The ecology of lightning strikes: How many trees in tropical forests are killed by lightning?, NERC GW4+ DTP, PhD in Geography Ref: 3326

About the award

Supervisors

Lead Supervisor

Dr Timothy Hill, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors

Dr Lucy Rowland, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Dr Ted Feldpausch, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Professor Manu Haddad, Cardiff University, School of Engineering

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

Main Information

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see http://nercgw4plus.ac.uk/

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

  • An index-linked stipend for 3.5 years (currently £14,777 p.a. for 2018/19);
  • Payment of university tuition fees;
  • A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
  • A training budget of £4,000 for specialist training courses and expenses.

Up to 30 fully-funded studentships will be available across the partnership.

Eligibility
Students from EU countries who do not meet the residency requirements may still be eligible for a fees-only award but no stipend.  Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.

Project details

Tropical forests are one of the most important and diverse ecosystems on Earth. However, recent research has revealed an increase in the rate of tropic tree mortality, with the consequence that the strength of the carbon sink provided by tropical forests is reducing (Brienen, 2015). It is therefore vital that we understand why tropical trees die.

We know lightning kills trees (Mäkelä, 2009) and is most powerful and frequent in the tropics (Cecil, 2014). Furthermore, with climate change, lightning strikes are likely to get more powerful and frequent. If all the trees struck by lightning died, it would indicate that lightning was a major factor controlling tropical tree mortality rates and an important control on forest dynamics and structure. However, there is no information on lightning induced tree mortality in the tropics.

Working in tropical forests in Ghana, you will help address this huge knowledge gap.


Project Aims and Methods

AIMS: In this project, you will join an interdisciplinary group of tropical ecologists, physicists and electrical engineers who have been recently funded to undertake the first ever systematic study into lightning induced tree mortality. The team has developed a novel sensor that allows lightning strikes on trees to be studied for the first time. You will join this team and participate in field campaigns at tropical forest field sites in Ankasa (Ghana). 

Your project aims will address the following research questions:

Q1: Which trees are more likely to be struck by lightning?

Q2: Which trees are more likely to survive a lightning strike?

Q3: How does lightning influence the ecology and carbon balance of tropical forests?

METHODS: This PhD involves a substantial amount of field work in Ankasa, Ghana. During your PhD you will be assisting in the installation of sensors and the collection of tree survey data, including allometry, functional traits, soil properties and forest dynamics. This PhD provides the unique opportunity to work with a world-class research team on a genuinely novel research question of global importance and also ample opportunity to develop your own research interests.

Training

The student will be given training opportunities within a highly collaborative and interdisciplinary team to build a unique research capability, including Cardiff’s unique high current lightning laboratory. Training/collaborations will including international field sites and project partners in Ghana: ecological measurements and experimental design, fieldwork planning/coordination, ecological statistics (R/Matlab), scientific writing/theory, Fieldwork first aid, Science communication skills. The student will be embedded in the Land and Ecosystem Dynamics group in Exeter’s Physical Geography department, and will benefit from our strong collaborative links across the University (fire lab, biomass burning aerosols), and with the Met Office Hadley Centre.


NERC

Fig.1 The tropical forest site in Ankasa, Ghana.

NERC

Fig.2 A burned tree in in a tropical forest.

References / Background reading list

Brienen RJW, Phillips OL, Feldpausch TR et al. (2015) Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink. Nature, 519, 344.

Cecil DJ, Buechler DE, Blakeslee RJ (2014) Gridded lightning climatology from TRMM-LIS and OTD: Dataset description. Atmospheric Research, 135, 404-414.

Mäkelä J, Karvinen E, Porjo N, Mäkelä A, Tuomi T (2009) Attachment of Natural Lightning Flashes to Trees: Preliminary Statistical Characteristics. Journal of Lightning Research, 1, 9-21.

Entry requirements

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK.   Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Master’s degree.  Applicants with a minimum of Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

Candidate Requirements
This project would suit a candidate with a strong interest in tropical forest and ecology. The candidate should be excited to work in remote field stations in tropical countries for extended periods. A strong background in academic research is required.

All applicants would need to meet our English language requirements by the start of the  project http://www.exeter.ac.uk/postgraduate/apply/english/.

 

How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. “Smith – CV.pdf”, “Smith – Cover Letter.pdf”, “Smith – Transcript.pdf”.

  • CV
  • Letter of application outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project.
  • Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained.  This should be an interim transcript if you are still studying.
  • If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your current proficiency in English.
  • Two References (applicants are recommended to have a third academic referee, if the two academic referees are within the same department/school).

Reference information
You will be asked to name two referees as part of the application process.  It is your responsibility to ensure that your two referees email their references to pgrenquiries@exeter.ac.uk, as we will not make requests for references directly; you must arrange for them to be submitted by 7 January 2019

References should be submitted to us directly in the form of a letter. Referees must email their references to us from their institutional email accounts. We cannot accept references from personal/private email accounts, unless it is a scanned document on institutional headed paper and signed by the referee.

All application documents must be submitted in English. Certified translated copies of academic qualifications must also be provided.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 7 January 2019.  Interviews will be held between 4 and 15 February 2019.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email pgrenquiries@exeter.ac.uk.  Project-specific queries should be directed to the supervisor.


Data Sharing
During the application process, the University may need to make certain disclosures of your personal data to third parties to be able to administer your application, carry out interviews and select candidates.  These are not limited to, but may include disclosures to:

  • the selection panel and/or management board or equivalent of the relevant programme, which is likely to include staff from one or more other HEIs;
  • administrative staff at one or more other HEIs participating in the relevant programme.

Such disclosures will always be kept to the minimum amount of personal data required for the specific purpose. Your sensitive personal data (relating to disability and race/ethnicity) will not be disclosed without your explicit consent.

Summary

Application deadline:7th January 2019
Value:£14,777 per annum for 2018-19
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries pgrenquiries@exeter.ac.uk