Building damage due to sinkhole formation after high precipitation events.

A multi-disciplinary research project on advanced modelling of structural, soil and hydrological systems to assess building damage after sinkhole formation to consider fluctuations in precipitation.

Start date

1 September 2021


3 years

Application deadline

Funding source


Funding information

Stipend of £15,285 per year in 2020-21 plus a Research Training and Support budget to cover costs such as conferences, workshops and equipment.


Sinkholes are depressions or hollows in the ground that develop in geological regions with the presence of dissoluble rocks such as carbonate or evaporite rocks at or near the ground surface. These dissolution processes occur at human time scale and its rate is highly influenced by hydrological processes affected by groundwater recharge and rainfall and conduit permeability of the aquifers. Over the last ten years, there is evidence of an unprecedented number of sinkholes developing in countries like the UK after a sustained yearly increase in rainfall or after short term high precipitation events (flash flooding). Climate change results in a higher uncertainty in the rate and spatial heterogeneity of the dissolution processes due to increased variations in rainfall and groundwater recharge. Sinkholes can cause severe structural damage or collapse in buildings and therefore reducing the risk can bring a significant societal and economic benefit to local communities.

Advanced ground numerical models will be developed by the PhD student to provide an enhanced understanding of the acceleration of the dissolution processes in the ground due to high precipitation events leading to sinkhole development. The numerically predicted damage of the ground will be applied to complex structural finite element analyses in order to assess local and global damage in building structures. Such analyses will require careful consideration of material nonlinearities and most importantly it will explore the complex water-soil-structure interaction. The models will be tested against real case scenarios using field data available. You will be working along with a multi-disciplinary supervisory research team from the specialized areas of advanced structural engineering, soil mechanics and hydraulic modelling. In addition, you will work along with Mott MacDonald (Geotechnical and Structural Consultancy Firm) with a strong track record in projects where the assessment of ground movements and impacts on infrastructure assets was critical.

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Numerical modelling will be carried out using the High Performance Computer facilities at University of Surrey. As part of the PhD, you will interact with Mott MacDonald, through a series of short placements at different key stages of the project. This will provide meaningful training on site and analytical geotechnical investigations normally carried out in projects in regions which are prone to sinkhole formation. This training will be complemented by attending advanced postgraduate modules at University of Surrey related to the PhD topic, attending research seminars and keynote lectures from industry and professional bodies representatives. You will have regular contact with your academic and industrial supervisors.

Eligibility criteria

This project would be suitable for students with an engineering related degree (either undergraduate or postgraduate) or equivalent professional experience in engineering. Good numerical or mathematical modelling skills are desirable as well as having a strong drive to engage into different engineering or environmental science disciplines.  

The studentship is available for UK, EU and overseas students. 

IELTS requirements: 6.5 or above (or equivalent) with 6.0 in each individual category.

How to apply

All applications to SCENARIO are made via the University of Reading, whether the projects you are interested in are based at Reading, Surrey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, British Geological Survey or Institute of Zoology.

Choose the PhD projects that interest you most (maximum of 4) and rank your choices in order of interest. Your application is only sent to supervisors for projects where you express an interest, so listing more increases your chances of success. If in doubt, choose 4. There will be limited possibilities to express interest for other projects later in the Admissions process.

Each project description indicates the name and institution of the lead supervisor and has a reference number. You are welcome and encouraged to email the lead supervisors of projects to ask them any questions you may have or to discuss the project.

Main interview day: 10 February 2021

It is likely that our interview day will be an online event but that decision will be made nearer the time based on governmental Coronavirus guidelines.

Civil and Environmental Engineering PhD

Application deadline

Contact details

Juan Sagaseta
31 AA 03
Telephone: +44 (0)1483 686649

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