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Past and future coastlines: Modelling millennial scale coastal response to climate change

   School of Earth & Environment

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  Prof David Hodgson, Dr N Barlow, Prof T Coulthard, Dr Paul Fish  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Global mean sea level is rising, and will continue to do so for millennia due the long-term response of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to climate change, regardless of the emissions pathway followed. The IPCC AR6 predicts global sea-level rise by 2100 to be 0.28 – 1.01 m. However, at any NW European coastal location the rate and magnitude of future sea-level rise will vary from the global mean due to regional land-level change and gravitational processes. This combination of factors drives changes in the elevation of the sea relative to the land leading to spatially variable rates of coastal erosion and deposition. Increasing our understanding of how climate change affects our coastlines will help to mitigate risks to coastal infrastructure and potential degradation of ground water quality.  

This PhD project will focus on the nature and magnitude coastal change over 1000’s years by utilising new developments in coastal modelling, and the expertise of the supervisory team in long-term sea level and landscape change. Current coastal modelling typically focuses on decadal to centennial coastal changes, but these models are unsuitable for making decisions around the sustainable use of our coastlines, and management of coastal cities and infrastructure. The project’s novelty includes the understudied element of coastal change over centuries to millennia (200-10,000 years) during which the rates and magnitude coastal change are uncertain but likely significant. The projects simulations will be evaluated using well-constrained examples of submerged landscapes that underwent marine transgression since the Last Glacial Maximum have been documented in detail by the supervisory team, using subsurface datasets collected by the offshore windfarm industry. These palaeo datasets will provide important basis for model calibration, that modern observations due not allow. 

 Objectives and potential for high impact outcomes 

Specific objectives will be developed in collaboration with the student and CASE-partner and include, but are not limited to: 

  • Review the literature of recent advances in long-term modelling of coastal change (for example CEM2D (Leach, Coulthard et al., 2021), ShorelineS (Roelvink et al., 2020) and CoSMos-COAST (Vitousek et al., 2017)) to assess their suitability for modelling changes over millennial timescales 
  • Develop calibration datasets of coastal change during the early Holocene and Last Interglacial, using the submerged landscape data held at the University of Leeds 
  • Test and validate the selected coastal landscapes model(s) against these datasets, during different models of sea-level rise 
  • Run model simulations to forward model coastal change, suitable UK coastal locations over the next 200-10,000 years, based upon regional estimates of isostasy and barystasy using IPCC AR6, new GIA models (Clark et al., 2022; Bradley et al, in prep.) and ongoing work by the supervisory team. 

 In summary, this project will employ state-of-the-art models, tested against geological datasets, to explore the potential for coastal change at the margins of the North Sea. Based upon these results, the PhD project will assess the relative importance of long-term (200-10,000 year) vertical RSL change versus lateral coastal change. The arising simulations will assist stakeholders in developing decision-making pathways that considers this information and assesses the uncertainty that comes with predicting landscape changes far into the future. 

The results of this work will have multiple scientific outcomes, with interdisciplinary reach for the geoscience, engineering and hazard-and-risk research communities. This project aligns to many NERC research priorities including climate and climate change (e.g. palaeoenvironments), archaeology, geosciences (e.g. Quaternary science), terrestrial and freshwater environments (e.g. Earth system processes and ecosystem-scale processes). 

Training, CASE partner and wider research group 

This research project will build upon collaboration between the University of Leeds, the offshore energy industry and University of Hull. The successful candidate will have access to our world-leading computational facilities within The School of Earth and Environment at Leeds and work along PhD students in similar areas, as well as in the Sedimentology and Leeds Quaternary groups. The supervisory team have extensive experience of working with long-term coastal change datasets (Hodgson and Barlow) and modelling coastal change (Coulthard).  

The project is supported by Jacobs who will provide an additional £3.5k over the 3.5 years of the studentship to enhance the students training grant (RTSG). There will be opportunities for one or more research placements (a minimum of 3-months) at one of Jacobs’ offices. This will provide the student the opportunity for training and exposure to how their research can be applied in the business environment during the course of the project. The successful candidate will also have access to a broad spectrum of training workshops facilitated by the DTP at the University of Leeds.  

 Student profile 

The ideal candidate will have a background in Geosciences or Engineering, with a relevant degree, e.g. Geography, Environmental Sciences, Geology, Computer Science, or Engineering Geology. A keen interest in coastal and climatic change would be desirable, with experience of computational modelling. 

Eligibility and How to Apply

For more details on how to apply please go to 

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.

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 - [Email Address Removed]) 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).


Clark, P.U., et al. 2016 Consequences of twenty-first-century policy for multi-millennial climate and sea-level change. Nature climate change 6.4: 360-369.
Leach, C. et al. 2021. The coastline evolution model 2D (CEM2D) V1. 1.” Geoscientific Model Development 14.9: 5507-5523.
Roelvink, D. et al. 2020. Efficient modeling of complex sandy coastal evolution at monthly to century time scales. Frontiers in Marine Science 7: 535.
Vitousek, S., et al. 2017. A model integrating longshore and cross‐shore processes for predicting long‐term shoreline response to climate change. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface 122.4: 782-806.

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