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Finding the Missing Dry Forests: Using Earth Observation Data to Determine where are the Dry Forests of Africa And Asia (part of the SENSE Centre for Doctoral Training)

Project Description

Summary: The student will build statistical models that relate the presence of dry forest in the Neotropics to remotely sensed parameters, such as NDVI, tree density and fire frequency. They will then project these Neotropics-based models to Africa and Asia to determine where in the Paleotropics there is vegetation that is similar in form and function to Neotropical dry forests. Follow-up field work will assess this vegetation on the ground, a new biome map will be produced for the dry tropics and implications for response to climate change will be assessed.

Project Background: Tropical dry forests are distinct from moist forests in high seasonality of water availability and consequent deciduousness, while they are distinct from tropical savannas in having a largely closed canopy and rarely experiencing fire (Dexter et al. 2018). The ecosystem function of tropical dry forests thus diverges markedly from that of tropical savannas and moist forests. Accurately knowing the distribution of tropical dry forests, versus savannas or moist forests, will be critical to properly modelling the role of tropical vegetation in the earth system, and predicting its future under global climate change. Nevertheless, scientists have a very poor idea of where tropical dry forests occur outside of the Neotropics. The proposed project will fill this crucial knowledge gap and improve our global understanding of dry tropical vegetation, which severely lags behind the moist tropics in research attention. The project will likely use dense time series of the high resolution (10-20 m) Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 satellites, and the latest machine learning techniques, to perform the mapping.

Key Research Questions:
1) Within the Neotropics, what remotely sensed information (e.g. phenology, fire occurrence, canopy height) best predicts the distribution of tropical dry forests?
2) Does vegetation with similar characteristics occur in the Paleotropics? If so, where? In other words, where exactly are the dry forests of Africa and Asia??
3) What does the vegetation that is predicted to be dry forest in Africa and Asia actually look like? Do the same tree lineages that dominate dry forest in the Neotropics occur there?
4) Under what climatic conditions does dry forest currently occur on different continents, and what does this mean for the future of dry forests under changing climates?

This PhD is part of the NERC and UK Space Agency funded Centre for Doctoral Training "SENSE": the Centre for Satellite Data in Environmental Science. SENSE will train 50 PhD students to tackle cross-disciplinary environmental problems by applying the latest data science techniques to satellite data. All our students will receive extensive training on satellite data and AI/Machine Learning, as well as attending a field course on drones, and residential courses hosted by the Satellite Applications Catapult (Harwell), and ESA (Rome). All students will experience extensive training on professional skills, including spending 3 months on an industry placement. See

Funding Notes

This 3 year 9 month long NERC SENSE CDT award will provide tuition fees (£4,500 for 2019/20), tax-free stipend at the UK research council rate (£15,009 for 2019/20), and a research training and support grant to support national and international conference travel. View Website


Dexter et al. 2018. Inserting tropical dry forests into the discussion on biome transitions in the tropics. Front. Ecol. & Evol.; DRYFLOR. 2016. Plant diversity patterns in neotropical dry forests and their conservation implications. Science; Pennington et al. 2018. Primer: Tropical dry forests and savannas. Current Biology.

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

FTE Category A staff submitted: 104.98

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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