Natural Adaptive Capability of Coral Reef Islands to Sea-level Rise and Implications for Future Human Occupation


Natural Adaptive Capability of Coral Reef Islands to Sea-level Rise and Implications for Future Human Occupation


Project Description


Professor Gerd Masselink (School of Biological and Marine Sciences, University of Plymouth) contact me

Professor Tim Scott (School of Biological and Marine Sciences, University of Plymouth)

Professor Paul Kench (Department of Earth Sciences, Simon Fraser University)

Dr Curt Storlazzi (USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Centre)

Project Background

It is a widespread expectation that sea-level rise will render low-lying islands formed on coral reef platforms uninhabitable within decades due to increased flooding. Such projections are largely founded on assumptions that islands are geologically inert landforms, whereas in reality they have the ability to morphologically respond to changing sea levels. Specifically, overwash processes can raise the island crest level, implying that islands are dynamic and will not drown in place. Such change in perception has implications for how reef island communities can adapt to climate change. This project will investigate this natural adaptation of coral reef islands to sea-level rise.

Small-scale laboratory experiments will be conducted to investigate how coral reef islands adapt to sea-level rise. The physical model results will be used to validate a morphodynamic numerical model which will be used to further explore the relevant factors controlling island adaption. Informed by fieldwork in the Maldives, the numerical model will be used to evaluate, for different sea-level and wave climate scenarios, the future trajectories of several coral reef island types. Finally, the societal implications of these trajectories will be assessed and human adaptation strategies will be explored.


The successful candidate will be part of the Coastal Processes Research Group, an internationally recognised group of researchers, specialising in field studies and numerical modelling of coastal processes. This PhD project provides the opportunity to gain a range of advanced skills as the project includes small-scale physical modelling in a state-of-the-art engineering laboratory, advanced numerical modelling and field surveys on a reef island. The PhD candidate will also spend a significant amount of time with the external partners, further augmenting their knowledge and skills. By the end of the project, the PhD candidate should be imminently employable as a post-doctoral researcher or a high-level coastal/marine adviser in a GO, NGO or consultancy.

Person Specification

We are seeking a PhD candidate with a background in marine science, physical geography, geology or coastal engineering, and with strong numeracy, communication and inter-personal skills, and with a strong affinity for the marine environment. Numerical modelling expertise is desirable.


  • 1. Masselink, G., Beetham, E. and Kench, P., 2020. Coral reef islands can accrete vertically in response to sea-level rise. Science Advances, 4, eaap9741.
  • 2. McCall, R.T., Poate, T.G., Masselink, G. Roelvink, J.A., Almeida, L.P., Davidson, M. and Russell, P.E., 2014. Modelling storm hydrodynamics on gravel beaches with XBeach-G. Coastal Engineering, 91, 231-250.
  • 3. Storlazzi, C.D. et al., 2018. Most atolls will be uninhabitable by the mid-21st century because of sea-level rise exacerbating wave-driven flooding, Science Advances, 4, eaap9741.
  • 4. Tuck, M., Kench, P., Ford, M. and Masselink, G., 2019. Physical modelling of the response of reef islands to sea level rise. Geology, 47, 803-806.
  • 5. Winter, G., Storlazzi, C., Vitousek, S., van Dongeren, A., McCall, R., Hoeke, R., Skirving, W., Marra, J., Reyns, J., Aucan, J., Widlansky, M., Becker, J., Perry, C., Masselink, G., Lowe, R., Ford, M., Pomeroy, A., Mendez, F., Rueda, A. and Wandres, M., 2020. Steps to Develop Early Warning systems and future scenarios of storm wave-driven flooding along coral reef-lined coasts. Frontiers in Marine Science, 31.

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1st October 2021. The closing date for applications is 23:59 on 12th January 2021.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship, which covers fees, stipend (£15,285 p.a. for 2020-21) and research funding. For the first time in 2021/22 international applicants (EU and non-EU) will be eligible for fully-funded UKRI studentships. Please note ARIES funding does not cover visa costs (including immigration health surcharge) or other additional costs associated with relocation to the UK.
  • ARIES students benefit from bespoke graduate training and ARIES provides £2,500 to every student for access to external training, travel and conferences. Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines with limited experience in environmental sciences may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take advanced-level courses in the subject area.
  • ARIES is committed to equality, diversity, widening participation and inclusion in all areas of its operation. We encourage enquiries and applications from all sections of the community regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation and transgender status. Academic qualifications are considered alongside significant relevant non-academic experience.
  • All ARIES studentships may be undertaken on a part-time or full-time basis, visa requirements notwithstanding
  • For further information, please contact the supervisor. To apply for this Studentship click on the “Apply now” link below.

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