What controls rock falls in desert environments? Investigating the role of climate, seismicity and lithology on rock fall hazard and risk


To apply please use the online application form. Simply search for PhD Geological Sciences (and select the entry point of October 2023), then clearly state that you are applying for a PhD studentship and name the project at the top of your personal statement.

Online application

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Director of Studies: Dr Sarah Boulton
2nd Supervisor: Dr Martin Stokes
3rd Supervisor: Dr Michael Whitworth (michael.whitworth@aecom.com), AECOM
4th Supervisor: Dr Joshua Jones (joshua.jones@aecom.com), AECOM
5th Supervisor: Dr Derek Fabel (derek.fabel@glasgow.ac.uk), SUERC
Applications are invited for a 3.5 years PhD studentship. The studentship will start on 01 October 2023.
Project description

Landslides and rock falls are a global hazard, posing significant risk to infrastructure and populations (1). Yet it is still not possible effectively predict the location of future landslides (2). This is especially true in arid desert environments where limited information exists on the frequency and trigger mechanisms of such failures. For example, rock falls have been attributed to both climatic (3) and seismic (4) triggers but in many regions it is not clear what causes slope instability owing to a lack of spatial and temporal control on the deposits. Without such constraints, it is not possible to effectively develop hazard and risk strategies for regions where there is increasing pressure from development and climate change such as in the Middle East and parts of the US. This project will investigate this knowledge gap by comparing the Al Ula (Saudi Arabia) and Wadi Rum regions (Jordan). These are both UNESCO world heritage sites undergoing intense tourism-related development that have significant rock fall hazard, but where the driving mechanism causing observed collapses is unknown (5). 
Research methodology
The project will combine remote sensing, field observations and dating methods using cosmogenic isotopes (10Be/14C) and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) to build a database of significant rock falls in the study regions. Remotely sensed and field data will determine distributions, volumes, runout distances and timings of rock falls.  These data will provide inputs for spatial analysis and modelling rock fall trajectories, identifying areas of particular density and concern. Collectively, data will test hypotheses for the different mechanisms causing rock fall triggering, therefore contributing to global efforts to understand better mass-wasting dynamics in a changing world.
The individual will join a team of international experts who will deliver training in remote sensing and GIS, field geomorphic techniques (geomorphic mapping, TruPulse, DGPS/drone surveys), engineering geology methodologies (slope stability, rock strength assessment, landslide susceptibility), dating (sample collection, preparation and geochemistry) as well as generic research skills. 
Person specification
We are looking for a candidate who is confident in undertaking fieldwork abroad and can integrate data from different geological disciplines.  A geoscience degree is desirable.
Funding notes
This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1 October 2023.
Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship for 3.5 years, covering fees, stipend (£17,668 p.a. for 2022-23 rate) and research funding. International applicants (EU and non-EU) are eligible for fully-funded UKRI studentships.
ARIES students benefit from bespoke graduate training and £2,500 for external training, travel and conferences.
ARIES is committed to equality, diversity, widening participation and inclusion. Academic qualifications are considered alongside non-academic experience. Our recruitment process considers potential with the same weighting as past experience.
For information and full eligibility visit https://www.aries-dtp.ac.uk/.
Please clearly state the name of the studentship project code BOULTON_P23ARIES that you are applying for on your personal statement.
Please see our 'how to apply for a research degree' page for a list of supporting documents to upload with your application.
If you wish to discuss this project further informally, please contact Dr Sarah Boulton.
For more information on the admissions process generally, please contact research.degree.admissions@plymouth.ac.uk.
The closing date for applications is 23:59 (UK Time) 11 January 2023. 


1.Jones, J.N., Stokes, M., Boulton, S.J., Bennett, G.L., Whitworth, M.R.Z., 2020.Ongoing coseismic and post-earthquake landslide impacts on remote trekkinginfrastructure, Langtang Valley, Nepal. Quarterly Journal of EngineeringGeology and Hydrology. 53 (2), 159-166.

2.Jones, J. N., Boulton, S. J., Bennett, G. L., Stokes, M., & Whitworth, M.R. Z., 2021. Temporal Variations in Landslide Distributions Following ExtremeEvents: Implications for Landslide Susceptibility Modeling. Journal ofGeophysical Research: Earth Surface, 126(7). doi:10.1029/2021jf006067

3.Dorn, R. I. (2014). Chronology of rock falls and slides in a desert mountainrange: Case study from the Sonoran Desert in south-central Arizona.Geomorphology, 223, 81-89.

4.Rinat, Y., Matmon, A., Arnold, M., Aumaître, G., Bourlès, D., Keddadouche, K.,Porat, N., Morin, E., Finkel, R. (2014). Holocene rockfalls in the southernNegev Desert, Israel and their relation to Dead Sea fault earthquakes.Quaternary Research, 81(2), 260-273. doi:10.1016/j.yqres.2013.12.008.

5.Gallego, J. I., Margottini, C., Spizzichino, D., Boldini, D., & Abul, J. K.(2022). Geomorphological processes and rock slope instabilities affecting theAl Ula archaeological region. In Geotechnical Engineering for the Preservationof Monuments and Historic Sites III (pp. 456-466). CRC Press.