Postgraduate Diary

Fiona Thompson is studying the effect of climate change on Scotland's rivers

While many parts of the UK have had one of the driest starts to the year on record, reservoirs in other parts of the British Isles are well served by rain. In fact, away from the arid South-east, a different problem is occupying academic minds, namely predicting the detailed effects on river flows caused by the increased amounts of rainfall.

In particular, in Scotland, authorities are trying to gather more scientific evidence to increase their knowledge about when a river might burst its banks at times of heavy rain.

And that's what has led research student Fiona Thompson to spend much of her time wading across rivers, carrying a sophisticated GPS device, and recording information about the depth and contours of the river bed.

"I have always wanted to work with rivers," says Thompson, 25, who is in the middle of a PhD at Stirling University on the "morphological adjustment and societal response to channel instability resulting from increased flood frequency in Scotland" – or, put simply, "the effect of climate change on Scottish river channels".

"I've liked rivers since high school, because they have a personality of their own. So if man tries to control them by straightening a channel, for example, the river fights back by depositing more sediment downstream and thus increasing flood risk to lower reaches."

The PhD is jointly funded by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) and Scottish National Heritage, an arrangement that represents more than just a financial advantage for Thompson.

"Since it's funded by SEPA," she explains, "you know you are working on something that might make a big difference."

Unlike many postgraduates, Thompson is not part of a team within a research group, but works alone, albeit under the guiding eye of her supervisor. And much of the time, she's out walking down and across the River Dee. "I am trying to validate a model that has been produced by SEPA, and to do that I have to do field work. So a lot of my time is spent wading across rivers, in high boots, or dry suits, measuring the width of channel, and the slope of the river bed. From that I can draw a series of cross sections of the channel, which in turn helps calculate the capacity of water it can carry without bursting its banks."

The second strand of her PhD – involving that phrase "societal response" – concentrates on how swollen rivers might affect Scotland's native mussel colonies.

"I do flume work in the laboratory to investigate the threshold flow and velocity at which mussels can no longer remain on the river bed and get flushed to downstream reaches," she explains. In her PhD, she'll be concentrating on just two rivers, but with the intention of extrapolating her findings to make predictions for all Scottish water courses.

Another reason Thompson is enjoying being a postgraduate student is that she'll be getting the chance to compete in an athletics event in the Olympic Stadium in London. As an accomplished runner, she's got a place to compete in the 1500m event at the annual British Universities and Colleges athletics championships, which are being staged in London next month in front of a crowd of tens of thousands of people. Usually the event takes place at far more modest venues.

So, for the next couple of weeks at least, her mind will transfer from river bed behaviour in Scotland to preparing to run on the same track that Usain Bolt and Jessica Ennis will grace later this year. "How many people can say they've run in an arena of this kind," she asks?

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