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Award details

Investigating the carbon sink in tropical peatlands, Geography Department – PhD (Funded) Ref: 4152

About the award


Academic Supervisors

Prof. Angela Gallego-Sala, University of Exeter, UK

Dr. Sarah Chadburn, University of Exeter, UK

Prof. Stephen Sitch, University of Exeter, UK

Dr. Jörg Kaduk, University of Leicester, UK

The University of Exeter’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences is inviting applications for a PhD studentship funded by the European Research Council (ERC) to work on the project entitled Tropical Peatlands and the Carbon Cycle (TroPeaCC) to commence in February 2022 or as soon as possible thereafter. You will be part of a multi-disciplinary European funded project aiming to provide a step-change gain in our understanding of tropical peatland functioning and in understanding the likely response of peatland ecosystems to climate change. The proposed supervisory team is composed of leaders in the field with complementary expertise.

The studentship will cover Home/International tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £15,609 per year for 3.5 years.  The student will be based in Geography in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the Streatham Campus in Exeter.

Project Description

Tropical peatlands are the most carbon-dense ecosystems in the world and they store the equivalent of ~10 years of global fossil fuel emissions in their soils. Despite their importance, crucial questions remain about carbon cycling in tropical peatlands and improving understanding is critical as they are at high risk from both climate change and land use change. Protection and improved management of tropical peatlands can also play an important role in meeting the greenhouse gas emissions targets set out under the Paris Agreement.
Under intact conditions tropical peatlands sequester carbon in their soils, but also emit methane through methane producing micro-organisms present in the waterlogged conditions. With the impacts of land use and climate change, carbon dynamics are likely to shift. While tropical peatland research has primarily focused on carbon dioxide losses from drainage affected peatlands, there is a considerable gap in the knowledge around the pristine peatland carbon sink and methane dynamics, including the environmental drivers of CO2 uptake and release from these systems and their net effect on radiative forcing, and thus climate change.

Globally, peat accumulation records over the past millennium (Gallego-Sala et al., 2018; Charman et al., 2013) and over the Holocene (Loisel et al., 2014) suggest that peatlands have had a net cooling effect on the climate, due to increases in the growing season length and net primary productivity. However, this does not seem to hold true when tropical peatlands are included. Observations (Gallego-Sala et al., 2018) and a recent modelling study (Wang et al., 2018) suggest the overall negative feedback of peatlands to climate change has limits if we consider tropical peatlands, and may not be maintained beyond the end of the century.

The main research question this PhD is trying to answer is: “How large is the tropical peatland CO2 sink and what are its main environmental or climatic drivers?”

During this PhD project, you will use the Joint UK Land Environment Simulator (JULES) to explore the carbon sink in pristine tropical peatlands. JULES is a global model of the land surface. There are three main tasks that you will be involved in:
1. Assembling an inter-continental dataset of recent C accumulation rates based on the palaeo-archive that will provide ground-breaking information on the control of the tropical CO2 sink. Data will be collected in a total of 6 sites divided into three different regions in the tropics (South America, Central Africa and South East Asia). Other collaboration sites for which we also have data will be added to the overall dataset.
2. Model-data comparison to develop a model parametrisation specifically for tropical peatlands.
3. Once the model has been parameterised, ensemble runs of JULES driven by CMIP6 21st century simulations (Eyring et al., 2016) will be used to estimate changes in peatland accumulation rates. You will perform factorial model experiments to identify the individual drivers of change for the tropical peatland carbon sink.

During your PhD, you will be given the opportunity to develop high-level ecological modelling skills and advanced data analysis skills. You will also be supported in writing the results of your research in high impact journals. You will be provided with dedicated office space and will be able to access high performance computing facilities. Specific training and support will be available for all components of the project, including data analysis and modelling support. During the project, you will have the opportunity to work with teams of international scientists. These collaborations will provide you with the opportunity to engage with and understand a wider range of issues surrounding tropical peatlands and global carbon cycling.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 865403).

Charman, D.J., et al. Climate-related changes in peatland carbon accumulation during the last millennium. Biogeosciences, 10, 929–944 (2013).
Eyring, V., Bony, S., Meehl, G. A., Senior, C. A., Stevens, B., Stouffer, R. J., and Taylor, K. E.: Overview of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 6 (CMIP6) experimental design and organization, Geoscientific Model Development, 9, 1937-1958, (2016).
Gallego-Sala A.V., et al., Latitudinal limits to the predicted increase of the peatland carbon sink with warming, Nature Climate Change, 8, 907–913 (2018).
Wang, S., Zhuang, Q., Lähteenoja, O., Draper, F.C. and Cadillo-Quiroz, H. Potential shift from a carbon sink to a source in Amazonian peatlands under a changing climate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A, 115(49), 12407-12412 (2018).

Entry requirements

Applicants for this studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of science or technology, such as mathematics, engineering, environmental sciences, chemistry or physics.  We welcome applications from minority groups and female scientists in line with the Athena Swan charter. As this is mostly a desk-based PhD, with the possibility of doing some field work, persons with reduced mobility are encouraged to apply.

If English is not your first language you will need to have achieved at least 6.5  in IELTS and no less than 6.0 in any section by the start of the project.  Alternative tests may be acceptable (see

How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents. 
• CV
• Letter of application (outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project).
• Research proposal – a short research proposal (1000 words) including a short literature review, research questions and hypothesis based on the literature and expanding the project advert here.
• References from two referees familiar with your academic work.
• If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your proficiency in English.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 8th July 2021.  Interviews will be held via Zoom the week commencing 19th July 2021.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email or phone: 0300 555 60 60 (UK callers) or +44 (0) 1392 723044 (EU/International callers).  Project-specific queries should be directed to the main supervisor.


Application deadline:8th July 2021
Value:Home/International tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £15,609 per year for 3.5 years.
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Admissions