Funded PhD research studentship - Accelerating sea temperature growth and intensified poleward heat transfer: global and regional risk implications

Director of Studies: Professor Philip (Chris) Reid

Second Supervisor: Dr Abigail McQuatters-Gollop

Additional supervisors: 

  • Professor Gregory Beaugrand, CNRS, Wimeroux, France
  • Dr Eric Gobberville, Sorbonne Université, France

Applications are invited for a 3.5 year PhD studentship. The studentship will start on 1 October 2018.

Project description

The studentship will research the extent to which the development and propagation of warm sea surface temperature anomalies from tropical seas towards the poles contributes to rapidly rising global temperature and consequent risks to society and the insurance industry. As a new initiative in 2018 the re/insurance company XL Catlin is funding three Ocean Risk Scholarships through the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences to examine and quantify risks to ecosystems, businesses and people from the changes taking place in the ocean. This joint project between the Marine Biological Association (MBA, including the Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey) and the University of Plymouth is one of three selected this year.

The Earth is currently taking in more energy as heat than is reflected back into space with ~93% of the additional heat generated since the 19th century taken up by the ocean; an uptake that has increased rapidly in the last few decades with large downstream consequences for the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere and biosphere (Wijffels et al., 2016). In particular, extremes of heat, weather and other climate events appear to be more common. Extreme weather was ranked in the top three global risks in the Global Risks Report 2018 of the World Economic Forum. Risks linked to the large increases in ocean heat content and surface temperature have substantial implications for the insurance market. To manage these risks, increase resilience and mitigate their consequences we need to greatly improve understanding of the processes behind ocean warming (see Table 1.1 in Reid, 2016).

Focusing on ocean risks caused by rising sea temperature the successful student will:

  • Update the work published by Reid and Beaugrand (2012) extending it to the whole ocean and research its ‘heat motorways’- the western boundary currents and the response of the ocean and atmosphere to the 2014/16 El Niño. This work will introduce the student to the manipulation and statistical analysis of large gridded datasets.
  • Examine the extent to which regional and global temperatures show non-linear step-like changes over time. The mechanisms behind temperature shifts, their environmental interactions, and the synchrony and scale of their effects around the globe are poorly understood and are not explicitly included in Earth System Models. Some of these steps seem to be associated with an increased incidence of extreme events and natural disasters. Part of this theme will investigate the OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database for regional evidence of links to regime shifts. Understanding whether global warming is proceeding gradually or in shifts, and if shifts might increase in intensity and frequency as climate warms, has high relevance to the insurance industry.
  • Be introduced to and make use of the Argo database that enables a 3D view of the changing status of upper ocean temperature, salinity and water circulation e.g. Desbruyères. et al. (2017). Starting in 2000 this programme and its open access database has revolutionised understanding of ocean processes and the take up and redistribution of heat by the ocean. The risk aspect of this work will be to understand why uptake has accelerated from a modest level prior to ~1990 with substantial warming in all ocean basins from ~2000.

Key research questions

  • Is global temperature rising in a series of linear shifts and, if so, what are the implications for Earth System Models used in climate research?
  • Is there any relationship between temperature shifts and the intensity and frequency of disasters and insurance claims?
  • On a global scale, how did the ocean and atmosphere respond to the 2014/16 El Niño event and what were the effects on the insurance market?
  • How can Argo data contribute to a better understanding of the consequences of El Niño events for ocean heat content and downstream release of heat to the atmosphere and land?

Links to risk and the insurance industry

It is the speed, severity and regional expression of rising temperature and especially the non-linear nature of some events that is most relevant to the insurance industry in the development of plans to respond to future ocean risk. The statistical analyses and interpretation of the global and regional temperature change proposed for this PhD research project will aid planning for risk through improved understanding of the processes behind rapidly rising ocean temperature.

A close liaison will be maintained with XL Catlin throughout the research who will act as a risk supervisor and will allow the student to work closely with industry professionals on how to translate the regional effects of rising ocean temperature and its downstream atmospheric and terrestrial impacts to a risk scale relevant to the insurance industry.

Training, research facilities and working environment

The studentship will be hosted jointly by the MBA and the University of Plymouth, while primarily based at the superbly located and friendly MBA Laboratory. Both institutions have excellent computing and other facilities for environmental research. Training in the use of a high-level programming language such as Matlab or R and compatible database programs such as MongoDB will be provided and are essential for the success of the research. A wide range of standard and innovative statistical techniques and data processing tools will be available to the student. The student will have access to powerful work stations at the French CNRS (Wimereux Laboratory of Oceanography and Geosciences). Opportunities to network with other graduates in both the MBA and the University and to assist with lecturing, practicals and assessment will be available. The student will be enrolled in Policy Research Groups within the University to gain experience in science-policy issues and analysis techniques and training will be provided in risk analysis techniques and the science-policy interface.


Desbruyères D. et al. 2017. Journal of Climate, 30, 1985-1997.   Reid, P. C. 2016. In Explaining ocean warming:causes, scale, effects and consequences, pp. 17-45. Ed. by D. Laffoley, and J. M. Baxter. IUCN. Reid, P. C. and Beaugrand, G. 2012. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 92: 1435-1450. Wijffels, S. et al. 2016. Nature Climate Change, 6: 116-118


Applicants should have (at least) a first or upper second class honours degree in an appropriate subject and preferably a relevant MSc or MRes qualification. A high degree of computer literacy is required preferably with experience of Matlab programming and working with Matlab and/or R statistical packages.

The studentship is supported for 3.5 years and includes full Home/EU tuition fees plus a stipend of £14,553 per annum. The studentship will only fully fund those applicants who are eligible for Home/EU fees with relevant qualifications. Applicants normally required to cover overseas fees will have to cover the difference between the Home/EU and the overseas tuition fee rates (approximately £10,350 per annum).

Further information

If you wish to discuss this project further informally, please contact Philip (Chris) Reid at, Abigail McQuatters-Gollop, Gregory Beaugrand at or Eric Gobberville at However, applications must be made in accordance with the details shown below.

General information about applying for a research degree at the University is available at:

Please apply via the online application form.

Please mark it FAO Aimee McNeillie, clearly stating that you are applying for a PhD studentship within the School of Biological and Marine Sciences. Please attach a covering letter detailing your suitability for the studentship, a CV and two academic references.

For more information on the admissions process, please contact Aimee McNeillie.

The closing date for applications is 12 noon, Friday 6 July 2018. 

Shortlisted candidates will be invited for interview in the week beginning 9 July 2018. Support will be provided for travel within the UK. We regret that we may not be able to respond to all applications. Applicants who have not received an offer by 30 July 2018 should consider their application has been unsuccessful.