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PhD opportunities in 2013

The projects below are available, subject to funding, beginning next academic year (starting October 2013). However, we also encourage prospective students to contact us with their own potential research topics . We welcome enquiries and applications from those with backgrounds in Physical Geography, Earth or Environmental Science, or in any other related and relevant discipline (e.g. Biology, Chemistry, Climatology, Computing, Engineering, Geology, Mathematics, Oceanography or Physics). Applicants should hold, or expect shortly to obtain, at least an Upper Second Class Honours Degree or equivalent. PLEASE NOTE the advertising of these projects does not imply that financial support is available for applicants*.

For information concerning individual research topics, please contact the named supervisors below.

*Details of how to apply for admission to the University, financial support etc. are available from the Graduate School Office


  1. Late Middle Pleistocene glacial sedimentation in East Anglia (P.L.Gibbard, S.Boreham, P.Hughes)
  2. Quaternary Glaciations in the High Atlas, North Africa: glacier reconstruction and palaeoclimatic implications. (P.L. Gibbard, Philip Hughes, S. Boreham)
  3. Human-climate-environment interactions in NW India: palaeoenvironmental implications for the urban Harappan Civilization. (Philip Gibbard, Cameron Petrie, David Hodell)
  4. Three-dimensional reconstruction of the late Pleistocene of the Manchester district. (supervisors: P.L.Gibbard, P.Hughes, S. Boreham, S.Mathers)

Professor Philip Gibbard ( and are supervisors, supported by advisors/second supervisors include Dr Chris Jeans, Dr Philip Hughes (University of Manchester), Steve Mathers (British Geological Survey) and Dr Steve Boreham ( - as listed above.

The geological record is an invaluable depository of past responses of earth systems to global climatic change and can thus contribute towards improved predictions of future environmental conditions. The Quaternary record is of particular relevance because it provides sufficient resolution to monitor changes on various time-scales from glacial-interglacial cycles to extremely rapid climatic events. Against this background, work by the Quaternary Palaeoenvironments Group seeks to determine how Quaternary and Neogene climatic variability translates into events on land and in the marine environment, such as number and extent of glaciations, landscape and ocean dynamics, and response of terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

Current research in the group is focused on glacial, periglacial, interglacial and post-glacial stratigraphy, sedimentation, palaeoenvironment and structure in southern Britain, north-western and southern Europe and the southern North Sea, fluvial sedimentation and terrace formation, particularly the history of southern British and lowland NW European rivers; and also late Cenozoic palaeoceanography of the North Atlantic and contiguous seas. Currently the group is investigating the evolution of the Baltic Sea during the Last Interglacial as part of a large EC-funded project. Work in southern Europe includes the derivation of high-resolution records from thick sedimentary sequences spanning multiple climatic events, as well as glaciation in the mountains of northern Greece. A multi-proxy approach combining both floral and faunal fossil analyses together with sedimentary magnetic and geochemical evidence is used to elucidate past environmental history from a range of environments.

The group plays an active role in the Cambridge Quaternary institute (CQ) , a Cambridge research community numbering approximately 60 people. Its constituent research groups are based in the Departments of Earth Sciences, Archaeology and Zoology, as well as in Geography. Links also exist with the Departments of Physics, Chemistry, the Scott Polar Research Institute and the British Antarctic Survey. The CQ fosters collaborative work on different aspects of the Quaternary, shared use of equipment and facilities and organizes high-quality lecture and seminar series promoting interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation. This environment is unique in Britain, offering opportunities for research student training unequalled elsewhere, in terms of the range and quality of the expertise available.

Details of PhD opportunities in other related Physical Geography topics in the Department of Geography can be found on the Department Research opportunities webpage .Projects

B1. Late Middle Pleistocene glacial sedimentation in East Anglia. (P.L.Gibbard, S.Boreham, P.Hughes)

Glaciation in East Anglia occurred during three major glaciations: the Anglian, the late Wolstonian and the Devenian stages. Of these the Anglian Stage was one of the most extensive of the Pleistocene. However, the recognition that glaciation during the Wolstonian (=MIS 6)entered the Fenland region has important implications for the evolution of the region. In lowland Britain evidence of glaciation is primarily based on lithology and stratigraphy, with glacial episodes being identified by till and glaciofluvial sediments and glacial limits being determined by the extent of these deposits.

In western East Anglia the Wolstonian glaciation is represented by glaciogenic sediments of the Feltwell Formation derived from the western North-Sea floor, deposited by British ice. Similar deposits are found in the East Midlands and neighbouring areas. At present the ice margin has only been reliably identified in the eastern Fenland region but now it is essential to extend this limit towards the west into Northamptonshire, south Leicestershire and the south Midlands.

This project will focus on establishing both the glacial events and their implications for sedimentation of the glacial deposits during the Wolstonian. Through this the palaeogeographical and palaeoenvironmental evolution of the region and more particularly, the relationship of the glacier and its meltwater to pre-existing river systems will be determined. This is a thoroughly field-based project that will require the student to investigate exposures of glacial sediments in order to develop a generalised sedimentary/geomorphological sequence for the region. The student will also draw together the borehole archives from the British Geological Survey and related bodies to produce a comprehensive sequence. These approaches will be supported by relative and absolute dating (OSL), if and as appropriate (funding for the dating will be sought separately).


B2. Quaternary Glaciations in the High Atlas, North Africa: glacier reconstruction and palaeoclimatic implications. (Philip Gibbard, Philip Hughes, Steve Boreham)

A close and well established relationship exists between glaciers and climate, particularly that of annual precipitation, or accumulation, and summer mean temperature. As a result, reconstructing the extent of former glaciers from evidence present today enables inferences to be made about past climate. This project will seek to reconstruct the former glaciers in the Toubkal Massif of the High Atlas Mountains. The palaeoglaciers of the High Atlas were positioned outside the limits of the former continental ice sheets which covered much of northern Europe and the glaciers which were present here were smaller and therefore more sensitive to climatic variability by comparison. This, together with it being pivotally located between the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Sahara Desert, mean that this project offers considerable research potential. Recently, the first radiometric dates have been obtained from this region, along with detailed geomorphological maps and an appreciation of the glacial sequence's stratigraphy. This proposed project will build on their preliminary advanced study through the investigation of surrounding areas, where there is currently limited or no published work, and through the application of techniques not previously applied in this region. Five research questions will aim to be addressed during this project: (1) What was the extent of glaciation? (2) What is the minimum number of glacial phases that can be identified? (3) What is the chronology of this glacial sequence and how does it mirror or differ from others in the Mediterranean? (4) What was the climate like in the High Atlas, i.e. temperature and precipitation, during these glaciations? (5) What is the relationship between the climatic processes in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Africa and this glacial activity?


B3. Human-climate-environment interactions in NW India: palaeoenvironmental implications for the urban Harappan Civilization (Supervisors: P.L. Gibbard, C. Petrie, D. Hodell)

The growth and collapse of Old World Civilisations are frequently attributed to environmental change; however, there is often little direct evidence to link global climate change to local scale evidence for cultural transformation. Palaeoclimate proxy data suggest that the approximate time of the Harappan Civilisation was a period of declining monsoon strength, punctuated by episodes of aridity. We lack physical evidence from the plains of NW India, however, to support or reject past changes in summer and/or winter rainfall during the period of Harappan occupation. This multidisciplinary project will use sediment samples from palaeo-Lake Riwasa to test whether significant environmental and climatic changes were associated with the collapse of the urban Harappan Civilisation, approximately 3900 years ago. This process is one of the most poorly understood transformations in south Asian Archaeology. Many hypotheses have been advanced to explain it, including natural causes such as catastrophic floods, drought related to an abrupt decline in the strength of the Indian summer monsoon, and shifts of river courses triggered by tectonic activity.

Riwasa Lake is a dry lake bed that lies at the edge of the NW India plains and contains a sequence of sediments comprising lacustrine carbonates interbedded with aeolinites representing times the lake was dry. To reconstruct the local palaeoclimate history and rainfall patterns of NW India, sampled drill cores and exposed sections were obtained from the Riwasa Lake basin. The project will analyse pollen and associated plant materials to reconstruct the vegetation of the region, and will constitute the first direct evidence for Holocene palaeoenvironmental history obtained for the plains of NW India. Although there are other palynological sequences from Rajasthan, with which the sequence can be compared, they all appear to pre-date the collapse of the Indus Civilisation, and therefore it has previously not proved possible to comment on relationship between climate and settlement/civilisation in the critical period.

The student will join a multi-disciplinary team bringing together British and Indian experts in geology and fluvial systems, Quaternary environmental and climate change, and South Asian Archaeology. This project is ideal for a student with broad interests in hydrology, palaeoclimate and archaeology, with a specific focus on the interrelationships among these data sets.

The student will be trained in field and laboratory techniques used in palynological studies. The student will also be expected to become knowledgeable in the regional botanical, environmental and cultural history of NW India.

B4. Three-dimensional reconstruction of the late Pleistocene of the Manchester district. (supervisors: P.L.Gibbard, P.Hughes, S. Boreham, S.Mathers)

The Manchester region occurs on the margin of the Lancashire coalfield and the northern part of the Cheshire Basin, which is underlain by Permo-Triassic rocks. The overlying Quaternary deposits were laid down largely during the last, Devensian glaciation which cover most of the area, reaching thicknesses of greater than 40 m in places. These deposits comprise diamicton, glaciolacustrine laminated silts and sands and glaciofluvial meltwater sequences. The glacial sequences are underlain by fluvial sands, of considerable economic importance, that include Early Devensian deposits referred to the Chelford Interstadial (c.100 ka). In turn, these sands are discontinuously underlain in places by earlier glacial and non-glacial sediments. Extensive made ground overlies the natural materials in many areas and watercourses are culverted or canalised in many areas.

Throughout the region the variability of the ground conditions provide significant problems for construction etc. Subsidence of old workings for coal is also a significant hazard, as are contamination of groundwater and surface drainage issues.

This project will rely on detailed reconstruction of the 3-dimensional mapping and reconstruction of the Quaternary and associated sediment sequences that is now available as a consequence of the Quaternary Palaeoenvironments Group's joining the GSI3D Consortium by the British Geological Survey (BGS). The student will be thoroughly trained in the use of the software developed for this purpose by the BGS at their Keyworth headquarters. This will be achieved by integrating surface mapping and subsurface data from the BGS archive and other sources. The mapping will be supported by field investigation for ground truthing from available exposures throughout the area. Already available published records will also be integrated.

This project will therefore focus on establishing, testing and refining the glacial and associated events and their implications, establishing and refining non-glacial courses and the evolution of the glaciolacustrine system. Where possible sample will be taken for geochronology (especially optically stimulated luminescence dating) as and when appropriate. The results will be of considerable value to the BGS with whom the student will work closely at all stages of the project.