PhD Studentship in Environmental Science

University of Reading - School of Geography & Environmental Science

Project title: Impacts of rapid climate change on vegetation dynamics and biodiversity

Supervisor: Professor Sandy Harrison

Project Overview: The recent IPCC Assessment Report drew attention to the threat of future climate change for terrestrial biodiversity and ecosystem services. It stressed that long-lived species and species with limited migration capacity would be particularly vulnerable, and particularly stressed the threat to tree species. However, the record of ecosystem responses to past climate changes suggests that terrestrial vegetation adapts relatively quickly. The last glacial interval contains multiple examples of rapid climate climate change, the Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles; some of the warming intervals were characterized by temperature changes as large and as fast as expected over the 21st century.

The goal of the project is to examine the impact of these rapid decadal-to-centennial changes in climate on vegetation patterns and biodiversity. The main focus will be analyses of pollen and charcoal records of the response of the terrestrial biosphere over the Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles of the last glacial epoch based on the ACER database. In parallel, simple vegetation models will be used with inputs from climate simulations of the Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles to understand the individual controls on vegetation dynamics and biodiversity. The project will also explore the relevance of past responses to rapid climate changes for future environmental impacts and conservation.

Specific training opportunities

  • Statistical, analytical and programming skills through the manipulation and analysis of complex palaeovegetation data sets.
  • Modelling skills through working with simple vegetation models.
  • An understanding of theoretical developments in ecology.
  • An understanding of the application of palaeoenvironmental data to understanding vegetation dynamics and biodiversity.
  • Science communication skills including communication across disciplines and to policy-oriented stakeholders.

The project is designed as a thesis-by-papers. The student will be partially-based in Bordeaux, working with the coordinator of the ACER database and will also have the opportunity to become involved in the Palaeoclimate Modelling Intercomparison Project, an international research initiative to use palaeoclimate modeling and model evaluation to understand the mechanisms of past climate and environmental change and evaluate our ability to simulate future climates and environments.


  • Applicants should hold a 1st or upper 2nd class degree (or equivalent) in physical geography, quantitative biology or environmental science.
  • Good quantitative & analytical skills required
  • Experience in database software (Access, mqSQL) and programming (R, Fortran, r Python) highly recommended.

Funding Details:

Tuition fees plus stipend for 4 years. 

Starts January 2017.

How to apply:

Please submit an application for a PhD in Environmental Science at quoting the reference ‘GS16-164’ in the ‘Scholarships applied for’ box which appears within the Funding section.

Further Enquiries:

Email: or

NB: Where a candidate is successful in being awarded funding, this will be confirmed via a formal studentship award letter which is provided separately from any Offer of Admission and which is subject to standard checks for eligibility and other criteria.

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South East England