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Impact of humanitarian mine clearances on tropical forest carbon storage (SENSE CDT)

School of Geosciences

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Dr G Watmough , Dr D Spracklen , Dr I H Woodhouse No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Large areas of tropical and sub-tropical forests are thought to be protected from human pressures owing to the presence of landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO). As countries fulfil their legal obligations to remove landmines and UXO, large areas of forest are being opened up for development, presenting a risk to their future – where this has happened already, there are anecdotal reports suggesting that forest has been cleared. Using Earth observation data, this project will assess the historical impact of humanitarian mine action on the tropical forests of Vietnam and on the poverty of surrounding communities, whilst determining the amount of carbon stored in areas protected by UXO. The project will contribute to our understanding of the intended and unintended consequences of UXO clearance, informing the design of post-clearance forest conservation and development practices and could be applied globally in the future.

Study location and data – Vietnam: It is estimated that about 800,000 tons of UXO remain uncleared in all regions of Vietnam, covering 6 million hectares, accounting for 19% of the country’s total area. The project will focus on regions of Vietnam with the greatest UXO contamination, including Thừa Thiên-Huế, Quảng Ngãi, Kon Tum and Bình Định provinces, where more than 30% of land is thought to be contaminated.

Source of UXO data: Data on the known and suspected presence of UXO is held by multiple actors and is of varying quality. In partnership with the Case Partner, CEOBS, the project will strive to collate this data from clearance organisations and Vietnam’s national mine action centre, whilst building collaborative partnerships. Where data is missing, US Department of Defense bombing data will be used. For the purposes of this research, both suspected and verified areas are of relevance as they may both provide protection from deforestation.

Proposed methods: 1) Historical land cover change from the end of the Vietnam War until the present day across selected sites will be assessed using data from the Landsat and Sentinel satellites; (2) paired comparison of land cover change in forest with and without UXO will be used to determine the extent of protection it provides; (3) human impacts will be examined by exploring changes in socioeconomic conditions through existing household survey and census data, combined with remote sensed data sets of building footprints, night-time lights and mobile phones; and (4) data from the PALSAR mission, and BIOMASS mission will be used to calculate the forest carbon stocks currently protected by UXO and assess the risks that these may face once UXO clearance activities are undertaken.

The Case partner (CEOBS): The Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS) is a UK charity that undertakes research and advocacy on the environmental dimensions of armed conflicts and military activities and their derived humanitarian consequences. CEOBS has an ongoing project on environmental mainstreaming in humanitarian mine action with partners in the sector. Among other issues, this is addressing the potential of promoting nature-based solutions and climate and biodiversity sensitive policies following post-clearance land release. CEOBS was launched in 2018 and is based in West Yorkshire.

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

This project will enable the PhD student to develop skills in several techniques including statistics, computer programming and image analysis, with the support of a team with a diverse range of expertise.

The student will be based at the School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh (see for more information on the group) and work closely with supervisors based at University of Leeds and CEOBS.

Funding Notes

This 3 year 9 month long NERC SENSE CDT award will provide tuition fees (£4,409 for 2020/21), tax-free stipend at the UK research council rate (£15,285 for 2020/21), and a research training and support grant to support national and international conference travel.


[1] Vietnam Mine Action Centre

[1] Given the 30% bomb failure rate, locations in this dataset are expected to be a good proxy for locations of unexploded ordnance.

[1] CEOBS, Environment in humanitarian disarmament
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