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How does the geomorphology and biogeochemistry of rivers interact to influence the carbon cycle?

Project Description

Disentangling the links and feedbacks between the physical (geomorphology) and biogeochemical drivers within rivers and floodplains represents a fundamental and outstanding challenge to all those involved in freshwater systems. Yet such knowledge is critical to understand the role of rivers and floodplains in the carbon cycle and how this links with climate change, both now and in the past.

In simplistic terms, river systems can behave on a continuum, the end members of which can have opposing impacts on the carbon cycle and hence climate; 1) if rivers are very active and flush any organic matter (e.g. early evolution of biofilms) and sediment to the oceans then this material gets buried and removed from the carbon cycle so reducing CO2 and lowering global temperature 2) with increasing fine sediment and organic matter retention within the river then they cease to act as inert pipes and will release greenhouse gases to the atmosphere so raising global temperature.

When and how river systems move along this continuum between these two states remains unknown. The purpose of this project is to generate new fundamental understanding at the interface of physical, biological and chemical systems within river environments.

Understanding these fundamental processes matters if we are to make progress in resolving many outstanding ‘unknowns’. For example, it is well known that dam construction changes downstream flood regime, what is yet to be quantified is how this impacts on tree mortality and associated greenhouse gas emissions driven by changes to the water table, bank erosion and river stability (in a geomorphic sense). Similarly from a geological perspective the pre-vegetation role of rivers in global climate was presumably negligible, but as we moved from a largely inorganic river system to one with increasing organic components how did role of rivers change in linking terrestrial systems with atmospheric and marine?

Funding Notes

CENTA studentships are for 3.5 years and are funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). In addition to the full payment of their tuition fees, successful candidates will receive the following financial support.
• Annual stipend, set at £15,009 for 2019/20
• Research training support grant (RTSG) of £8,000


Lee, H. Et al. (2019) Sustained wood burial in the Bengal Fan over the last 19 My. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1913714116
Resende, A. et al. (2018). Massive tree mortality from flood pulse disturbances in Amazonian floodplain forests: The collateral effects of hydropower production. Science of The Total Environment. 659. 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.12.208.

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