PhD grant: fluxes towards the ocean

University of Antwerp
September 07 2017
Position Type
Full Time
Organization Type

The University of Antwerpen has a vacancy for a PhD grant in the domain of estuarine ecology.

The Faculty of Sciences is seeking to fill a full-time vacancy (m/f) in the Department of Biology for a doctoral student in the area of estuarine management:

PhD grant: Plastic fluxes towards the ocean: contribution of the Schelde estuary

This research project is carried out within the Ecosystem Management Research Group (ECOBE) of the University of Antwerpen. The research of ECOBE concentrates on the ecology of aquatic ecosystems and wetlands and the processes in the land-water interaction along the whole river continuum and the river-coastal sea interaction. The studied systems vary from small streams with riparian margins over larger rivers and floodplains to estuaries. These studies, both descriptive and experimental in nature, are integrated to predict the impact of different management options on the functioning and the biodiversity of the system.

Plastic waste in coastal zones and open sea is an emerging environmental threat. To gain insight in this problem, already several monitoring initiatives exist. Initiatives that collect and describe or classify the plastic waste on beaches help to map the problem and show spatial and temporal trends. By-catch of plastic by commercial fishery or analysis of stomach content of birds are also commonly used techniques to investigate the plastic waste problem in the marine environment.

None of these techniques however is able to quantify plastic fluxes. Where is the plastic waste coming from? To what extend do rivers, also loaded with plastic waste, contribute to the plastic waste stock in the marine environment?

In this research you aim to quantify fluxes of plastic waste on the scale of an entire catchment, from the smaller tributaries to the (estuarine) mouth. Where are the biggest sources of plastic waste? What is the residence time of this waste? Are there sinks of waste within the riverine system? Quantification of the plastic flow through the entire river continuum is essential to elaborate an efficient remediation strategy.   

As a case the Schelde catchment is chosen. It is a relatively small (21.860 km²) and very well documented catchment. Discharge data and bathymetry of the river and all major tributaries are available to calculate water balances or residence times. Existing networks of volunteers and several official monitoring programs (e.g. for water quality, fish, …) can assist, given the right guidance, with the monitoring of plastic waste.

The Schelde catchment is very densely populated (> 350 inhabitants/km²). Major cities, harbors and industrial clusters, such as Antwerpen, Vlissingen or Gent can be found along the Schelde river and its estuary, producing a broad variety of domestical and industrial plastic waste.  In this project we want to quantify the fraction that ends up in the aquatic ecosystem and unravel the pathways this plastic waste can follow. What fraction is removed again (by clean-up actions), how much and also where is plastic waste accumulating within the system, and finally what is the plastic waste flux towards the Nord Sea?

To answer these questions, a monitoring network will be elaborated. At weirs, sluices, water purification plants, … plastic waste is collected. In this way, plastic fluxes of sub-basins can be calculated.  In the major river or estuary, point measurements will be used to estimate fluxes. Severals techniques will be explored: e.g. plastic waste collection as a by-catch in fish monitoring by fykes, at intake points for cooling water, at in locks in the harbor, … Also, similar to the monitoring on beaches,  a protocol for the collection of plastic waste along the shoreline at low water in the Schelde estuary will be elaborated. By coordination of and giving guidance to several volunteer networks that collect plastic waste, a sound data collection can be achieved. Analysis of all data, from source to mouth, will be the basis for a strategy to tackle the plastic waste problem in rivers.

Job Description 

  • You prepare a PhD dissertation in the field of ecosystem management with a focus on plastic waste behaviour.

  • You will cooperate with scientists of ECOBE within the frame of other doctoral and externally funded projects to form an integrated research strategy. You will closely cooperate with the ngo Zero Plastic Rivers, that will assist in the data collection. In addition, you will work together with other "Schelde researchers ", of both Flanders and the Netherlands, and maintain close contacts with the managers of the Schelde estuary such as the Antwerp Harbor.

Profile and requirements

  • You preferably have a Master in Bio-Engineering or Master in Biology. Masters in other scientific disciplines with a strong affinity for this topic are also eligible.

  • You have knowledge of statistics and programming.

  • Knowledge of estuaries is a plus.

  • You are willing to participate in fieldwork campaigns (both planning and work in the field).

  • A (basic) knowledge GIS (ArcGIS , QGIQ , ENVI ... ) is a plus.

  • You are communicative and enterprising. It is a multidisciplinary research that requires gathering of information and knowledge from various disciplines and policy areas. You will also cooperate with an ngo.

  • You will publish your results in A1 papers, but will also communicate in non-scientific reports or presentations to stakeholders.

We offer

  • a fascinating and versatile research and PhD project in a dynamic research group;

  • a contract for a period of one year. When funding is available, this contract is renewable after a positive evaluation for a maximum duration of 4 years;

  • the contract can start immediately. The effective start date will be determined in consultation with the selected candidate;

  • additional training and education possibilities;

  • regular participation in international conferences.

How to apply:

  • Applications may only be submitted online, until the closing date 30 September 2017.

  • A pre-selection will be made from amongst the submitted applications. The remainder of the selection procedure is specific to the position and will be determined by the selection panel.

  • For more information on the scientific content, you can contact Prof. P. Meire - University of Antwerpen ( or +32 3265 22 64) or Ir. Tom Maris ( or + 32 3265 2263).

The University of Antwerp is a family friendly organization, with a focus on equal opportunities and diversity. Our HR-policy for researchers was awarded by the European Commission with the quality label HR Excellence in research.

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