Do past fires affect current Amazon forest dynamics? PhD Geography - Self-funded Ref: 3202

About the Research Project


Dr Ted Feldpausch , University of Exeter

Prof Claire Belcher , University of Exeter

The Project Background:
Results from long-term Amazon Basin-wide permanent plot data indicate that mature tropical forests are gaining carbon, resulting in a substantial carbon sink (~0.5 PgC yr-1) that has slowed the rise of atmospheric [CO2] due to fossil fuel burning (Phillips et al. 2009). However, the rate of C uptake is declining, resulting in a weakening of the Amazon C sink (Brienen et al. 2015), especially during years of drought (Feldpausch et al. 2016). Understanding the drivers pf these changes are vital to predict the longevity and magnitude of the C sink.

The Knowledge Gap:
Amazon forests have an uncertain history over the past 1000 years, and it is unclear how historical disturbance, including past fires, affects the carbon balance of Amazonia today. For example, fire preferentially kills smaller stems, resulting in long-term changes affecting forests for decades. Improving understanding of how fire interacts with forests and changes in regional climate will help to predict the long-term fate of the Amazon forest carbon sink and improve planning for conservation and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+). Despite the potential significance, very little is known about the effect of the past fires on Amazonian ecological processes.

The Project Goals:
You will join an interdisciplinary group of tropical ecologists, fire and soil scientists, botanists, and remote sensing specialists who have been recently 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 whether historical fires over hundreds of years left a legacy effect on ‘old-growth’ Amazonian forests.
Your project could address research questions such as:
Question 1: When did “old-growth” forests last burn and what are the drivers of variation?
Question 2:  Have historical fires affected forest composition in Amazonia?
Question 3:  Are modern forest dynamics and response to disturbance driven by historical fire?

Description of Work:
The project will evaluate whether historical fire left a lasting imprint on the composition, structure, and function of old-growth forests through analysis of a combination of vegetation, soil, 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. Fieldwork and research visits with local collaborators could also be incorporated into the PhD project based on student contribution to travel.

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

Phillips, O. et al., Drought sensitivity of the Amazon rainforest. Science 323, 1344-1347 (2009).
Brienen, R.  et al., Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink. Nature 519, 344-348 (2015).
Feldpausch, T. R., et al. 2016. Amazon forest response to repeated droughts. Global Biogeochemical Cycles 30:964-982.

For more information about the project and informal enquiries, please contact the primary supervisor, Dr Ted Feldpausch

Entry requirements

You should have or expect to achieve at least a 2:1 Honours degree from a UK university, or equivalent, in a relevant subject.  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

You 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 3202 on your application and in any correspondence about this project


Application deadline:24th September 2018
Value:This project is self-funded
Duration of award:Not applicable
Contact: PGR Enquiries