University of Exeter funding: Self-funded PhD, Geography

Forests, peat, and fires: understanding the drivers of past fire in Amazonian forests. Self funded PhD - Geography Ref: 3193

About the Research Project


Primary supervisor:
Dr Angela Gallego-Sala, University of Exeter

Dr Ted Feldpausch, University of Exeter
Dr Patrick Moss, University of Queensland, Australia
Dr Hamish McGowan, University of Queensland, Australia

Location: University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, Exeter, EX4 4QJ

The Project Background:
Amazonian rainforests and peatlands are the largest terrestrial tropical carbon (C) pool undergoing rapid change (Brienen et al. 2015; Feldpausch et al. 2016). Tropical peatlands have relatively well-preserved stratigraphies not found in mineral soils. The stratigraphy of these systems can be used to understand past pyrogenic carbon (PyC, a recalcitrant form of C formed by burning) inputs and their sources. This project will quantify the contribution of PyC to the total rainforest carbon pool and sink.

The Knowledge Gap:
There is large uncertainty about the quantity of soil C stored as PyC and the contribution of local versus transported PyC. Research has indicated that Amazonian soil PyC may be 10 times larger than previously estimated (Koele et al. 2017). There is essentially no information about how or when PyC additions to mineral or peatland soils have occurred. Understanding this process and the historical changes to this potential fertility source is essential to understanding drivers of the Amazon carbon sink. The peatlands of western Amazonia combined with our basin-wide PyC estimates provide an unique opportunity to address these data gaps.

The Project Goals:
You will join an interdisciplinary group of tropical ecologists, peat specialists, fire and soil scientists, botanists, and remote sensing specialists who have been funded to undertake the first Amazon Basin-scale study of historical fire effects on modern Amazonian forests. The aims of this PhD project are to improve understanding of sources and timing of past fire and soil PyC over hundreds to thousands of years in Amazonia.

Potential research questions:
● How much PyC is stored in Amazonian peatlands?
● What are the main inputs of PyC and have PyC inputs varied over time? Rationale: Replacement of forests (C3) by grasslands (C4) may make the isotopic value of the PyC input more like that of C4 plants.  Objective: Quantity the isotopic signature of PyC to differentiate C3 vs C4 inputs through time.
● Did fire occurrence in Amazonia increase due to increasing drought severity and/or land-use changes caused by indigenous American land-use and fire. Thus, past and present fire histories may differ.

Description of Work:
To evaluate the source and timing of soil PyC additions and fire, will use a combination of peat, vegetation, soil, isotopes, and/or charcoal data from Amazon Basin-wide forest plots. The analysis component will use the field and lab data to statistically evaluate the interaction between fire, climate, and forests. The student must be numerically competent and have a desire to work with large and complex datasets. This PhD provides the opportunity to work in a work-class research team on a genuinely novel research question and also ample opportunity to develop your own research interests. The results will have significant impacts in predicting the longevity of the Amazon carbon sink, understanding long-term fire effects, redirecting conservation efforts, improving vegetation models, and affecting policy such as REDD+.

Project costs:
The project will be primarily based on Amazon Basin-wide vegetation, soil, and charcoal data already collected under a NERC grant, with additional peat cores collected in spatially representative field sites. Lab consumables for analyses, fieldwork, and research visits with local collaborators could also be incorporated into the PhD project based on student contribution.

Things to consider:
Information about current fees :
Information about possible funding sources:
Information about Doctoral Loans:

For more information about the project and informal enquiries, please contact the primary supervisors, Dr Angela Gallego-Sala and/or Dr Ted Feldpausch

Brienen, R.  et al. 2015. Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink. Nature 519, 344.
Feldpausch, T. R., et al. 2016. Amazon forest response to repeated droughts. Global Biogeochemical Cycles 30:964-982.
Koele, N. 2017. Amazon Basin forest pyrogenic carbon stocks: First estimate of deep storage. Geoderma 306:237-243.

Entry requirements

You should have or expect to achieve at least a 2:1 Honours degree from a UK university, or equivalent in Biology, Ecology or aother related scientific discipline. Experience in statistics and forest ecology or soil science is desirable.

If English is not your first language you will need to meet the English language requirements and provide proof of proficiency. Click here for more information and a list of acceptable alternative tests.

How to apply

During the application process, tou will be asked to submit some personal details and upload a full CV, covering letter and two academic references. Your covering letter should outline your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake this project.

You may also be asked to upload verified transcripts of your most academic qualification.

Please quote reference 3193 on your application and in any correspondence about this project.


Application deadline:7th January 2019
Value:This project is self-funded
Duration of award:Not applicable
Contact: PGR Enquiries