reflected or deflected by even small topographic barriers. However, these interactions have not been quantified, particularly for fluidised, granular currents, and remain poorly understood. Natural barriers and topographic obstacles have produced unpredicted and ultimately fatal misinterpretations of current direction in the past.

There is a growing need to mitigate against PDC hazard, and engineered topographic barriers are a potential solution that needs to be explored. Furthermore, investigation of PDC interactions with infrastructure will contribute to a better understanding of evolution of hazard where PDCs reach and inundate the built environment. For example, as a PDC interacts with obstacles, what changes in dynamic pressure and therefore destructive power, should we expect? How is the potential for diversion past, or burial of, infrastructure impacted by changes in current dynamics and ability to deposit?

This project will assess the response of fluidised and unfluidised PDC analogues to different obstacle geometries, assessing the stresses imparted, and the nature of the resulting currents and deposits to different engineering solutions and the built environment.


Develop an experimental flume set-up to model how PDCs encroach, overtop, or are deflected by a variety of natural and engineered topographic barriers

Quantify changes in depositional behaviour, and the resultant deposit architecture, before and after a variety of natural and engineered topographic barriers

Interrogate how different obstacle geometries influence current dynamics (including velocity, stratification, sediment concentration and dynamic pressure) and therefore may change the nature of the hazard through time and space.

Understand how interaction with these geometries controls sedimentation and thus infrastructure burial.


The goal is a quantitative assessment of risk modification through varying barrier design, enhanced understanding of the influence of natural topography, and a better understanding of the interaction of PDCs with the built environment. This opens new possibilities for understanding risk and resilience for communities living near active volcanoes. It will shed light on the fundamental behaviours of these catastrophic volcanic flows, and improve the framework in which we interpret their deposits.

You should normally have, or expect to obtain, at least 2:1 Honours degree (or international equivalent) in a related subject. You should have an interest in volcanology, and geohazards, and be enthusiastic about using a range of different techniques, to better understand density current dynamics. Students from geoscience, engineering, or numerical backgrounds are all encouraged.

Eligibility and How to Apply

See our How to Apply page.

The NERC Panorama DTP are hosting ‘Demystifying the PhD application process’ webinars on the 9th and 12th December – sign up now!

The minimum English language entry requirement for postgraduate research study is an IELTS of 6.0 overall with at least 5.5 in each component (reading, writing, listening and speaking) or equivalent. The test must be dated within two years of the start date of the course in order to be valid. Some schools and faculties have a higher requirement.

Webinar recording

For more information on specific projects, why not watch a recording of the webinar we held on 29 November? You will be able to hear presentations on each of the projects, as well as on overview of the Panorama DTP and the question and answer session that followed the presentations.

Equal Opportunities:

Within the NERC Panorama DTP, we are dedicated to diversifying our community. As part of our ongoing work to improve Equality, Diversity and Inclusion within our PhD funding programme, we particularly encourage applications from the following identified underrepresented groups: UK Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, those from a disadvantaged socio-economic background, and disabled people. To support candidates from these groups, we are ringfencing interviews, providing 1-2-1 support from our EDI Officer (contact Dr. Katya Moncrieff) and hosting a bespoke webinar to demystify the application process. Candidates will always be selected based on merit and ability within an inclusive and fair recruitment process.

Funding Notes

This project is available as part of the NERC Panorama DTP, and is a fully funded studentship covering the full cost of University fees plus Maintenance of £17,668 (2022/23 rate) per year for 3.5 years, and a generous research training and support grant (RTSG). Applications are open to both home and international applicants. Please note the number of fully funded awards open for international applicants is limited by UKRI to 30% (7 studentships).
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