PhD position: Groundwater dynamics in Flanders and impact on
Last modification : Thursday, September 15, 2022
In the context of the Arvesta chair on nutrient flows in Flanders and in the
context of a VLAIO-funded project on irrigation, the Division of Soil and
Water Management is looking for a PhD student for research on groundwater
dynamics and its impact on denitrification. The Division of Soil and Water
Management is one of the five divisions in the Department of Earth and
Environmental Sciences of KU Leuven. The main mission of the department is to
carry out state-of-the-art scientific research with respect to the functioning
of geo- and ecosystems at different spatial and temporal scales, including the
interaction between humans and the environment and the sustainable management
of natural resources.
Flemish agriculture needs to rapidly evolve because of the nitrogen crisis and
more frequent droughts. Flemish agriculture has to reduce its emissions of
nitrogen into water and there is a need for more and more efficient
irrigation. There are two interrelated bottlenecks for both challenges: (i)
Flanders does not have a calibrated dynamic groundwater model and (ii)
Flanders has no spatial model to estimate denitrification in soil and
The surplus nitrogen in Flemish agriculture causes nitrate leaching from soil
to groundwater. However, the conversion of nitrate to N2O or N2 in the soil
and groundwater ensures that a large part of the residual nitrogen in the soil
does not end up as nitrate in the surface water. This denitrification depends
on the redox potential in the soil and the residence time of the water in the
soil, both of which are related to the structure of the soil and the
groundwater flow. Flanders has a very good digital soil map and map of the
subsoil (DOV) and has an extensive phreatic monitoring network with
digitally available data on the groundwater level and its chemical
composition. That data is rarely statistically analyzed to know where and when
denitrification takes place. Moreover, there is no link between existing
models for nitrate leaching and groundwater models because the latter are not
available as a dynamic (non-stationary) model. Jülich's research group
developed a dynamic groundwater model for Germany with a resolution of 600x600
m and makes 10-day predictions. This spatial model also covers Flanders, but
it has never been verified with the time series of groundwater levels in
The aim of the research is to calculate denitrification in the Flemish subsoil
so that area-specific N fertilization recommendations can be drawn up, namely
the lowest recommendations where denitrification is low and vice versa.
Roughly three steps are required for this. (1) the statistical analysis of
data on nitrate concentrations in groundwater in relation to soil structure,
land use and groundwater level; (2) calibrating the groundwater model with
data from the phreatic groundwater and refine it to a resolution of 60x60 m
(3) targeted periodic sampling of groundwater in 2-3 selected transects to
estimate the dynamics of nitrate in the subsurface in relation to the redox
zone. It is estimated that 2/3 of this research will consist of modelling and
statistical analysis and 1/3 of fieldwork and associated analyses in the
laboratory. The doctoral student will also be involved in educational
activities and in dissemination of the results to the government.
We seek a candidate with a master degree in Bioscience engineering, Water
resources engineering, Physical geography, Geology or an equivalent master
degree that is relevant for the above mentioned tasks.
The successful candidate will have the following profile:
Creative with a strong interest in research
Good academic performance at the MSc and BSc levels, with good performance
on the master thesis in particular
Good knowledge of the relevant chemical and physical processes in soil and
Experience with simulation modelling and computer programming (e.g.,
Python, Fortran, C, Matlab, R, etc.).
Demonstrated capacity to write (scientific writing) and communicate in
English. Being fluent in Dutch is an added advantage but not a must
(communication with farmers).
Good interpersonal skills: able to work in a team and to communicate with
both farmers and other researchers.
Full-time doctoral scholarship for 2 years. After positive evaluation, the
scholarship is extended with 2 additional years (4 years in total).
Multi-disciplinary and international professional environment in the
Division Soil and Water Management.
Leuven is a charming historical university town, with a central location
in Western Europe.
The PhD student will be embedded in a project team consisting of other PhD
orpostdoc researchers and the three supervisors at KU Leuven (Erik
Smolders, JanVanderborght and Jan Diels).
At KU Leuven, PhD students are expected to obtain their PhD degree within 4
years. More information on the remuneration with a doctoral scholarship can be
found at the following link:
https: // www. kuleuven.be/personeel/jobsite/en/phd/phd-information#working-
Only persons strictly matching the above profile should apply. Submit your CV,
along with a motivation letter, and two names for references on-line. For more
information please contact Prof. dr. ir. Jan Diels, tel.: +32 16 32 97 44,
mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or Prof. dr. ir. Erik Smolders, tel.: +32 16 32 96
77, mail: email@example.com or Prof. dr. ir. Jan Vanderborght, tel.
+32 16 37 21 49, mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The position will remain open until suitable candidate is identified.
KU Leuven seeks to foster an environment where all talents can flourish,
regardless of gender, age, cultural background, nationality or impairments. If
you have any questions relating to accessibility or support, please contact us