PhD on the Ecological Limits to Global Groundwater Use (1.0 FTE)

Updated: 4 months ago

PhD on the Ecological Limits to Global Groundwater Use (1.0 FTE)

Job description What will you be doing?
In many areas of the world, groundwater is overexploited, leading to the depletion of groundwater volumes in aquifers and the associated decline of groundwater levels and groundwater fluxes to streams, lakes and wetlands. This, in turn, leads to the loss and deterioration of groundwater-dependent aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and associated biodiversity. You will assess the impact of groundwater extraction on groundwater-dependent ecosystems (GDEs) worldwide and, for the first time, map the ecological limits of groundwater use. To this end, you will first map the global extent of GDEs using groundwater levels and groundwater discharge estimates from a state-of-the-art global hydrological model aided with remote sensing information. You will then use global biodiversity monitoring datasets to assess species richness as a function of the size (extent, volume or discharge) of the mapped GDEs. Finally, you will use simulated groundwater levels and discharge from the global hydrological model to estimate past and future changes in the size and species richness of GDEs and to assess ecological limits of groundwater extraction. You will also attempt to estimate the negative effects of groundwater use on GDE-status in terms of economic losses through ecosystem services. You will work closely together with two postdocs, who are responsible for advancing the global hydrological model, and with two PhD candidates who will assess the physical and economic limits to groundwater use.
Qualifications What are we looking for?
As part of the ERC Advanced Grant project GEOWAT, we are looking for an enthusiastic PhD candidate who is interested in applying ecological theory and models to assess the ecological limits to global groundwater use. You have an interest in global water, biodiversity and sustainability challenges and are enthusiastic about working with large datasets and models. You are a team player and will be part of a multidisciplinary team of two postdocs, three PhD students, and scientific and technical support staff. Together with the team, you will work on assessing the global volumes of fresh groundwater that are physically, ecologically and economically attainable for human water use and investigate how these volumes can be extracted in a sustainable manner. Your specific focus will be to quantify the rates of ecologically sustainable groundwater use under climate and socio-economic change.
We are looking for a candidate:
  • with a MSc degree in ecology, hydroecology, environmental biology, ecosystem modelling or a related field;
  • with demonstrable enthusiasm for working with large datasets and broad-scale ecosystem models in the context of global change;
  • who is familiar with environmental aspects related to the exploitation of natural resources, preferably those concerning water, or willing to acquire and deepen this knowledge;
  • who is well familiar with a scripting or programming language (e.g., Python, R, Fortran, C++);
  • the willingness and ability to work in multi-disciplinary teams;
  • with English oral and writing skills; you should be able to demonstrate English language proficiency. We require a qualification English at C1 level (comparable to level 3 of the Lecturer Assessment Grid) or you should be willing to obtain this level by training;
  • with the willingness to start 1 September 2022.

PhD candidates at Utrecht University are expected to follow courses as part of their own academic development and to assist in teaching courses at Bachelor's and Master's level at our faculty. Both activities amount to approximately 10% of the contracted time.


You will be offered a temporary position (1.0 FTE), initially for one year with an extension to a total of four years upon a successful assessment in the first year, and with the specific intent that it results in a doctorate within this period. The gross salary ranges between €2,443 in the first year and €3,122 in the fourth year of employment (scale P according to the Collective Labour Agreement Dutch Universities) per month for a full-time employment. Salaries are supplemented with a holiday bonus of 8% and a year-end bonus of 8.3% per year. In addition, Utrecht University offers excellent secondary conditions, including an attractive retirement scheme, (partly paid) parental leave and flexible employment conditions (multiple choice model). For more information: working at Utrecht University .

About the organization

A better future for everyone. This ambition motivates our scientists in executing their leading research and inspiring teaching. At Utrecht University , the various disciplines collaborate intensively towards major societal themes. Our focus is on Dynamics of Youth, Institutions for Open Societies, Life Sciences and Sustainability.


Utrecht University's Faculty of Geosciences studies the Earth: from the Earth's core to its surface, including man's spatial and material utilisation of the Earth - always with a focus on sustainability and innovation. With 3,400 students (BSc and MSc) and 720 staff, the faculty is a strong and challenging organisation. The Faculty of Geosciences is organised in four Departments: Earth Sciences, Human Geography & Spatial Planning, Physical Geography, and Sustainable Development.

The Department of Physical Geography excels in research and education on BSc, MSc and PhD level. Our research focuses on processes, patterns and dynamics of the Earth’s continental and coastal systems, and on the interaction between these processes. This knowledge is essential for the sustainable management of our planet and to guarantee the availability of resources for the next generations. 
About the GEOWAT project
The ERC AdG project GEOWAT stands for 'The Global Assessment of the Limits of Groundwater Use'. It is a €2.5 million 5-year research project, funded by the European Research Council under the Advanced Grant scheme. 
Summary: Population growth and economic development have dramatically increased the demand for food and water. The resulting expansion of agriculture into areas with limited precipitation and surface water has greatly increased the reliance on groundwater irrigation. Furthermore, urban groundwater use has risen exponentially to meet the ever-increasing population growth of mega-cities. These trends have resulted in a dramatic rise in groundwater pumping and associated high rates of aquifer depletion around the globe. The depletion of our world’s aquifers is unsustainable and will eventually impact the food security of future generations. Also, groundwater depletion results in severe environmental impacts such as land subsidence, groundwater salinisation, and damage to groundwater-dependent ecosystems. Despite decades of research on groundwater overuse, knowledge on attainable groundwater reserves and the critical time horizons of their depletion is completely lacking.
GEOWAT takes the giant leap to extractable volumes and depletion horizons by answering the obvious question that has been avoided thus far: How much groundwater is there and how long will it last? To this end, GEOWAT will build the first high-resolution global groundwater model supported with a 3D-mapping of the world’s aquifers. GEOWAT will use these unique modelling tools, in combination with dedicated case studies, to assess, for the first time, the global volume of physically and economically extractable fresh groundwater, and determine the time to physical and economic depletion under future pumping. It will also provide the first global assessment of the effects of groundwater pumping on groundwater-dependent ecosystems and explore pathways to sustainable groundwater use. As such, GEOWAT will provide critically-needed new knowledge to address one of the most pressing challenges that mankind will face: how to sustainably manage the freshwater resources needed to survive on this planet.
Research design: GEOWAT is organised into six inter-related work packages (WPs) executed by six scientists (including the PI), a research assistant and one model engineer. The backbone of the research approach (WP1 – This Postdoc 1) is the creation of a high-resolution 30 arc-second (~1 km) physically-based, global-scale surface water - groundwater model (GLAM). To support this model, we will develop a 30 arc-second hydrogeological schematisation (HYGS) of the world’s aquifers that consists of aquifer and aquitard thicknesses and their hydraulic properties. The HYGS will use a novel combination of new and existing global datasets, machine learning and data-assimilation (WP2 – Postdoc 2). The GLAM and HYGS will then be used to address the key scientific objectives:
  • to estimate past, current, and future volumes of fresh groundwater globally (physical limits, WP4; PhD 1);
  • to assess the volume of groundwater that can be extracted, including costs and benefits and assess pathways to sustainable use (economic limits, WP5; PhD 2);
  • and to assess how extraction strategies impact the extent and biodiversity of groundwater-dependent ecosystems (ecological limits, WP6; PhD3).

The results of all WPs will be synthesized into one multi-faceted assessment of the limits of groundwater use. To assess the accuracy of these results, we will use a three-pillar strategy: 
  • global analyses will be grounded on regional case studies in four depletion hotspots (WP3);
  • results will be evaluated against hydrogeological datasets, including regional groundwater models;
  • uncertainty assessment will be integral to our approach, including all relevant sources of uncertainty.

  • Additional information For more information about this position, please contact:
    Marc Bierkens (Professor), via  or
    Michelle van Vliet (Associate Professor), via
    Apply Everyone deserves to feel at home at our university. We welcome employees with a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives. To apply, please send your curriculum vitae, including a letter of motivation and the names of at least two referees (with e-mail contact addresses and phone numbers) via the ‘apply’ button below.
    Interviews will be held in June, either in person or via video call. Expected starting date will be 1 September 2022.

    The application deadline is 15/06/2022
    View or Apply

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