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Quantifying temperature change in the sub-Antarctic (NERC GW4+ DTP)

Project Description

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By studying climate in the past, scientists can understand the natural processes and mechanisms that operate in Earth’s system. This is needed to accurately predict human impact on future climate. Although the terrestrial realm (where we humans live) is a crucial part of Earth’s system, key-dynamics such as past terrestrial temperatures are poorly constrained in some globally-important regions, such as the mid/high-latitude Southern Hemisphere. This project will address this major gap by quantifying terrestrial temperature around the Southern Ocean across a key-climate transition of Earth’s past: the last deglaciation and Holocene (last 20,000 years) You will use state-of-the-art biomarker methods developed by the supervising team to answerlong-standing and exciting questions regarding how terrestrial temperatures varied in the past and identify the processes that drove these changes. Ultimately, the results from this research will allow for a better assessment of how the terrestrial realm may respond to future climate change.

Project Aims and Methods

The main research question you will address is: How did terrestrial temperatures in the environmentally sensitive mid/high-latitude Southern Hemisphere evolve during the last 20,000 years? For this purpose, you will apply biomarker proxies to continuous peat records from the mid/latitude Southern Hemisphere that reach into the deglaciation. More specifically, you will learn how to use, and further develop the brGDGT-paleothermometer, for which peat-specific calibrations were recently developed by the project supervisor (Naafs et al., 2017). This proxy is based on more than 15 years of research that shows that the distribution of brGDGTs (membrane lipids produced by bacteria) depends on temperature. The biomarker records you will generate will be combined with other proxy evidence (e.g. pollen, stable isotopes, etc), generated by the research groups of the cosupervisors, to obtain a holistic understanding of terrestrial temperature change in the Southern Hemisphere during the last deglaciation.
There are many opportunities for you to develop specific aspects of the project based on your own interests and strength. This could include, for example, the possibility of fieldwork to the sub Antarctic region to sample new peatland environments, investigating seasonal and temperature driven changes in brGDGT distribution and abundance, and/or laboratory-based temperature incubation experiments. You will be based within the Organic Geochemistry Unit, University of Bristol, one of the oldest and most successful organic geochemistry groups in the world with decades of experience in paleoclimate research. In addition, you will benefit from existing collaborations between Bristol and Exeter and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) to learn additional techniques/methods and develop a broad understanding of paleoclimate, the Antarctic, and peat research.

Candidate Requirements

The ideal candidate has a background in earth science, geography, and/or (geo)chemistry at MESci/MSc level, with a broad interest in paleoclimate research. (Geo)chemistry experience is not obligatory.

CASE or Collaborative Partner

BAS has world-leading facilities for peat research that are available to the student to sample peat coresfor geochemical samples. The student has full access to a diverse range of training opportunities through BAS, which has a partnership student training programme for transferable skills with the University of Cambridge. The CASS application will support non-critical elements of this project and significantly broaden the students training opportunities with fieldwork in the (sub)Antarctic.


As part of this project you will be fully trained in: relevant organic geochemical techniques and concepts, Antarctic (paleo)climate, and peat research, and will learn to work with large datasets. There is the option to go on fieldwork to the sub Antarctic to retrieve new material, providing additional training in fieldwork, sampling, and develop key-leadership skills. In addition, you will receive a broad training on (academic) writing, project presentations, time management, and other transferable skills.

Funding Notes

Successful Applicants will receive a studentship for 4 years. The studentship covers fees and research costs, while also providing a ~£15,000+ tax free stipend.


Naafs, B. D. A. et al. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 208, 285-301, (2017).
McGlone, M. S. et al. Nat. Geosci. 3, 622-626, (2010).
Zheng, Y. et al. Geology 45, 1031-1034, (2017).

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