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Improving estimates of Indonesian peatland fire emissions and their subsequent environmental impacts

School of Earth & Environment

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Dr D Spracklen , Dr C Scott No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Indonesia contains large areas of carbon-rich peatland that have been drained and cleared of natural vegetation, making them susceptible to burning. Consequently, each year thousands of fires burn across these peatlands resulting in substantial emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere. Indonesia’s peatland fires emit up to 1000 Tg of CO2 per year (Kiely et al., 2019), more than double UK’s annual CO2 emissions. These fires also emit copious amounts of particulate matter and reactive trace gases that pose a substantial risk to human health across Indonesia and the wider region (Kiely et al., 2020).

Current estimates of peatland fire emissions have large uncertainties. This is partly because these fires can burn deep down into carbon-rich organic soils where the amount of carbon emitted per kilogram of fuel burned can increase dramatically. The depth of this combustion depends on soil moisture and water table depth, which vary in time and space and are poorly constrained by in situ measurements. Accurate information about the impact of peatland fires is needed to inform Indonesia’s national climate plans as the emissions from these fires are not currently included in national emissions reporting. Reducing peat fires by restoring peatlands requires a detailed understanding of how the process of rewetting peat soils will alter fire risk.

Project Aim and Objectives

This project will combine a range of satellite remote sensing datasets to improve understanding of Indonesian peat fires and subsequently to update emission estimates. The project will allow the student to:

1) Explore a range of EO soil moisture datasets, e.g. ESA CCI and NASA SMAP. Building on recent work (Kiely et al., 2019), they will study how spatial and temporal variability in soil moisture influences frequency of fire and peat burn depth.

2) Update peat fire emissions using analysis from 1), based on the FINN emissions dataset.

3) Develop new estimates for the impact of Indonesian fires on atmospheric pollutants, using an established atmospheric chemistry transport model driven by emission estimates from 2).

4) Evaluate model calculations using new satellite observations of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and aerosol optical depth from Sentinel-5P.

5) Explore how fire emissions depend on land-cover and land cover change (deforestation) using satellite data of land cover change.

Collectively, improved understanding of peatland fires will help inform ongoing efforts to reduce fire over Indonesia. During your studentship you will have the opportunity to work as part of a large, multi-disciplinary team involving universities across the UK and Indonesia, focused on drought and peatland fires in Indonesian Borneo. You will be encouraged to, and supported in, presenting your work to a variety of stakeholders including charities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), businesses and relevant governments. You will become a member of the Biosphere Atmosphere Research Group (BAG) and join the Leeds Ecosystem, Atmosphere and Forest (LEAF) centre at the University of Leeds.

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 (£4,409 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.


Kiely, L., et al.: New estimate of particulate emissions from Indonesian peat fires in 2015, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 19, 11105–11121,, 2019.

Kiely, L., et al., Air quality and health impacts of vegetation and peat fires in Equatorial Asia during 2004–2015, Environ. Res. Lett., 15 (094054) 2020.

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