PhD Studentship, Dept. of Geography

PhD Studentship, Department of Geography

Cloud cover and radiation balance changes over Ireland due to aircraft-induced contrails

Following the award of an EPA PhD studentship, the Geography Department is seeking to appoint a suitably qualified applicant for a doctoral studentship for three years commencing on or near 1st January 2008. The studentship covers university fees at the EU level, and an annual stipend of €15,000.

Resolving the processes and effects of climate change is recognised as one of the most significant problems facing environmental scientists today. Modelling cloud cover and mapping its current temporal and spatial distribution are acknowledged to present one of the greatest uncertainties in understanding changes in the atmosphere and their subsequent effects on life on Earth. Measurements show a recent decrease in annual sunshine hours over Ireland and commensurate increase in cloud cover, which may be related to a rise in aircraft traffic. The net effect of cloudier skies is unclear, however, as clouds reflect energy from the sun back into space, but they also trap heat radiated from the surface, especially at night. Whether the warming or cooling effect predominates depends on the type and height of clouds. Satellite imagery remains the only way in which cloud cover can be assessed on a global and regional spatial scale, over both contemporary and historic timescales. Using optical and thermal satellite data the current and former contribution of contrails to Irish cloud cover will be investigated further. Atmospheric properties from meteorological data will be analysed to better understand the conditions under which contrails develop. Knowledge of the nature and longevity of these high level clouds over Ireland will then allow an estimate to be made of their contribution to regional atmospheric warming.

The key questions that will be addressed by this research are:

  • can multiple sources of satellite imagery be combined in order to identify the contribution of, and changes in, persistent aircraft contrails to cloud cover over Ireland?
  • can ground-based observations and radiosonde information be combined with satellite data to provide a more comprehensive indication of the atmospheric conditions that promote persistence of aircraft contrails?
  • can an estimate be made of the contribution of contrail-induced cloud cover to the overall heat budget and potential regional atmospheric warming in Ireland?

The student will be based in the Geography Department of UCC, but will also work with Met Éireann learning how to make and interpret meteorological readings. There is also the possibility of being able to spend some time working with a co-supervisor in the UK.

Applicants should have a minimum of a 2:1 Honours degree or equivalent, or an MSc. Experience in remote sensing, quantitative environmental science, atmospheric physics, or computational techniques and programming would be an advantage.

For further information or informal discussion about the position please contact the supervisor Dr Fiona Cawkwell (e-mail:, telephone: +353 (0)21 490 2707).

Applicants should send a copy of their CV, with the names and addresses of 3 referees, plus a brief statement outlining their academic interests and their reasons for wishing to undertake this research project to Fiona Cawkwell (

Closing date for applications is 21st September 2007 .

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