School of Earth and Environment

Sustainability Research (SRI) PhD Projects

Participatory climate modeling, ethnoclimatology, and human health in the Arctic

Supervisors: Professor James Ford (Leeds), Dr Sherilee Harper (Alberta) 

A collaborative project between the University of Leeds Priestley International Centre for Climate, and University of Alberta, School of Public Health (Canada) 

Fully-funded 3 year PhD, including full tuition fees, tax-free stipend (£14,777 for 2018/19), and research training and support grant. 

Contact James Ford to discuss the project: j.ford2(at)  

Application deadline:  31 October 2018 

PhD start date: 1 January 2019 (or negotiable)

Summary of this PhD project
The Arctic is undergoing transformative climate change, with profound implications for transportation systems. The lengthening of the shipping season in the Arctic Ocean is well-documented herein, with warming temperatures also compromising the operating period and safety of winter roads. Less studied are the more informal transportation networks involving use of unmaintained trails on frozen lakes, rivers, ocean, and the frozen ground, which are critically important for travel between communities, to cultural sites, and for practicing traditional hunting and fishing activities which have particular importance for Indigenous communities. In research conducted as part of the Indigenous Health Adaptation to Climate Change (IHACC) project (, we have documented concerns among Inuit communities that changing trail access due to climate change is affecting a variety of health outcomes including compromising food security, impacting wellbeing, and reducing physical safety. With the Arctic projected to experience the most warming globally this century, these impacts could worsen considerably. Our understanding of potential future vulnerabilities is limited, however, with research examining associations between changing trail access and health outcomes mostly qualitative and descriptive in nature. 

The PhD project will play a key role in developing and applying a framework to connect Indigenous knowledge (IK) and science to model links between changing trail access due to climate change and health outcomes (either food security, wellness, or physical danger). The framework will use mixed methods to link local experiences, observations, and knowledge into climate language and climate modeling constructs, and will be developed in close collaboration with Inuit communities.   

The objectives of this PhD include: 

1.      Developing a participatory modeling framework to quantify how climate-related conditions affect trail access based on Indigenous Knowledge.

a.      Identify and quantify what climatic thresholds determine trail access for different trail types (e.g. water, ice, land) and types of user (e.g. youth, Elder etc), drawing upon interviews, focus groups, participant observation and cross-referencing with weather station data, satellite imagery of ice conditions, etc. 

b.      Create different models that capture thresholds of trail access for different trail types and users.

c.      Validate model with real time observations of trail access.

d.      Assess trends in trail access over time.

2.      Modeling links between selected health outcome and trail access

a.      For selected health outcome, obtain relevant time-series data.

b.      Examine statistical associations between trail access and health outcomes.

c.      Characterize the lived experience of this weather-trail-health nexus.

3.      Projecting future impacts

a.      Use downscaled GCM data to model how climatic thresholds and associated trail access might be affected at different levels of warming and over different timescales.  

The candidate will be expected to spend considerable time in Inuit communities in northern Canada, and be comfortable working in challenging cross-cultural contexts and climates. They will have strong modeling and/or statistical analysis training and be interested in engaging in a highly interdisciplinary and participatory project.  A background in health is not required. The PhD research will be undertaken within the larger IHACC collaboration. The successful candidate will work closely with team members, and should be interested in international collaborative interdisciplinary research. 

Candidate requirements

The successful candidate will have an excellent academic record, and should be able to demonstrate evidence of engagement with interdisciplinary research, education, and/or work. 

Key attributes include:

  • Previous research experience or a research degree (e.g. undergraduate honours thesis, masters thesis, or dissertation) or equivalent
  • Educational background in: environmental studies/ sciences, geography, sustainability, public health, epidemiology, or similar/equivalent.
  • Minimum UK Upper Second Class Honours (2.1) or equivalent
  • Coursework and familiarity with both quantitative and qualitative methods, with a strong interest in integrating quantitative analysis and community-based qualitative fieldwork
  • An interest in climate change
  • Experience working and/or travelling in Arctic to comparable settings
  • A high degree of self-motivation, initiative, and independence
  • Interpersonal skills enabling comfort and engagement of diverse cultures and peoples
  • Ability to adapt to, and work in, new cultural and development settings
  • Excellent oral and written skills in English