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The role of groundwater in adapting to climate change and increasing resilience to drought in Eastern Scotland

   Hydro Nation Scholars Programme

  , , ,  Friday, January 06, 2023  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Background: In summer 2018 and 2022, Scotland experienced its most severe droughts on record with all of Eastern Scotland River catchments declared water scarce in 20221. Groundwater resources are critical to building resilience to hydrological extremes2. During droughts, Scottish river flows and ecosystems are sustained by groundwater discharge3,4. In Eastern Scotland, private water supplies for domestic use, agriculture (including irrigation), and industry (including whisky distilleries), are heavily reliant on shallow groundwater resources5. While shallow groundwaters (depth < 5m) are widely used, they are also more vulnerable to drought, unlike deeper groundwaters which may be more resilient. During the 2018 drought, many shallow private water supplies failed with at least 500 requesting emergency assistance from Local Authorities6; and during the 2022 drought, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) had to temporarily suspend some abstraction permits in the worst affected catchments. In many parts of the world however, rural water supplies based on groundwater are relied on as the most resilient to drought7. Therefore, the failure of many Scottish groundwater rural water supplies requires further investigation and may be linked to the way groundwater is accessed8. Deeper groundwater where available, may offer greater resilience to drought, and make use of the natural storage afforded by aquifers.

Objectives & Timeline: The PhD project aims at assessing the vulnerability of groundwater resources to droughts in Scotland and investigate the resilience of different types of private groundwater supplies. The information will provide insight to the role deep groundwater resources will play in building water resilience in Scotland. Specific objectives include:

1-To assess the extent of private water supplies (PWS) that rely on groundwater in Eastern Scotland.

2-To assess how these different sources performed during the 2022 and 2018 droughts and owner’s perception of their reliability and functionality.

3-To compare responses, in terms of water resource and quality, of shallow and deep groundwater supplies to drought conditions with consideration to their hydrogeological setting.

4-To provide a hydrogeological mapping and modelling assessment of Eastern Scotland’s resilience of groundwater resources to droughts and highlight opportunities for sustainable use and deeper groundwater development to address future water scarcity.

The research will focus on the major river catchments of the East coast of Scotland, with an enhanced focus on Aberdeenshire, which has high number of PWS, and Angus, Fife and East Lothian where there are larger sedimentary bedrock aquifers and where local agricultural abstractions are a significant seasonal pressure. A tentative workplan/timeline includes: [Y1-2] Literature review of hydrological extremes and groundwater systems’ responses in Scotland and abroad; hydrogeological data compilation for Eastern Scotland. [Y2-3] Well owners’ interviews and sampling for residence time; installation of groundwater monitoring and flow metering. [Y3-4] Timeseries and residence times analysis; GIS mapping of PWS resilience to drought; integrated analysis of controlling factors of resilience of shallow vs. deeper groundwater supplies. [Y4] Conceptualisation and modelling of private groundwater use and typical groundwater storage response; scenario testing of optimal groundwater use during droughts and cost analysis of deeper groundwater access for decision-support; publications and thesis write-up.

Research environment: The supervisory team includes hydrogeologists and hydrologists from the University of Aberdeen (Comte, Soulsby), the British Geological Survey (MacDonald) and the James Hutton Institute (Helliwell) with decades of experience of groundwater research and policy transfer in Scotland and in water-scarce developing countries. Partners from SEPA, Aberdeenshire Council, and the Drinking Water Quality Regulator for Scotland will provide general PhD guidance and steering towards policy inputs, as well as access to PWS and groundwater monitoring datasets. Monitoring, sampling and analysis equipment is readily available in Aberdeen and BGS and additional equipment, consumable and analyses (groundwater loggers, residence time analyses) will be acquired as part of the project. The student will be based in Aberdeen, with short placements to BGS Edinburgh and visits to partners where required. Inventory, visits, interviews will require the student to hold a valid driver’s license. 

Funding Notes

The Hydro Nation Scholars Programme is an open competition for PhD Scholars to undertake approved projects, hosted within Scottish Universities and Research Institutes. This project will be hosted by the University of Aberdeen. Full funding is available from the Scottish Government (to host institutions via the Scottish Funding Council). The funding available will be in line with the UKRI doctoral stipend levels and indicative fees. Applicants should have a first-class honours degree in a relevant subject or a 2.1 honours degree plus Masters (or equivalent). Shortlisted candidates will be interviewed on 26th or 27th January 2023


1SEPA (2022) Water Scarcity Report 26/08/22; 2Taylor et al. (2013) Nat Clim Chang 3:322-9; 3Soulsby et al. (2021) Hydrol Proc 35:e14206; 4MacDonald et al. (2005) Scottish J Geol 41:3-11; 5O’Dochartaigh et al. (2015) British Geological Survey Rep. OR/15/028; 6Rivington et al. (2020) CREW Rep. CRW2018_05; 7MacAllister et al. (2020) Nat Comms 11:1099; 8MacDonald et al. (2019) Environ Res Lett 14:095003.

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