Six Research Experience Placements in Meteorology, Geography and Environmental Science (17/29)

Company: SCENARIO Doctoral Training Partnership, University of Reading

Location: Reading

The Natural Environment Research Council has a scheme aimed at encouraging undergraduate students who are doing a degree in a quantitative discipline to consider a career in environmental research (

The SCENARIO DTP has six placements in this scheme this year all based at the University of Reading department of Meteorology or department of Geography and Environmental Science. This scheme is therefore an excellent opportunity to get experience of working in a thriving research environment before considering applying for a PhD next year (whether with SCENARIO or elsewhere).

Students would receive £200 per week for 8 to 10 weeks of work this summer. The eligibility criteria are strict. You must:

  • Be studying for a degree in a quantitative discipline (e.g. mathematics, statistics, computing, engineering, physics)
  • Be undertaking the placement in a different department to their undergraduate degree
  • Be in the middle of their first degree studies (or integrated Masters)
  • Be expected to obtain a first or upper second class UK honours degree
  • Be eligible for subsequent NERC PhD funding (UK, EU or right to remain in the UK)

Seven possible areas of study are given on the following pages. Please note that all of these topics will require computing skills to perform, in terms of data handling and presenting your results – hence, a willingness to learn how to use the appropriate software is essential.

If you are interested in applying for one of these placements, please contact Prof Bill Collins ( by Friday 12 May 2017, providing a brief application (no more than 2 sides of A4) that should:

  • (a) Explain how you meet all of the above criteria
  • (b) Provide information on the marks you have received on your University course so far.
  • (c) Indicate, in order of preference, the top three topics you would like to work on
  • (d) Provide a short statement, in no more than 250 words, on the origin and nature of your interest in environmental science. Include any relevant work or project experience.
  • (e) Provide the name of one academic referee, who should preferably be your undergraduate tutor.
  • (f) Provide contact information.

1. Assessing Instrument Sandblasting on a Research Aircraft

The UK BAe146 FAAM Research Aircraft takes airborne observations of many different types, one of which is shortwave radiation, measured by pyranometers protected by glass domes. Radiation measurements have been made while flying through thick dust storms over West Africa and the Eastern Atlantic Ocean and are crucial for determining the impact of atmospheric dust particles on climate. However, dust can be deposited on the glass domes can also potentially sandblast and damage them, degrading the observations. In order to constrain the degradation, aircraft manoeuvres called ‘pirouettes’ are performed turning the aircraft through 360°, exposing different sides of the dome to the sun and enabling any damage on a particular side of the dome to be detected.

The student will analyse data from aircraft pirouettes from measurements made during the campaigns in order to determine whether, and to what extent, the domes were degraded, and determine whether any damage worsened during the campaigns. This information will be used by subsequent research requiring accurate measurements. The student will also be able to gain hands-on experience in measuring solar radiation at the University of Reading Meteorological Observatory where similar instruments to those on the aircraft are in operation. There will be an opportunity to visit either the research aircraft at Cranfield to see the instruments in operation, and/or a visit to the Met Office where some of the shortwave radiation measurements are calibrated in the laboratory. The student will benefit from developing data processing and analysis skills, developing an understanding of airborne observational instrumentation, learning scientific programming and data visualization skills.

2. Assessment of thermobaric energy in the ocean

An important feature of the ocean is that its equation of state for density is a strong nonlinear function of three variables: salinity, temperature and pressure. One particularly important aspect of the nonlinearity is related to ‘thermobaricity’, that is the strong pressure dependence of the thermal expansion coefficient (which controls the response of sea level to global warming, among other things). Thermobaricity, when coupled with density-compensated temperature/salinity anomalies created by the surface patterns of heat and freshwater fluxes, introduces a new form of energy in the system, called thermobaric energy. Most of the time, thermobaric energy represents a ‘dormant’ form of energy that most often plays little role in ocean dynamics. It has been hypothesized, however, that circumstances may occasionally arise that would cause thermobaric energy to be suddenly released, thus potentially explaining some past abrupt climate change induced by changes in the ocean circulation.

Progress in our understanding has been limited, however, by the lack of an appropriate theoretical framework to define and quantify thermobaric energy precisely. The main objective of this project will be to test a couple of possible definitions of thermobaric energy arising from the analysis of the problem in terms of the theory of available potential energy developed by the supervisor. The next step will be for the student to collect climatological data of temperature and salinity from existing sources in order to quantify thermobaric energy in the actual ocean and its temporal variations in the past 50 years or so. In addition, the student will visit the Reading university weather station in order to better appreciate what kind of variables are measured, the physical principles underlying such measurements, and where the data are collected and analysed.

3. New observations of the North Atlantic jet stream and tropopause region

Jet streams are powerful currents of high-altitude wind that govern the patterns of weather down at the surface. Last autumn a major international field campaign ( made detailed observations of the North Atlantic jet stream using specialised research aircraft, ground-based remote sensing instruments and around 1000 weather balloon launches. The aim of the field campaign was to better understand how the jet stream behaves and how weather forecast models can be improved to better represent the jet stream and its impacts at the surface.

During this project you will make use of this unique and exciting dataset by examining the measurements from the weather balloons. These were launched from stations spanning the North Atlantic from Canada and Greenland to the UK and Norway. The focus will be on the vertical structure of temperature, humidity and winds in and around the jet stream, and identifying differences with the structure forecast by the operational Met Office system.

This project will be carried out in collaboration with other scientists working on the NAWDEX datasets. You will gain experience analysing complex datasets and learn about current research in atmospheric dynamics. There will also likely be an opportunity to visit a Met Office observing station to learn about meteorological observations and experience a weather balloon launch take place.

4. New measurements of raindrop size, shape and fall speed

A characterisation of the sizes, shapes and fall speeds of raindrops is fundamental problem in precipitation physics. The shape of the drops is particularly important for the new generation of weather radars, which exploit dual-polarisation techniques to measure rainfall rates more accurately. These polarimetric techniques provide information on drop shape, and infer the size of the drops from that information. However, there is continued uncertainty about the relationship between drop size and shape, and the magnitude of drop oscillations which lead to variability in drop shape. Drop fall speed is essential to determine the precipitation flux of a raindrop population.

In this project the student will gain experience of both practical experimental work and data analysis techniques, to quantitatively test current models and theories of raindrop aerodynamics. They will make field measurements using a fast-exposure camera (10 microseconds) to capture high resolution photographic images of natural raindrops in free fall. Hail events will also be sampled if the opportunity arises. The student will then analyse the acquired images using MATLAB or similar to derive data on drop shape and fall speed as a function of drop size, and compare the results to previous theory and experimental work. Finally the student will follow through the implications of their results for dual-polarisation radar measurements of rainfall.

5. Linearity of the atmospheric circulation response to CO2 forcing

It is known that CO2 forcing causes changes in atmospheric circulation, and most notably a meridional shift of the midlatitude storms and subtropical dry zones. Larger CO2 perturbations are expected to force larger circulation changes, but the extent to which this relationship is linear remains poorly understood. This project aims to answer the following question: How does the circulation response to CO2 forcing change as CO2 concentration increases? We will answer this question focusing on the extratropical circulation, particularly the jets and storm tracks.

Circulation changes may not scale linearly with CO2 concentration for at least two reasons:

  1. The dynamical mechanisms responsible for shifts in midlatitude eddies depend on the basic state; for example, jets shift poleward more readily when at a lower initial latitude.
  2. The radiative feedbacks to CO2 forcing depend on the initial climate. For example, the amplitude of the ice-albedo feedback depends on how much ice there is to begin with, and this influences the amount of warming at high latitudes.

The relative importance of these mechanisms will be assessed using climate model experiments. The supervisors will provide a set of climate model simulations with CO2 concentrations of 0.5, 1, 2, 4, and 8 times the pre-industrial climatology, which the student will analyse to compare the response to successive CO2 doublings. The analysis will mainly involve diagnosing changes in zonal and meridional wind, and calculating the strengths of climate feedbacks. To get a practical understanding of atmospheric dynamics in the real world, the student will also launch a weather balloon and take readings, using these observations to learn experimentally how temperature, pressure and winds vary with altitude.

6. Calculating ocean heat content from inhomogeneous measurements

The evolution of the climate system depends fundamentally on the exchange of energy between the ocean and atmosphere since the oceans store nearly all the excess energy associated with global warming. A precise determination of the change in ocean heat content since ~1950 is critical for predictions of the trajectory of future climate change.

Subsurface temperature observations play an essential role in our understanding of where heat is located in the ocean. The Argo array of autonomous floats has been measuring subsurface temperature for approximately a decade and a half. Although there are over 3000 such floats in operation, the measurements obtained are sparse and inhomogeneous; coverage is greater in some areas than others.

You will test different methods of reconstructing ocean heat content using model data (where the full temperature fields are known), subsampled according to our imperfect observational record from the oceans. A good reconstruction will need to account for covariability in space and time to fill in gaps in the data. You will compare the direct mapping of temperature with mapping of Lagrangian properties such as isothermal thicknesses. The methods you develop may be tested on the historical ocean database and compared with other reconstructions in the literature.

This project will be carried out in collaboration with scientists at the Met Office. There will be an opportunity to visit the Met Office and/or the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton in order to see an Argo float and its sensor arrays, and be introduced to the measurement techniques used to monitor climate change in the oceans. You will gain experience of large-scale climate data analysis, including programming and visualisation, and additionally learn about ocean heat content measurements and modelling.

Closing Date for Applications: This role is now closed.

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