University of St Andrews

Postgraduate Opportunities

Physical & Environmental Geography

We welcome applications for study towards a research degree from candidates with an excellent academic background. The list of projects below indicates the range of interests of our staff, but you are also welcome to suggest your own project in a related area. In the first instance, please contact the relevant member of academic staff to discuss your ideas.

More details on the application procedure are available here

If you have an enquiry about the application process, please contact Mrs Helen Olaez.

New digital tools for using palaeoenvironmental records to understand longterm human ecodynamics in Iceland

Supervisors: Dr Richard Streeter and Dr Althea Davies

The colonisation of the north Atlantic islands by the Norse in the 9th and 10th centuries is one of the best case studies we have for examining and understanding the impact of human settlement on fragile ecosystems. Although we know much about the environmental impact of settlement there is still uncertainty about how spatially homogenous the impact was and there are many areas in Iceland where we have very little information. The project will draw on both the exciting developments in palaeoenvironmental databases for meta-analysis and classical palaeoenvironmental approaches to better characterise the environmental impact of the arrival of humans on pristine natural systems, specifically in Iceland. The overall aims of the project are to (1) develop new approaches to synthesising and utilising palaeoenvironmental data stored in existing data archives (2) use this to identify gaps in our understanding of palaeoenvironmental change in Iceland (3) target the collection of selective new datasets to address these gaps (4) attempt to utilise ‘long tail’ data which is frequently not incorporated in meta-analysis (e.g. by digitising soil erosion records in field notebooks). There is the opportunity to develop skills needed to test hypotheses about human-environmental interactions beyond site level, which is essential for making rigorous contributions to global debates on sustainability and adaptive capacity.

Directly Funded Project (EU/UK only or UK only).

Application deadline: 12 October 2018

For further information, select New digital tools for using palaeoenvironmental records (PDF, 531 KB)

Valuing neo-native species. Is naturalised Scots pine a threat or benefit for climate resilience?

Supervisors: Dr Althea Davies (St Andrews) and Professor Alistair Jump (Stirling)

Managing novel ecological communities will become an increasing priority as species reorganise into new assemblages in response to environmental change. Keeping pace with such changes poses a major challenge for conservation policy and practice as conservation strategies often resist the transformation of currently valued habitats and this may prevent species from adapting to climate change. The central aim of this project is to evaluate the role that novel communities play in species adaptation and ecosystem functionThis will be achieved by focusing on naturalised Scots pine in England and southern Scotland as a case study

For further information, select the Valuing Neo-native Species (PDF, 1,752 KB).

Amazonian peatland vegetation and its representation in the modern pollen rain

Supervisors: Dr Katy RoucouxDr Ian Lawson and Dr Althea Davies

Pollen analysis of peat cores obtained in the peatlands of Peruvian Amazonia has demonstrated their potential to record the developmental history of these ecosystems through the Holocene in considerable temporal detail. However, the interpretation of these records is currently limited by our poor understanding of how peat- and wetland vegetation communities are represented in the pollen signal. The primary aim of this project is to establish the relationship between the vegetation communities of Amazon peatlands and the pollen rain they produce. Detailed consideration of the full range of peat-forming and wetland ecosystems in the Pastaza-Marañon Fan Basin in northern Peru (the largest peatland complex in Amazonia), in terms of their species composition, hydrological and sedimentological characteristics, and their representation by the pollen rain, will enable significant improvements to be made to existing interpretations of sub-fossil pollen records from Amazonia. By adding substantially to our understanding of peatland vegetation history and, by extension, peat accumulation processes and drivers, this project has the potential to make a substantial contribution to the growing field of tropical peatland science.

For further information, select Peruvian pollen rain project (PDF, 681 KB)

Environmental history of tropical forests: a palaeoecological test of the “stability hypothesis”

Supervisors: Dr Katy Roucoux and Dr Ian Lawson

Tropical rain forests are changing: accumulating additional biomass and changing in species composition. Tropical forests play a major role in the global carbon cycle and climate system so it is essential that we understand the cause of these changes. A number of explanations have been proposed, including fertilization by increasing carbon dioxide levels and recovery from past disturbances brought about by climatic events or anthropogenic activities. One way to test whether or not forests have been disturbed in the past is to use the palaeoecological record provided by peat accumulating in a forest hollows. These records present an exciting opportunity to extend our knowledge of these forests back 1000 years and thus enable us to test the extent to which forest composition, and environmental conditions, have been stable during this time. The project will: (1) use pollen analysis to establish the long-term (centennial to millennial scale) history of terra firme rain forest at sites in Peruvian Amazonia (focusing on forest areas which are already the subject of decadal scale monitoring); (2) determine whether or not these communities have been stable for the last c. 1000 years; and (3) if changes in forest composition are apparent, establish their cause.

For further information, select Environmental history of tropical forests project (PDF, 715 KB)  

The impact of human activity and climate change on carbon cycling and acidification in Scottish lochs

Supervisors: Dr William Austin

Dissolved organic carbon (DOC) is the factor causing the recent browning of water in upland Scottish lochs. The increasing DOC is also changing carbon cycling and greenhouse gas (CO2 and CH4) emissions from the water-air interface in these systems. The reconstruction of long-term history of DOC has been explored using diatoms, a major group of algae with a cell wall made of silicon dioxide. However, the reconstructed DOC results are not reliable because of the strong influence of lake water pH on the DOC-diatom relationship. The development of Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) provides a new way to research the history of lake water quality including DOC and pH. Pilot work has established the optical metrics of aromaticity (specific absorbance, fluorescence index) and levels of lake water chemistry, including DOC, pH and nitrogen; human impact including land cover change; and climate variables. This PhD project will explore the impact of human activity, such as coal burning and land use change, as well as climate change (precipitation and temperature) on Scottish loch water environments over the last 1,000 years using the NIRS and diatom research methods. Fieldwork will include water and surface sediment collection from around 100 lakes and rivers and one short sediment core from a typical lake. The laboratory work will be conducted through the School’s Facility for Earth and Environmental Analysis (FEEA) and via collaboration with the Scottish Alliance for Geoscience, Environment and Society (SAGES). Principally, we are seeking an enthusiastic natural scientist with a background in physical geography, environmental science, or other cognate discipline.

Understanding the developmental history of peatland ecosystems in a priority region for conservation in the Congo Basin

Supervisors: Dr Ian Lawson (University of St Andrews), Dr Simon Lewis (University College London/University of Leeds)

Ongoing work by Ms Greta Dargie, a PhD student currently being supervised by Drs Lewis, Lawson and others, has shown, for the first time, that very large areas of the swamp forests of the Congo Basin are underlain by peats up to 7 m thick. Firm estimates of the likely area of peat swamp forest are still being developed but the total area is likely to be well in excess of 10,000 square kilometres. This project aims to develop the first palaeoecological records from these swamps, addressing research questions including: How stable are carbon sequestration processes over time? Do different swamp vegetation communities relate via a simple set of successional pathways? Can we explain the present-day vegetation in terms of its developmental history? And how have environmental conditions in the basin changed over recent geological time?

For further information, select Congo basin peatland history PhD project (PDF, 637 KB)

The environmental and societal impacts of an exceptionally large basaltic flood eruption

Supervisor: Dr Richard Streeter and Dr Althea Davies

The early 10th century in Iceland was a time of rapid ecological change following its settlement some 50 years previously and theintroduction of grazing animals. Around the same time was the eruption of Eldgjá (AD 934-936), which stands out as one of the largest fissure eruptions experienced by humans in historical times. Over 14 km3 of magma was erupted, of which 4 km3 was volcanic ash (tephra), making this eruption significantly larger than, for example, that of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. This ash covered the newly settled region of Skaftártunga, ~ 20 km to the southeast of the fissure, to a depth of 20-60 cm. Although the effects of the extensive lava flows on regional hydrology and areas directly next to the fissure are known, much less is understood about the ecological, geomorphic and social consequences in inhabited areas close to the eruption. The impact of volcanic ash on vegetation cover and settlement patterns is complex and not simply correlated to the depth of ash fall. In Skaftártunga the depth of the tephra fall was unusually deep for settled areas in Iceland, and came at a time ofrapid transformation of pre-settlement vegetation and soils and before settlement patterns had become fixed. Unlike many parts of Iceland we do not know exactly what sort of landscape had been created by the first settlers in this region when the eruption occurred. This project will (1) attempt to reconstruct the rate and pattern of vegetation change over the past 2000 yrs in Skaftártunga (2) map geomorphic change and the timings of erosion scar formation and (3) link with on going archaeological work in the area in order to understand the impacts of this eruption on settlement patterns. This combination of geomorphological and palaeoecological approaches potentially allows the assessment the long-term impacts of thick tephra layers on ecological and social systems.