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Evaluating the Resilience of Scottish Peatlands to Droughts for Water Quality and Water Supply in the Flow Country

Project Description

This research project provides a unique opportunity to contribute to future sustainability of Scottish peatlands and their ecosystem services. You will develop a modelling framework enabling a better assessment of climate-related risk to water quantity and quality from peaty catchments in Scotland to improve management decisions and increase resilience of these globally important catchments.
Peatlands are the headwaters for some of Scotland’s major water supply areas and play an important role in regulating flood flows to downstream areas. Scottish Water provides 1.34 billion litres per day of fresh drinking water capturing raw water from reservoirs from peatland catchments. Fully functioning peatlands are naturally more resilient to drought and provide high-quality water, whereas degraded sites are more prone to droughts that lead to increased risk of catastrophic wildfire and pose a severe threat to water quality, soil carbon stores, and biodiversity. More resilient fully functional peatlands have a lower likelihood of wildfires, acidification and DOC losses affecting the water quality and quantity. Yet, disturbances like wildfires and acidification etc., will have adverse effects on water quality, including increases in water colour (Yallop et al. 2010). This exacerbates ongoing pressures such as the doubling of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) and colour observed across many UK catchments over the past 30 years (Labadz et al. 2010).
While increasing the resilience of Scottish peatlands to future change may help to manage water supplies and treatment costs in the long-term, there is a paucity of knowledge in understanding these relationships. Therefore, this research will assess :

1. Direct and indirect effects of drought on peat hydrology and ecosystem carbon dynamics, including water quality.

2. Assess the interaction between drought, land use change and increased likelihood of fire on downstream water quantity and quality for key peaty catchments in Scotland.

3. Evaluate the current management practices vs. new ‘resilient’ practices and stakeholder attitudes.

You will review existing conceptual modelling approaches and use remote sensing data to identify current land use and historic moisture deficiency, use peatland models to simulate the impact of climate / climate change on peatlands water quality and quantity at site scale. Additionally, you will explore existing catchment models to evaluate impacts at catchment and regional scales. The topic is wide in scope and there is considerable flexibility to tailor the project to students’ main interests.

Research training: Applicants will be expected to have some background in catchment modelling / peatlands / process-based modelling. Student will get an opportunity to learn or extend existing skills (e.g. Python, R, C++ programming, GIS analysis, field surveys, C-flux monitoring, spatial modelling) and become involved in international collaborations and policy work. This highly policy-relevant topic and extensive training will provide a range of specialist and transferable skills for a successful future career both in academia, and beyond.

Full funding is available from the Scottish Government (to host institutions via the Scottish Funding Council). The funding available will be in line with the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) doctoral stipend levels and indicative fees.

Currently these are:
• National Minimum Doctoral Stipend for 2019/2020 is £15,009
• Research Councils UK Indicative Fee Level for 2016/17 is £4,327
• Overseas Indicative Fee Level is £21,500

Scholars will be funded for 4 years. Scholars will benefit from specialised programmes provided under the auspices of the Hydro Nation Graduate School.

Funding Notes

The Hydro Nation Scholars Programme is an open competition for PhD Scholars to undertake approved projects, hosted within Scottish Universities and Research Institutes. This project will be hosted at the University of the Highlands and Islands.
Full funding is available from the Scottish Government (to host institutions via the Scottish Funding Council). The funding available will be in line with the UKRI doctoral stipend levels and indicative fees.
Applicants should have a first-class honours degree in a relevant subject or a 2.1 honours degree plus Masters (or equivalent). Shortlisted candidates will be interviewed in February 2020.


Labadz, J., Allott, T., Evans, M., Butcher, D., Billett, M., Stainer, S., yallop, A., Jones, P., Innerdale, M., Harmon, N., Maher, K., Bradbury, R., Mount, D., O Brien, H. & Hart, R. (2010) Peatland hydrology. Report to IUCN UK Peatland Programme, Edinburgh.

Yallop, A. R., B. Clutterbuck, and J. Thacker. 2010. Increases in humic dissolved organic carbon (hDOC) export from upland peat catchments: the role of temperature, declining sulphur deposition and changes in land management. Climate Research 22:43–56.

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