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Forests, peat, and past fires: understanding the drivers of past fire in Amazonian forests. Physical Geography, PhD Studentship (Funded)

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Sunday, May 19, 2019
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

Join a world-leading, cross-continental research team

The University of Exeter and the University of Queensland are seeking exceptional students to join a world-leading, cross-continental research team tackling major challenges facing the world’s population in global sustainability and wellbeing as part of the QUEX Institute. The joint PhD programme provides a fantastic opportunity for the most talented doctoral students to work closely with world-class research groups and benefit from the combined expertise and facilities offered at the two institutions, with a lead supervisor within each university. This prestigious programme provides full tuition fees, stipend, travel funds and research training support grants to the successful applicants. The studentship provides funding for up to 42 months (3.5 years).

Ten generous, fully-funded studentships are available for the best applicants, five offered by the University of Exeter and five by the University of Queensland. This select group will spend at least one year at each University and will graduate with a joint degree from the University of Exeter and the University of Queensland.

Find out more about the PhD studentships

Successful applicants will have a strong academic background and track record to undertake research projects based in one of the three themes of: Physical Activity and Nutrition; Healthy Ageing; and Environmental Sustainability.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 19 May 2019 (BST), with interviews taking place week commencing 8 July 2019. The start date will be January 2020.

Please note that of the seven Exeter led projects advertised, we expect that up to five studentships will be awarded to Exeter based students.


Exeter Academic Lead: Dr Angela Gallego-Sala, Geography, University of Exeter, UK – Biogeochemistry, peatland C dynamics

Queensland Academic Lead:Dr Patrick Moss, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Queensland, Australia –palaeo-ecology, biogeography and landscape ecology.

The Project Background:

Amazonian rainforests and peatlands are the largest terrestrial tropical carbon (C) pool undergoing rapid change1,2. Tropical peatlands have relatively well-preserved stratigraphies not found in mineral soils. The stratigraphy of these systems can be used to understand past pyrogenic carbon (PyC, a recalcitrant form of C formed by burning) inputs and their sources. This project will quantify the contribution of PyC to the total rainforest carbon pool and sink.

The Knowledge Gap: There is large uncertainty about the quantity of soil C stored as PyC and the contribution of local versus transported PyC. Research has indicated that Amazonian soil PyC may be 10 times larger than previously estimated3. There is essentially no information about how or when PyC additions to mineral or peatland soils have occurred. Understanding this process and the historical changes to this potential fertility source is essential to understanding drivers of the Amazon carbon sink. The peatlands of western Amazonia combined with our basin-wide PyC estimates provide an unique opportunity to address these data gaps.

The Project Goals: The aims of this PhD project are to improve understanding of sources and timing of past fire and soil PyC over hundreds to thousands of years in Amazonia.

Potential research questions:

● How much PyC is stored in Amazonian peatlands?

● What are the main inputs of PyC and have PyC inputs varied over time?

● Did fire occurrence in Amazonia increase due to increasing drought severity and/or land-use changes caused by indigenous American land-use and fire?

Description of Work: To evaluate the source and timing of soil PyC additions and fire, will use a combination of peat, vegetation, soil, isotopes, and/or charcoal data from Amazon Basin-wide forest plots. The analysis component will use the field and lab data to statistically evaluate the interaction between fire, climate, and forests. The student must be numerically competent and have a desire to work with large and complex datasets. This PhD provides the opportunity to work in a work-class research team on a genuinely novel research question and also ample opportunity to develop your own research interests. The results will have significant impacts in predicting the longevity of the Amazon carbon sink, understanding long-term fire effects, redirecting conservation efforts, improving vegetation models, and affecting policy such as REDD+.

Funding Notes

Full tuition fees, stipend of £15,000 p.a, travel funds of up to £15,000, and RTSG of £15,000 are available over the 3.5 year studentship


1Brienen, R. et al., Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink. Nature 519, 344-348 (2015). 2Feldpausch, T. R., et al. 2016. Amazon forest response to repeated droughts. Global Biogeochemical Cycles 30:964-982. 3 Koele, N., M. Bird, J. Haig, B.H. Marimon-Junior, B.S. Marimon, O.L. Phillips, E.A. de Oliveira, C.A. Quesada, and T.R. Feldpausch. 2017. Amazon Basin forest pyrogenic carbon stocks: First estimate of deep storage. Geoderma 306:237-243.

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