Predicting river responses to future environmental change

University of Exeter - College of Life and Environmental Science

Main supervisor: Prof Andrew Nicholas (Geography, University of Exeter)

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus six Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Met Office, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

Understanding how rivers respond to environmental change is critical for predicting future flooding, river migration, loss of infrastructure, population displacement, sediment delivery to the oceans, and sediment and nutrient cycling in floodplains and depositional basins. Computer simulation models are key tools for making such predictions and for improving understanding of controls on river evolution. However, models capable of doing this have only recently been developed and have yet to be tested rigorously. Furthermore, accurate simulation of river evolution depends upon the prediction of future changes in river flow regimes and sediment loads, resulting from climate and land use change, and dam construction. Virtually no research has been conducted to date to evaluate how sensitive large rivers may be to such changes in their water and sediment loads.

This project will investigate river responses to environmental change, and the potential to predict such changes using numerical models. Training will be provided in a range of models that can be used to predict drainage basin processes that control future changes in water and sediment delivery to rivers, and morphodynamic models capable of simulating river evolution. The latter will involve models developed by the supervisors (cf. Nicholas et al., 2013) and industry standard codes that are used globally (e.g., Delft FM). Models will be tested using a range of approaches at multiple scales in order to provide a rigorous assessment of model realism. This will include: (a) Use of existing field datasets (Digital Elevation Models of river morphology, flow and sediment transport datasets and aerial imagery); (b) Use of remote sensing imagery quantifying river channel changes (over the past 40 years) for selected large rivers; and (c) Use of data obtained from physical modelling experiments conducted in the Exeter University Sediment Research Facility to investigate how rivers evolve in response to changes in water and sediment supply under controlled laboratory conditions. Following their evaluation using these datasets, models will be applied to simulate the future evolution of selected large rivers over time periods of decades to centuries for a range of future climate change and drainage basin management strategies (e.g. land use change, dam construction). The outcome of this work will be new understanding of future river evolution, an evaluation of the scope for, and limitations on, predicting such evolution using numerical models, and an assessment of the likely sensitivity of rivers to future environmental change.

Please see for full information about how to apply.

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South West England