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SUPER DTP: Water quality risks from soil structure degradation in Scotland

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Prof P Hallett, Dr Paul Gaffney  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Are soils being managed in a way that degrades their structure and affects water quality? You will help answer this question in a fully funded PhD project between the University of Aberdeen and the University of Highlands and Islands. It builds on an earlier survey in Scotland that found 18% of topsoils and 9% of subsoils were severely structurally degraded, with intense winter precipitation increasing the occurrence by 30% (Hallett et al., 2017). Other studies in England and Wales have found similar levels of soil structural degradation (Palmer & Smith, 2013; Holman et al., 2003). If soils are structurally degraded, they are more prone to erosion and surface run-off, and they have a poorer capacity to absorb precipitation and retain pollutants. There is anecdotal evidence that soil structural degradation may also increase flood risk (Holman et al., 2003).

 This PhD project builds on the earlier survey in Scotland by broadening sampling beyond the agriculturally productive central belt and east coast, capturing greater diversity in soils, climate and farming practices. Rapid visual evaluation of soil structural degradation at the start of the project will identify study sites for further investigation. This will include re-visiting some locations sampled in 2015/2016 to explore changes. Most of the project involves deeper investigations at selected sites to explore how soil structural degradation links to hydrochemistry and the resulting impact on water quality. The research will encompass field-based measurements of soil and water physical and chemical properties, and laboratory column studies where soil structural degradation can be manipulated and hydrochemical processes measured accurately.

The following objectives will be addressed:

  1. To use rapid visual assays of soil structural degradation to assess its occurrence across selected catchments in Scotland, broadening previous surveys to include the highlands and organic soils.
  2. To obtain quantitative measurements of soil physical and hydrochemical properties at field scale between degraded and less degraded areas.
  3. To measure impacts of soil structural degradation on catchment water quality.
  4. To explore how rapid stresses, such as physical disruption by tillage or rapid rewetting of dry soil, influence hydrochemical processes.

The studentship offers training in both field and laboratory approaches, provided by a multidisciplinary supervisory team in soil physics and hydrochemistry. The research is directly relevant to policy development to improve water and soil quality in agricultural catchments. There is considerable scope for the student to take ownership of the project, particularly as the more quantitative field and laboratory studies develop in years 2 & 3.

It may be possible to undertake this project part-time, in discussion with the lead supervisor, however, please note that part-time study is unavailable to students who require a Student Visa to study within the UK.

Informal enquiries would be welcomed for a discussion. Please contact Professor Paul Hallett ([Email Address Removed]) for more information.

Academic Eligibility:

Applicants to the SUPER DTP are expected to have a minimum of a 2:1 UK honours degree (or equivalent). Applicants with a 2:2 at honours level will be considered on the condition they have a distinction at Masters level (or equivalent).

Application Procedure:

  • Please visit this page for full instructions on how to submit your application
  • Please DO NOT apply through the University application portal

Application enquiries should be made to [Email Address Removed] . Please ensure you enter SUPER DTP in the subject box.

Funding Notes

This is a 42 month full time (or 84 months part time), directly funded project as part of the SUPER DTP which provides:
*A Stipend based on RCUK rates
*UK Level Tuition Fees
*Research and Training Costs
This opportunity is open to UK and International applicants. Successful international candidates will receive a fee waiver from the University of Aberdeen School of Biological Sciences to cover the difference between UK and International rate tuition fees (Please note that international place numbers are limited).


• Hallett, P., Hall, R., Lilly, A., Baggaley, B., Crooks, B., Ball, B., Raffan, A., Braun, H., Russell, T., Aitkenhead, M., Riach, D., Rowan, J., Long, A. 2016. Effect of soil structure and field drainage on water quality and flood risk. CRW2014_03
• Zhong, X.-l., Li, J.-t., Naveed, M., Raffan, A. & Hallett, P.D. 2021. A laboratory study to disentangle hydrological, mechanical and structural mechanisms of soil stabilization by plant mucilage between eroding and depositional zones of a slope. European Journal of Soil Science, 72, 125-140.
• Geris, J., Verrot, L., Gao, L., Peng, X., Oyesiku-Blakemore, J., Smith, J.U., Hodson, M.E., McKenzie, B.M., Zhang, G. & Hallett, P.D. 2021. Importance of short-term temporal variability in soil physical properties for soil water modelling under different tillage practices. Soil and Tillage Research, 213, 105132.
• Gaffney, P.P.J., Hancock, M.H., Taggart, M.A., Andersen, R. 2021. Catchment water quality in the year preceding and immediately following restoration of a drained afforested peatland. Biogeochemistry, 153(3), 243-262
• Gaffney, P.P.J., Hancock, M.H., Taggart, M.A., Andersen, R. 2020. Restoration of afforested peatland: immediate effects on aquatic carbon loss. Science of the Total Environment, 742, 140594
• Gaffney, P.P.J., Jutras, S., Hugron, S., Marcoux, O., Raymond, S., Rochefort, L. 2020. Ecohydrological change following re-wetting of a deep-drained raised bog. Ecohydrology, 13, eco.2210
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