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Severe air pollution in South Africa: A view from space

Project Description

Exposure to air pollution affects us at all stages of development. South Africa is one of the global hotspots of air pollution due to proliferation of coal-fired power plants, energy-intensive industries, traffic congestion, and domestic burning of fuelwood and trash. The number of deaths each year in South Africa due to exposure to air pollution is 20,000-30,000 people, mostly in the heavily industrialized and populated Highveld. These estimates are based on limited observations and severely under-validated air quality tools.

Instruments onboard NASA satellites have been observing global air pollution for more than a decade. There is also the recently launched TROPOMI instrument on an ESA satellite that is monitoring global air pollution at higher spatial resolution than ever before. These instruments have the potential to provide vital information to understand long-term, seasonal, and spatial changes in air quality and emission sources over the industrialised Highveld to better understand the hazardous effects of air pollution on the environment and health. The figure below shows the very high concentrations of the toxic pollutant NO2 observed with TROPOMI in the Highveld and north of the Highveld where the world’s largest dry-cooled coal-fired power plants are located.

In this project you will learn the skills needed to efficiently process and analyse big data from space-based instruments to determine long-term, seasonal, and spatial variability in air pollutant concentrations and obtain improved emissions estimates for the mix of sources in the Highveld and the power plants to the north. Satellite observations of air pollutant concentrations will be validated with ground-based measurements from the South African national monitoring network and emissions derived with satellite observations will be used to evaluate emission inventories developed by local and international organisations.

You will be trained by supervisors with expertise in numerical modelling, atmospheric chemistry, and Earth observations at the country’s Earth observations research hub. The PhD programme will include a 3-month placement at the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to work with atmospheric chemistry modelling expert Prof Rebecca Garland, attend local air quality meetings, and share results with special interest groups.

Entry requirements

Applicants are required to hold/or expect to obtain a UK Bachelor Degree 2:1 or better in a relevant subject. The University of Leicester English language requirements apply where applicable.

How to apply

The online application and supporting documents are due by Monday 21st January 2019.

Any applications submitted after the deadline will not be accepted for the studentship scheme.

References should arrive no later than Monday 28th January 2019.

Applicants are advised to apply well in advance of the deadline, so that we can let you know if anything is missing from your application.

Required Materials:

1. Online application form
2. Two academic references
3. Transcripts
4. Degree certificate/s (if awarded)
5. Curriculum Vitae
6. CSE Studentship Form
7. English language qualification

Applications which are not complete by the deadline will not be considered for the studentship scheme. It is the responsibility of the applicant to ensure the application form and documents are received by the relevant deadlines.

All applications must be submitted online, along with the supporting documents as per the instructions on the website.

Please ensure that all email addresses, for yourself and your referees, are correct on the application form.

Project / Funding Enquiries

Application enquiries to
Closing date for applications – 21st January 2019

Funding Notes

This research project is one of a number of projects in the College of Science and Engineering. It is in competition for funding with one or more of these projects. Usually the project that receives the best applicant will be awarded the funding.

Home/EU Applicants:

This project is eligible for a fully funded College of Science and Engineering studentship that includes:

• A full UK/EU fee waiver for 3.5 years
• An annual tax free stipend of £14,777 (2018/19)
• Research Training Support Grant (RTSG)

International Applicants:

This project is eligible for a College of Science and Engineering studentship that includes:

• A full international fee waiver for 3.5 years
• Research Training Support Grant (RTSG)

International candidates must be able to fund their living costs for the duration of the studentship.


1. Duncan, B. N. et al., Satellite data of atmospheric pollution for U.S. air quality applications: Examples of applications, summary of data end-user resources, answers to FAQs, and common mistakes to avoid, Atmos. Environ., 94, 647-662, doi:10.1016/j.atmosenv.2014.05.061, 2014.
2. Henneman, L. R. F. et al., Assessing emissions levels and costs associated with climate and air pollution policies in South Africa, Energy Policy, 89, 160-170, doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2015.11.026 2016.
3. Martin, R. V. et al., Global inventory of nitrogen oxide emissions constrained by space-based observations of NO2 columns, J. Geophys. Res., 108(D17), 4537, doi:10.1029/2003JD003453, 2003.
4. Naiker, Y. et al., Introduction of local Air Quality Management in South Africa: overview and challenges, Environ. Sci. & Policy, 17, 62-71, doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2011.11.009, 2012.
5. Hugo, R. Death is in the air: SA is losing the fight against air pollution, Huffington Post, 22 February 2018, [Accessed: 11 November 2018].

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