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Research Masters

Our Masters by Research degree (MRes) provides an opportunity to develop your research expertise and advanced skills. It offers a research-intensive option and the opportunity for you to work within a vibrant, world-leading research environment, often on active projects around the world. Our MRes can be taken to achieve either an MSc or MA and provide a further qualification for a career where independent research skills will set you apart, and it is an excellent option if you are considering a PhD.

The MRes is designed to provide advanced research experience. It emphasises independent but supervised research and you will work closely with at least two supervisors. Your supervisors will support you through each stage in designing and completing an original piece of research. Many of our students go on to publish their work in leading journals.

Take a look at the list of current Masters projects or propose your own to a potential supervisor. Our students study for a minimum of one and maximum of two years to obtain this degree. The MRes is open to any student with a Bachelors degree in a science or social science subject of the required standard (2:1 or 1st class degree). The MRes (MSc or MA) is suitable for students with a science, engineering, social science or an arts background.

See currently available projects:

- The Politics of Urban Life

- FinTech, Global Development and State Building

- Rivers on Ice: How Similar are Supraglacial Channels on Glaciers to Rivers on Land?

- Reconstructing the Paleoseismic History of Northern Cascadia from Salt-Marsh Sediments in Coastal Washington, USA

- Impacts of Freshwater Forcing on the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation: Insights From the Past

- Englacial Architecture and Bedrock Topography of the Southern Antarctic Peninsula

- A Postglacial Sea-Level Database for Alaska

- Reconstructing the late Holocene earthquake and tsunami history of the Alaska-Aleutian Subduction Zone

 - The co-evolution of landscape form and hydrological connectivity

- Evidence for postglacial faulting in lake sediments from South Greenland

- Diffuse pollution, land cover change and marine impacts

- Communicating flood risk

The Politics of Urban Life

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Despite the enduring and potentially indefinite enforced slowing of urban life, urban politics remains not only alive but very pertinent. From the ongoing Honk Kong protest to the proliferating Black Lives Matter movement, the urban continues to be a site of collective enactment and resistance. Uprisings and protests continue in the Middle East a decade after the Arab Spring in cities in Lebanon, Iraq and the Sudan, to name a few. Crowds continue to gather and march through global cities to stage discontent.

In this moment, despite securitization and suppression, cities remain embroiled in contesting injustice, corruption, racism and colonial legacies. What we understand by public appearance and collective action might be shifting, and we are witnessing multiple forms of novel social and material infrastructures, actions of extending care, and attempts at creating urban commons that require reflection.

Against this backdrop, we are interested in supervising projects that seek to respond to the contemporary moment of collective politics in urban space. This entails collective affirmation of demands for decolonisation, justice, enduring and emerging forms of urban protest and mobilization for against racism, policing, and corruption and reimagining urban futures. In this vein, we would be interested in supervising projects that fall at the intersection of political geography and urban geography and that engage legal, architectural, visual and archival methods.

Contact Project Supervisor: Dr Aya Nassar

FinTech, Global Development and State Building

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'FinTech' is the digital platform political economy of retail money and finance. It is increasingly and enthusiastically promoted in global development agendas that prioritise 'financial inclusion' at the 'bottom of the pyramid' (BoP). FinTech, then, is mobilized to 'bank the unbanked', the 40 percent of the global adult population (~1.7 billion people) who do not presently have a formal bank account and lack credit histories and scores. Through a suitable city- and/or country-scale case study, the project will investigate how global developmental agendas that embrace the FinTech sector are received and repurposed for state building in the global South. This could include a research on: city-based policies and initiatives designed to grow key urban centres for FinTech platforms, and to advance state competitiveness in international finance; and/or country-wide programmes to partner with FinTech platforms to collect data about populations, and to advance the surveillance and taxation powers of the state.

Contact Project Supervisor: Prof Paul Langley

A Postglacial Sea-Level Database for Alaska

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Databases of relative sea-level (RSL) data provide constraints for our understanding of a number of processes including glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA), climate-related sea-level oscillations, and the influence of tectonics. These databases are useful tools because they are analysed systematically, which enables the comparison of data that were previously interpreted and analysed via different methods and approaches, including data that were originally collected to answer questions other than RSL histories. The last decade has seen a reinvigoration in the development of such databases (e.g., Khan et al., 2019). However, they are often focused on intermediate- or far-field regions (those areas beyond the extent of glaciation at the Last Glacial Maximum), with fewer examples in formerly glaciated areas (e.g., Vacchi et al., 2018) and little focus on areas that are also complicated by tectonics (e.g., Engelhart et al., 2015). One such area of absence is for the extensive coastline of Alaska, including the Aleutian Islands. In this complex region, there has been extensive collection of datasets to look at topics such as changes in glacial extent and development of palaeoseismic histories that may also provide crucial data to understand the evolution of RSL. Via literature review, this project will compile and systematically analyse potential sea level indicators in Alaska to develop a series of RSL histories. Possible applications of this completed dataset will include improved models of the GIA processes in subduction zones, improved ice sheet histories for Alaska Peninsula ice sheet, and understanding the complex links between GIA and tectonics.

Supervisor Contact: Dr Simon Engelhart

Englacial Architecture and Bedrock Topography of the Southern Antarctic Peninsula

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Radio echo sounding (RES) of the Antarctic ice sheet is a powerful tool for determining the structure of ice beneath the ice surface and for determining ice thickness. It has been widely used to determine topography of the bed beneath the ice sheet, for understanding the deformation history of ice layers, and for finding subglacial lakes. A recently-funded project, led by Professor Mike Bentley, is seeking to drill through the ice to sample bedrock at multiple sites in the southern Antarctic Peninsula. The area where we want to drill has been criss-crossed by many airborne RES surveys in recent years but few of the data have yet been fully analysed.

This project will take the existing data archive and analyse the radar data to determine a detailed map of the bedrock topography in this region, and to investigate the patterns of ice layering in the ice sheet. This information will be used as part of drill-site planning and in providing input to numerical models of the Antarctic ice sheet. Full training will be given in using specialist software analytical tools for radar data; in glaciological interpretation; geomorphological interpretation of bed topography; and in Antarctic ice sheet history. Training and supervision will be provided by Antarctic researchers in Durham, Newcastle and at British Antarctic Survey.

The project can be started at any time. Anyone wanting further details or is interested in applying is encouraged to contact Professor Mike Bentley.

Contact Project Supervisor: Prof Mike Bentley

Impacts of Freshwater Forcing on the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation: Insights From the Past

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Changes in the strength of the deep-water formation in the North Atlantic, also known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), play a key role in regional and global climate. Over the last 60 years melting of Greenland and Arctic ice has increased the flux of freshwater reaching the North Atlantic [Yang et al., 2016]. Controversy remains on whether this continued increase in freshwater fluxes will result in a future collapse or slowdown of the AMOC [Stouffer et al., 2006] although some studies suggest that an AMOC slowdown may already be underway [Thornalley et al., 2018]. Past climate events such as the outbursts of glacial lakes Agassiz and Ojibway around 8.2kyrs ago provide a perfect future analogue to study the response of the AMOC to freshwater forcing. This project aims to use unique decadally resolved marine sediment cores from the North Atlantic to reconstruct the response of the surface and deep ocean to the freshwater changes across the 8.2kyr event. In order to achieve this, the student will use a suite of paleoceanographic proxies including sediment chemical composition, foraminiferal and ice rafted debris counts, and grain size analysis.

Contact Project Supervisor: Dr Paola Moffa-Sanchez

Reconstructing the Paleoseismic History of Northern Cascadia from Salt-Marsh Sediments in Coastal Washington, USA

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Of the major subduction zones worldwide, Cascadia (northern California, USA to British Columbia, Canada) is unique because it has not experienced rupture during the instrumental or regional historical period. A critical step, therefore, towards understanding Cascadia’s rupture patterns, timing and magnitude of strain release is reconstructing - in considerable detail - its paleogeodetic history over at least the past couple of thousand years. Fortunately, Cascadia’s earthquake archive is exceptional due to the continual creation of sediment accommodation space by middle to late Holocene relative sea-level rise of 0.5-2.0mm/yr. Recent work has developed extensive databases of modern microfossil distributions that can be used to develop decimetre-scale reconstructions of subsidence during past great earthquakes at Cascadia (e.g., Kemp et al., 2018) but the primary application of this has been in coastal Oregon with fewer quantitative reconstructions to the north in coastal Washington. This limits our ability to understand deformation during past great and giant earthquakes at Cascadia as the existing datasets often have large vertical errors that limit our ability to choose between different models of past earthquake rupture (e.g., Wang et al., 2013). This project will seek to redress that balance by producing continuous records of environmental change and estimates of co- and inter-seismic land-level changes at potential sites in coastal Washington that could include Johns River, Salt Creek, and the Pysht River (e.g., Shennan et al., 1996). This will primarily utilise salt-marsh foraminifera but could also include diatoms as a secondary proxy.

Contact Project Supervisor: Dr Simon Engelhart

Rivers on Ice: How Similar are Supraglacial Channels on Glaciers to Rivers on Land?

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Supraglacial channels (rivers flowing over ice) are an increasingly common feature of glaciers and ice sheets subjected to a warming climate (Bell et al., 2018; Pitcher and Smith, 2019; Stokes et al., 2019). On mountain glaciers, these channels are important discharge routes for meltwater runoff and may help connect supraglacial to englacial and subglacial meltwater systems, with potential implications for glacier flow. On larger ice sheets and ice shelves, supraglacial channels are typically associated with supraglacial lakes, whose development and drainage can impact on ice sheet mass balance (Bell et al., 2018). However, little is known about how these channels evolve over time, either through a melt season or over much longer time-scales. Superficially, these channels appear to be similar to river channels, but we do not know if they behave and evolve in a similar way.

This project will use remote sensing analysis of freely available data such as Sentinel 2, Landsat 8, Planet and other imagery (e.g. air photographs) to map the planform morphology of channels in different glaciological settings including mountain glaciers, icefields and ice sheets. Timestamped DEMs including the ArcticDEM and Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica will be used to understand changes in response to glacier surface evolution. Depending on the student's interests, channel morphology will be analysed using geomorphometric techniques in a combination of Google Earth Engine, GIS and/or Matlab. These data will be compared quantitatively and statistically against rivers from various tectonic settings around the globe.

Contact Project Supervisor: Dr Rebecca Hodge, Prof Chris Stokes, Dr Stewart Jamieson

Reconstructing the late Holocene earthquake and tsunami history of the Alaska-Aleutian Subduction Zone

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Earthquakes during the 20th century identify that the Alaska-Aleutian subduction zone produces Mw8.5-9.2 earthquakes. However, our knowledge of long-term behaviour (e.g., recurrence intervals) is sparse and fragmentary. Whilst instrumental data can provide short-term snapshots of current locking state, the data is too short to inform us about many of the complications in subduction zones including persistence of rupture boundaries and potential for rupture in areas currently partially locked or creeping. Therefore, the only means for fully understanding subduction zone behaviour is to undertake studies of palaeoseismology (vertical land motion and/or tsunami inundation) that document multiple seismic cycles over thousands of years.

This project will utilise existing core data from coastal sedimentary environments (salt and freshwater marshes, beach ridges) to determine the palaeoseismic and relative sea-level history at a site along the Alaska-Aleutian subduction zone. Microfossils (diatoms, foraminifera, pollen) will be used to interpret the palaeoenvironments within the cores with chronologies developed from radiocarbon and other radionuclides. Potential sites include the Shumagin Islands, Sitkinak Island, or Uyak Bay, Kodiak Island. This project will lead to an improved understanding of the recurrence interval and magnitude of subduction zone earthquakes and/or tsunami inundation. This will be used to refine the seismic hazard map for Alaska. Full training will be provided in sedimentary and microfossil analyses. This work will be conducted in close collaboration with colleagues at the US Geological Survey.

This project can be started at any time. For further details, please contact Dr. Simon Engelhart. This is a funded Research Masters with fees and stipend provided for a UK-based student.

Supervisor Contact: Dr Simon Engelhart

The co-evolution of landscape form and hydrological connectivity

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The route that water and sediment take as they move through catchments is an essential hydrological characteristic: the length of flow paths controls the magnitude and frequency of flood events, patterns of erosion and deposition, and transport of nutrients and pollutants. Flow paths are fundamentally controlled by landscape topography: the differences between hydrological connectivity in different parts of the landscape has been considered (e.g. Lane et al., 2009), but there is currently little understanding of how hydrological connectivity and flood hazard change over long timescales.

This MRes project will use landscape evolution modelling to simulate changing catchment topography through time and its associated controls on the structure of the fluvial network, to understand how flow pathways change over time in different landscapes. The project will analyse the simulated landscape using various connectivity indices, such as the Network Index of hydrological connectivity (Lane et al. 2004) and the Index of Connectivity (Borselli et al. 2008). Following on from this, the project will investigate how changing flow paths in simulated landscape affects the magnitude and frequency of simulated flood events.

Contact Project Supervisors:

Sim Reaney [web]: sim.reaney@durham.ac.uk

Fionna Clubb [web]: fiona.j.clubb@durham.ac.uk

Evidence for postglacial faulting in lake sediments from South Greenland

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As the lithosphere relaxes during deglaciation faults in the crust can be reactivated.  This process is called postglacial faulting.  As the Greenland ice sheet shrank following the end of the last glaciation, it is hypothesised that a 150 km-long fault was reactivated offshore South Greenland around 10.5 ka BP (Steffen et al., 2020), causing an earthquake of magnitude ~8 Mw and potentially a large tsunami.  This event is predicted by crustal modelling but no evidence has yet been found to confirm that it did indeed occur. This project will investigate onshore evidence for the event. First, the student will create a database of lake core records from coastal lakes in South Greenland that may contain evidence from this time period. Second, the student will access lake core material from archives in the UK and Denmark to look for evidence in the lake sediments for shaking caused by an earthquake and sand lenses that may be evidence of a tsunami event.  The project will involve both literature searches and laboratory work (sediment analysis and potentially microfossil analysis) to investigate whether there is any onshore lake evidence for the hypothesised event at ~10.5 ka BP.

Contact Project Supervisors:

Dr Sarah Woodroffe: s.a.woodroffe@durham.ac.uk

Dr Pippa Whitehouse: pippa.whitehouse@durham.ac.uk

 

Diffuse pollution, land cover change and marine impacts

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Agricultural diffuse pollution has been shown to impact freshwater and marine environments and ecosystems. The main constituents of this pollution are sediments, nutrients and microbial pollutions from farming. There are established theoretical frameworks for understanding these exports based around the ‘source-mobilisation-pathway-impact’ and ‘critical source area’ concepts (Heathwaite et al. 2005 and Haygarth et al. 2005).  These frameworks have been encoded with software tools, such as SCIMAP (Reaney et al. 2011) and PSYCHIC.

To date, the majority of the applications of these tools have focused on freshwaters rather than the impacts on the marine environment. Another limitation of the current applications of the concepts is that the mobilising rainfall and land cover maps are often considered to be stationary and fixed in time. This MRes will look at how the use of multiple rainfall and land cover maps enables a more robust assessment of the diffuse pollution source areas. This part of the project will involve the generation of a range of land cover maps from remote sensing projects, such as ESA’s Sentinel 2 or Planet Labs’ PlanetScope, and rainfall maps from NASA’s GPM.  The impacts on marine environments will be assessed for a tropical island, such as Fiji, that has an active agricultural sector, sufficient slopes to drive diffuse pollution and an economy that relies on Ecosystem Services from its marine environment, such as fishing and tourism.

This MRes will provide strong skills in GIS and remote sensing in the context of environmental management. This will be a desk-based study.

Contact Project Supervisor

Sim Reaney: Sim.reaney@durham.ac.uk

Web: https://simreaney.github.io

Reaney, S.M., et al., 2011. Risk-based modelling of diffuse land use impacts from rural landscapes upon salmonid fry abundance. Ecol. Modell. 222, 1016–1029.

Heathwaite, A.L., et al., 2005. Modelling and managing critical source areas of diffuse pollution from agricultural land using flow connectivity simulation. J. Hydrol. 304, 446–461.

Communicating Flood Risk

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As impacts of climate change intensify, flood risk is increasingly part of life in the UK and elsewhere. Yet, ‘risk’ is an inherently complicated concept, and is experienced and perceived unevenly. Risk involves dimensions of vulnerability, hazard, and exposure, each of which is difficult to quantify and compare. Moreover, perceptions of risk are informed as much by lived experience and cultural values as by scientific knowledge and data-driven forecasts. This socio-cultural understanding of risk therefore comes into conflict the with uncertain numerical predictions from hydrological simulation models and can lead to unintended consequences, such as inaction in the face of flood warning.

This project would integrate methods and concepts from human and physical geography to better understand tensions between perceptions of risk, flood communication tools, and management strategies. Using a local case study approach, the study may investigate questions such as:

  • To what extent do flooding forecasts and other forms of data inform understandings of flood risk?
  • How do community members from different demographic groups conceptualise flood risk and use flood risk science differently?
  • How do people situate flood risk in relation to other kinds of risk?
  • How are perceptions of flood risk changing (for example, post-Covid 19)?

The aim of this research is to build a more robust understanding of perceptions of flood risk such that flood risk communication can be better tailored to local and varied needs.  This outcome may take the form of improved flood alert communication within communities, mobile app or web mapping based approaches.

Contact project supervisors:

Dr Jessica Lehman: jessica.lehman@durham.ac.uk

Dr Sim Reaney: sim.reaney@durham.ac.uk