PhD: Glacial-Interglacial environmental changes in the permafrost region of Northern Mongolia 

Northumbria University

Newcastle upon Tyne, UK 🇬🇧


Despite challenges related to highly variable climate and contrasting landscapes Central Asia hosted major crossroads for the prehistoric human dispersal. Harsh environmental conditions prompted dynamic adaptations of humans migrating through this huge and often mountainous region (Vanwezer et al. 2021). Recently Central Asia has been strongly affected by rapid climate change, in particular altered precipitation seasonality and temperature extremes adversely affect local population and ecosystems. Global warming threatens permafrost cover (one of 14 globally recognised tipping elements, Lenton et al. 2008) in the northern Central Asia, further increasing the risk of CO2 rise and positive climate feedbacks.

Caves are unique archives combing records of human and environmental past. These natural shelters witnessed migrations and occupation of multiple generations of humans (Vanwezer et al. 2021) and climate changing on millennial-to-decadal scales (Breitenbach et al. 2019). Cave carbonates, e.g., stalagmites, form only when fluid water reaches the cave, and they stop growing when the region is too arid or when the ground above the cave is covered by permafrost (Vaks et al. 2021). Stalagmites contain valuable information on the past precipitation and temperature regime, vegetation dynamics and even wildfires frequency and are the most reliably and precisely datable climate archives.

This PhD project focusses on reconstructing climatic and environmental scenery for human migrations during warm interglacial periods, and the Holocene. You will work with stalagmite samples collected with our colleagues from the Mongolian Academy of Science in northern Mongolia.

You will first date the samples and establish temporal constrains for the disappearance/ re-establishments of continuous permafrost in northern Mongolia; this work will be conducted at Oxford University. You will then use stable isotopes, element ratios, and potentially biomarkers to build a multi-proxy timeseries of past environmental changes. The established palaeoenvironmental reconstruction will constitute a cornerstone helping archaeologists in evaluating human migration across the region. You will be supported by an international team of experts in palaeoclimatology, archaeology, and meteorology. This project presents a great opportunity for candidate interested in trans-disciplinary and transformative science.

We are looking for an enthusiastic, well-organised and highly motivated candidate with a strong background in environmental sciences and climate change. Experience in chemistry or physics would be advantageous but are not mandatory.

You will receive training in relevant methods in state-of-the-art laboratories at Northumbria University and have the opportunity to work closely with experts at leading institutions, including Oxford University, Johannes-Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany, and the Academy of Sciences of Mongolia.

This PhD project offers unique opportunities for training in frontier geochemical techniques and multi-proxy-based palaeoclimatology. Our international team will provide networking and dissemination activities through online and face-to-face meetings and conferences, but also field and laboratory training.

Academic Enquiries

This project is supervised by Sebastian Breitenbach and Ola Kwiecien. For informal queries, please contact For all other enquiries relating to eligibility or application process please use the email form below to contact Admissions. 

Funding Information

Home and International students (inc. EU) are welcome to apply. The studentship is available to Home and International (including EU) students and includes a full stipend at UKRI rates (for 2022/23 full-time study this is £17,668 per year) and full tuition fees. Studentships are also available for applicants who wish to study on a part-time basis over 5 years (0.6 FTE, stipend £10,600 per year and full tuition fees) in combination with work or personal responsibilities).  

Please also see further advice below of additional costs that may apply to international applicants.

Eligibility Requirements:

  • Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above); or APEL evidence of substantial practitioner achievement.
  • Appropriate IELTS score, if required.
  • Applicants cannot apply for this funding if they are already a PhD holder or if currently engaged in Doctoral study at Northumbria or elsewhere.

Please note: to be classed as a Home student, candidates must meet the following criteria:

  • Be a UK National (meeting residency requirements), or
  • have settled status, or
  • have pre-settled status (meeting residency requirements), or
  • have indefinite leave to remain or enter.

If a candidate does not meet the criteria above, they would be classed as an International student.  Applicants will need to be in the UK and fully enrolled before stipend payments can commence, and be aware of the following additional costs that may be incurred, as these are not covered by the studentship.

  • Immigration Health Surcharge
  • If you need to apply for a Student Visa to enter the UK, please refer to the information on It is important that you read this information very carefully as it is your responsibility to ensure that you hold the correct funds required for your visa application otherwise your visa may be refused.
  • Check what COVID-19 tests you need to take and the quarantine rules for travel to England
  • Costs associated with English Language requirements which may be required for students not having completed a first degree in English, will not be borne by the university. Please see individual adverts for further details of the English Language requirements for the university you are applying to.

How to Apply

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see

For applications to be considered for interview, please include a research proposal of approximately 1,000 words and the advert reference (e.g. RDF23/…).

Deadline for applications: 27 January 2023

Start date of course: 1 October 2023 tbc

Northumbria University is committed to creating an inclusive culture where we take pride in, and value, the diversity of our doctoral students. We encourage and welcome applications from all members of the community. The University holds a bronze Athena Swan award in recognition of our commitment to advancing gender equality, we are a Disability Confident Employer, a member of the Race Equality Charter and are participating in the Stonewall Diversity Champion Programme. We also hold the HR Excellence in Research award for implementing the concordat supporting the career Development of Researchers.


Baldini et al. (2021) Quaternary Science Reviews 254, 106784, doi: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2020.106784
Breitenbach et al. (2019) Global Planetary Change 176, 146-161, doi: 10.1016/j.gloplacha.2019.03.007
Dashtseren et al. (2021) Frontiers in Earth Science 9, 713498, doi: 10.3389/feart.2021.713498
Fairchild & Baker (2012) Speleothem Science, Wiley
Kwiecien et al. (2022) Earth-Science Reviews 225, 103843, doi: 10.1016/j.earscirev.2021.103843
Lenton et al. (2009) PNAS 105, 1786-1793, doi: 10/1073/pnas.0705414105
Vaks et al. (2021) Nature 577, 221-225, doi: 10.1038/s41586-019-1880-1
Vanwezer et al. (2021) Quaternary International 586, 66-89, doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2021.03.010





IHE Delft MSc in Water and Sustainable Development