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Drought impacts on forest carbon and water balance in the UK – will forests thrive or fail under global change?

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  • Full or part time
    Prof M Williams
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

What are the impacts of drought on future forest ecosystem processes? The research will investigate carbon-water interactions at two intensive study sites in the UK, and use modelling to forecast the state of UK forests under climate change.

Project background
Global forests play a key role in combating climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in trees and soil. However, future carbon uptake will depend on the climate and we expect an increase in the number and severity of droughts. As the UK works to determine sustainable management of its landscapes, the climate sensitivity of its forests is a key unknown. It is vital to determine how both native broadleaved species such as oak, and widely planted commercial species such as spruce, will respond to changing climate.

The effect of changing climate on forest growth is disputed due to the complex processes involved, interacting across a range of time scales. Trees respond to changing conditions by adjusting stomatal opening, leaf area and phenology, allocation patterns, and carbohydrate reserves. There are interactions of these processes with nutrient cycling and atmospheric carbon dioxide. Tackling the research challenge therefore requires synthesis of a range of data sources on ecosystem dynamics collected over long time periods, and linkage with process modelling to allow investigation of future climate sensitivities.

Research questions
What is the role of climate and soil moisture variability on forest carbon and water balance over decadal time scales, and what are the most sensitive processes?
What is the likely impact of increasing drought frequency and intensity on tree growth and survival, and what are the impacts on carbon storage for the UK?
How and why do species’ responses differ to climate, and what are the implications for future UK forest cover and C storage?

This project will investigate climate impacts on forest carbon and water balance at two intensively monitored forests in northern and southern England. Forest Research has eddy flux towers in operation at both sites, supplemented by an array of detailed flux and stock measurements, providing an unprecedented resource for research. The project will use process models developed at the University of Edinburgh to analyse the field data and investigate process interactions and climate sensitivity. The student will combine model development and simulations with data analysis and collection at the study sites to address the research questions. The modelling will allow application of varied climate scenarios to explore the variation in future forest response by species and location.

The project timetable is:

First year; the student will develop the modelling framework, calibration and validation against flux data for a conifer forest (sitka spruce) and broadleaves (oak) woodland.

Second year; Model testing and evaluation, development of process representation; collection of targeted data at field sites to support model calibration.

Third year; Model sensitivity and uncertainty analyses, simulation experiments for varied climate scenarios, and upscaling of the results.

A comprehensive training programme will be provided comprising specialist scientific training and generic transferable and professional skills. Collaboration between the School of GeoSciences at Edinburgh University and Forest Research will provide the student with high-level training in: (i) Programming, numerical modelling, machine learning and model-data fusion techniques; (ii) Statistical methods; (iii) forest eco-physiology and micro-meteorology; (iv) remote sensing of forest states for upscaling; (v) field data collection. We will encourage the student’s participation in training courses outside the UK where appropriate, and current MSc courses. The student will have access to bespoke forestry training delivered across the Forestry Commission (e.g. site-tree species suitability, GIS, tree growth and soil carbon models) and additional opportunity to engage with end-user and policy stakeholders, including Scottish Government.

Funding Notes

This project would suit a motivated highly numerate student with qualifications and experience in subjects such as environmental sciences, natural sciences or ecology.

Mathew Williams School of GeoSciences [Email Address Removed]
Mike Perks Forest Research [Email Address Removed]
George Xenakis Forest Research [Email Address Removed]



Brendan Choat, Timothy J. Brodribb, Craig R. Brodersen, Remko A. Duursma, Rosana Lopez, and Belinda E. Medlyn. Triggers of tree mortality under drought. Nature, 558: 531-539, 2018.

Xue Feng, David D. Ackerly, Todd E. Dawson, Stefano Manzoni, Rob P. Skelton, Giulia Vico, and Sally E. Thompson. The ecohydrological context of drought and classication of plant responses. Ecology Letters, 21:1723 - 1736, 2018.

Jordi Martinez-Vilalta, Rafael Poyatos, David Aguade, Javier Retana, and Maurizio Mencuccini. A new look at water transport regulation in plants. New Phytologist, 204:105 - 115, 2014.

How good is research at University of Edinburgh in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 104.98

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