PhD Opportunity: Queen’s University Belfast

PhD opportunity in the “Development of multi-disciplinary tools for the assessment of permafrost degradation on road transport infrastructure” at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.


In our changing world, there’s a pressing need to embrace ‘smart’ technologies and approaches to predict how infrastructure will perform under environmental change. Transport infrastructure in circumpolar regions is particularly at risk from climate change; here ongoing changes in ground ice extent and associated hydrological fluctuations are directly impacting highways and other structures (e.g. via subsidence, cracking).Although of relatively simple design, remote northern highways are often of high socio-economic importance, forming the backbone of regional supply systems and vital transportation corridors for isolated indigenous communities. Assessment of transport infrastructure risk in these areas is limited, however, by a lack of understanding of permafrost-infrastructure interactions, especially vulnerable highways constructed on peat and other hydrologically sensitive substrates. To limit future damage and inform management and planning, integrated monitoring tools are urgently required that can effectively assess infrastructure damage and its causes across large remote areas.


to develop a novel set of multi-disciplinary tools to aid in the monitoring and assessment of climate-induced permafrost degradation on road transport infrastructure, with reference to the taiga forest peatlands of the Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada.

Key objectives:

  • To use vegetation survey and palaeoecological techniques to determine the character, rates and impacts of recent (last 50-100 year) permafrost degradation on sensitive roadside peatlands;
  • to apply state-of-the-art visual change detection technologies (remote and field-based) to evaluate the impacts of the inferred hydrological changes on highway infrastructure;
  • To further assess the impacts of permafrost degradation via analysis of land-cover, climate, ecological and other datasets and hydrological modelling;
  • To thereby develop a new multidisciplinary framework for examining the resilience of vulnerable northern transport infrastructure to climate change and to inform future mitigation practices.

Study area:

The project will focus on a series of strategically important highways in the central NWT which are vulnerable to ground-ice decay and accelerated hydrological change, as indicated by localised peat recession, recent vegetation changes and regular highway maintenance interventions.


Established palaeohydrological techniques, particularly analysis of sensitive plant and other fossil remains preserved in short peat cores, will be used to provide insights into permafrost dynamics at highway-proximal peatland sites. Road-side vegetation surveys will further aid in understanding hydrological changes and their impacts on highway substrates. State-of-the art ‘drive-by’ (vehicle-mounted) and ‘fly-by’ (drone-mounted) digital survey techniques will be used to elucidate the impacts of permafrost wastage on road infrastructure, including thermal-imaging techniques that can detect damage invisible to the naked eye, and aid in developing risk models.


The successful applicant will receive training in a broad suite of analytical techniques from the supervisors and wider advisory team (including palaeo-ecological/hydrological reconstruction, field surveys, image capture and data processing). They will join a vibrant and diverse interdisciplinary research community in QUB School of Natural and Built Environment, and will interact with biologists, geoscientists and civil engineers within the wider QUADRAT DTP student network. Prospective applicants should have a strong grounding in physical geography, ecology/palaeoecology, environmental engineering or a related subject at undergraduate and/or Masters level and some experience in (geo)statistics or GIS.

Candidate background:

Minimum of a strong upper second class (2.1) degree (completed or in the final stages of completion) in physical geography, ecology/palaeoecology, environmental or civil engineering, or a related subject at undergraduate and/or Masters level and some experience in (geo)statistics or GIS. The student should be willing to undertake fieldwork (surveys, sampling) in northern Canada and embrace the challenges of multi-disciplinary learning.

Eligibility and how to apply:

Funding Information:

This QUADRAT studentship is open to UK candidates (and EU candidates with settled or pre settled status). Candidates from the Republic of Ireland will also be eligible providing they meet residency requirements. Funding covers:

  • A monthly stipend for accommodation and living costs, based on UKRI rates (£18,622 for the 23/24 academic year)
  • Fees (home rate tuition fees only)
  • Research and training costs

Mode of study:

Full-time: 3 years


Prof. Helen Roe (

Application deadline:

7 June 2023