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Predicting the Weather by Watching Airplanes: Mapping of water vapour by using interferometers to observe the refraction of radio broadcasts from aircraft. Physics PhD Studentship (NERC GW4+ DTP funded).

College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences

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About the Project

Atmospheric water vapour is highly variable in space and time, but is very difficult and expensive to measure directly in the lower troposphere, where it primarily resides. Because water vapour is a driver of extreme weather events (rain, storms, flooding) and is an essential assimilation source for numerical weather prediction, new, innovative, real-time methods to map water vapour at high spatiotemporal resolution are urgently sought.

To this end, the University of Exeter and the Met Office are undertaking a project to install a network of radio interferometers on Met Office radar towers, with the aim of opportunistically measuring refraction of routine navigational broadcasts from civil aircraft: water vapour contributes to refractivity, on top of that arising from the relatively stable dry atmospheric stratification, and therefore it can be mapped by refraction. The idea that underpins this research has been awarded the Harry Otten Prize for Innovation in Meteorology 2019, and is backed by a published patent jointly held by the University of Exeter and the Met Office. Project Aims and Methods There is an opportunity to undertake a PhD working with the University of Exeter and the Met Office in the development of an interferometry network, with the aim of reconstructing the water vapour distribution in 4D (3-space, 1-time). The project will involve:

• Further development of the instrument itself (hardware and software) in order to maximise its capabilities and the accuracy of the measurement

• Understand and quantify the errors and uncertainties in the measurement.

• Develop quality control and correction algorithms to limit the impact of errors.

• Model the data obtained from an individual interferometer and develop a design for a prototype UK network of similar instruments.

• Work with another PhD student who is focussed on data application, to optimise the overall benefits of the measurements to the potential users.

Candidate requirements:

The ideal candidate will have a first or 2.1 undergraduate degree in either physics, atmospheric science, electronics, computer science.

Collaborative partner:

The Met Office, based in Exeter along with the University, is the UK’s national weather service, with more than 160 years of experience in weather observations and forecasting. It is providing financial, technical, and infrastructure support to this project, and these are further backed by scientific support in the form of on-site training (see below).


As a PhD student on this project, you will join the doctoral training programme and also receive specialist individual training at Exeter in radio interferometry, application of advanced data science techniques, and planetary atmosphere modelling. You will additionally be co-supervised by Met Office staff, and will attend Met Office internal training courses in remote observing, data assimilation, and other relevant topics. There is also the opportunity to attend Met Office research talks and seminars to broaden your knowledge of applied meteorology.


NERC GW4+ DTP studentships are open to UK and Irish nationals who, if successful in their applications, will receive a full studentship including payment of university tuition fees at the home fees rate.

A limited number of full studentships are also available to international students which are defined as EU (excluding Irish nationals), EEA, Swiss and all other non-UK nationals.

Studentships for international students will only cover fees at the UK home fees rate. However, university tuition fees for international students are higher than the UK home fees rate therefore the difference will need to be funded from a separate source which the student or project supervisor may have to find. Unfortunately, the NERC GW4+ DTP cannot fund this difference from out studentship funding Further guidance on how this will work will be issued in November.

The conditions for eligibility of home fees status are complex and you will need to seek advice if you have moved to or from the UK (or Republic of Ireland) within the past 3 years or have applied for settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2021 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £15,285 per annum for 2020-21.

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