Project Description

A full project description can be found on Find a PhD. Please see below for additional information about this project:

The PhD student will develop skills in passive seismological and hydrogeological data analyses, including data acquisition, processing and interpretation, research presentation, critical reading and writing, field hydrogeology and geophysics, the publication cycle, scientific coding (Matlab, Python), complex data processing and machine learning.

Essential skills

  • GIS

Desired skills

  • Programming skills in Matlab, Python, R etc. are not essential, but will be beneficial

Photos by David Graham Cornwell, Tumisu, and Qimono from Pixabay


David Cornwell

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: David Cornwell
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Geosciences

Ulrich Ofterdinger

Secondary Supervisor:

Profile: Ulrich Ofterdinger
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Natural and Built Environment

Jean-Christophe Comte

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Jean-Christophe Comte
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Geosciences

Additional Supervisor:

Dr. Katrin Löer, University of Aberdeen, (internal)
Dr. Amy Gilligan, University of Aberdeen, (internal)
Prof Chris Gibbins, University of Nottingham, (external)


Blackburn et al., 2021, Hydrogeological controls on the flow regime of an ephemeral temperate stream flowing across an alluvial fan, Journal of Hydrology,

Cassidy et al., 2014, Combining multi-scale geophysical techniques for robust hydro-structural characterisation in catchments underlain by hard rock in post-glacial regions, Journal of Hydrology, vol. 517, pp. 715-731,

Clements & Denolle, 2018. Tracking groundwater levels using the ambient seismic field. Geophysical Research Letters, 45.

Fores et al., 2018, Monitoring saturation changes with ambient seismic noise and gravimetry in a karst environment, Vadose Zone J. 17:170163. https://doi:10.2136/vzj2017.09.0163


A 20-30% increase in global demand of water is expected by 2050 and therefore a comprehensive understanding of groundwater dynamics is essential to achieve and manage a sustained water supply.

The proposed PhD is centred on expanding traditional hydrogeophysical techniques for groundwater detection and monitoring by testing and developing complementary passive ambient noise seismological data acquisition and processing tools in different case study locations. The methodology is established, but it has not been fine-tuned in a broad range of subsurface conditions or comprehensively tested alongside conventional practices.

Traditional non-invasive hydrogeophysical methods such as resistivity and active seismics offer snapshot images of aquifer properties or groundwater conditions at low temporal resolution, which are corroborated with borehole sampling. Deploying seismometers and recording the ambient noise allows changes in groundwater saturation and/or level to be derived by measuring minute variations in subsurface velocity. Perfecting the application of this technology offers a low-cost monitoring solution that will contribute to groundwater management in general, particularly in communities with limited financial resources, but also has applications to groundwater-based energy projects, such as low enthalpy geothermal.

The PhD will, through publication of high-impact research detailing case studies and technique development, demonstrate and promote the effectiveness and enhancement that ambient noise seismology can bring to monitoring of groundwater systems and broader hydrological and geothermal processes.

Proposed Supervision

David Cornwell will lead the project as primary supervisor and draw on the expertise and knowledge of the other seismologists, Amy Gilligan and Katrin Löer, to assist with the seismometer deployment and technical aspects of the data processing. Jean-Christophe Comte, Ulrich Ofterdinger and Chris Gibbins add considerable expertise in hydrology and hydrogeophysics, in addition to detailed knowledge and extensive complementary datasets of the field localities.

Proposed Timetable

Depending on the background skills of the incoming student, the timetable will be approximately:

Year 1
Familiarisation with passive seismology theory, Matlab/Python coding, geological, hydrological and geophysical datasets of the first case study area, literature review, generic and specific research training, deployment of seismometers, setting up codes and preliminary analysis for first case study.

Year 2
Complete analysis of first case study in shallow alluvial conditions, technique refinement, first paper, UK conference presentation.

Year 3
Data acquisition, analysis and interpretation in second case study site in complex hydrogeological and/or geothermal conditions, second paper, international conference presentation.

Year 4
Data acquisition, analysis and interpretation for the third case study site, third paper, international conference presentation.


  • earth-systems
  • environmental-management

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