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Impact of the 2015/16 El Nino event on tropical forests

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  • Full or part time
    Dr Simon Lewis
    Prof Oliver Phillips
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Project outline

The periodic yet irregular change in ocean temperatures and atmospheric conditions known as El Niño has major impacts on the tropical land surface. Such changes generally occur every 5-7 years, but vary in strength. The last strong El Niño was in 1997-98, when Earth saw record-breaking global surface air temperature, extreme droughts in the tropics, major forest fires across Southeast Asia and parts of Amazonia, and a record annual increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. The 2015-16 El Niño looks set to be of similar magnitude as the devastating 1997-98 event ( This PhD project will evaluate and understand the impact of the 2015-16 event on the world’s tropical forests, helping also to provide potentially unique insight into the ecological impacts of the hotter and more extreme conditions predicted for the future.

The core of this PhD project involves working with long-term forest inventory plots across Amazonia, Africa and SE Asia to understand the impacts of the hotter and drier conditions over much of the tropics on tropical forest tree growth, mortality and the resulting carbon balance.

Leeds hosts three leading networks of tropical forest inventory plots RAINFOR (across South America;, AfriTRON (across Africa;, and T-FORCES (including plots across SE Asia, which have led to a series of publications on the structure, function, dynamics, carbon stocks, carbon balance, and diversity of tropical forests. These plots have also been used to investigate the impacts of past drought events. The studentship will use similar field, statistical and other techniques to investigate the 2015-16 El Niño event. Critically, many plots have been censused in 2014-15, which gives an interval of growth and mortality prior to the El Niño, thus by returning in 2017 we can capture - for the first time - the impact of a strong El Niño event on our plot networks.

The basic structure of the PhD will be that the student will begin in October 2016, undertake significant fieldwork re-measuring inventory plots throughout 2017 following the end of the El Niño event, followed by analysis in 2018 and 2019 of that and other data collected by other field teams. These will allow potentially addressing a huge range of exciting questions on growth, mortality, carbon balance, function changes and biodiversity changes - many more than is possible in a single PhD. The specific questions the student will address will depend, naturally, on the student’s interests, and also the supervisors’ ability to fund recensuses of the inventory plots across the network.

With sufficient outside funding to recensus many plots across the tropics, the studentship could address questions of carbon, functional or biodiversity change at pan-tropical scales. For example, analysing which species were killed by the El Niño event, and which performed preferentially well over the El Niño period, would help inform predictions of which types of species may respond well (or badly) as the climate continues to warm into the future. If there is insufficient funding to recensus many plots pantropically, then the PhD would focus on the impacts in one region where the student and available funds can provide a robust level of data collection to answer the similar questions.

The successful candidate will need a good first degree in Ecology or other numerate scientific discipline, and will be enthusiastic to undertake fieldwork in remote and challenging conditions in tropical Africa, Amazonia, and Asia. Ideally, the candidate will have some experience of tropical fieldwork, robust statistical knowledge, and some experience of following research through to the publication stage.

The successful candidate will join a thriving group of ecologists and global change researchers and students (, and if they publish their work, will have excellent career prospects, as the majority of our recent PhD students have progressed to full-time research positions or university lectureships following the completion of their PhD.

If you have questions feel free to contact the supervisors.

Funding Notes

This project is in competition for funding as part of the Leeds-York NERC Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP), for more details see

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FTE Category A staff submitted: 48.90

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