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Keeping above the waves? The response of coastal freshwater peatlands to sea-level rise. PhD in Geography (NERC GW4+ DTP)

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, January 06, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Lead Supervisor
Dr Tom Roland, Department of Geography, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisor
Dr Matt Palmer, Met Office Hadley Centre

Location: University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, Exeter, EX4 4QJ

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the GW4 Alliance of research-intensive universities: the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five unique and prestigious Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in the Earth, Environmental and Life sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in scientific research, business, technology and policy-making. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

- A stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,009 p.a. for 2019/20) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
- Payment of university tuition fees;
- A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
- A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses.
- Travel and accomodation is covered for all compulsory DTP cohort events
- No course fees for courses run by the DTP

We are currently advertising projects for a total of 10 studentships at the University of Exeter

Project Background

There is considerable interest in how coastal saltwater ecosystems might adjust to sea-level rise and whether they will accrete rapidly enough to maintain their relative position in the tidal prism. This interest has arisen because of the importance of salt marshes and mangroves as natural coastal defences and as regionally- and globally-important (blue) carbon stores. Significantly less attention has been given to coastal freshwater wetlands, in particular peatlands such as floodplain fens. Sea-level rise caused by climate change is a potential major threat to these coastal freshwater wetlands. The ingress of saline water or higher groundwater could destroy their existing plant communities and their carbon sink function. In addition, inland areas currently protected by these wetlands may become more prone to flooding. There is some evidence that such wetlands have in the past increased their rates of peat accumulation in response to rising sea levels. However, the mechanisms involved are poorly understood, and without that understanding we cannot predict their likely response to future, rapid, increases in sea level. Understanding freshwater wetland response to sea level rise is a priority for policymakers and land managers as they adapt for a warmer world.

Project Aims and Methods

To address this critical research gap, this project will use a past-present-future approach, combining palaeoecological, process-based, and modelling work to understand the response of coastal freshwater peatlands to sea-level rise. The study will focus on two contrasting UK sites: Cors Fochno (an estuarine ombrotrophic bog in mid-Wales) and Wheatfen (a floodplain fen in Norfolk). Specifically, the project will involve: i) analysis of peat cores taken from both sites to understand their response to periods of past sea-level rise; ii) data collection to understand how current process and carbon accumulation rates adjust to hydrological and salinity changes; iii) modelling work using Met Office sea level projections in areas of freshwater peatlands, and the DigiBog peatland model to simulate past and future responses of the peatlands to changes in both climate and sea level. Wheatfen has been set up as an ’ecohydrological observatory’ by members of the project team, and recently-collected datasets on fen water levels and saline surges are available.

The work has international relevance, with a large number of at-risk low-lying wetlands around the world. It will help indicate where to prioritise management efforts and may also show where new peatlands might form as shorelines move inland. The studentship is part of a larger project of the same name involving a national team of scientists at the University of Leeds, Royal Holloway and Queen Mary, University of London, and we hope to recruit two or more PhD students to the project across the different institutions. The topic is wide in scope and there is considerable flexibility to tailor the project to your main interests.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2020 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £15,009 per annum for 2019-20.


References / Background reading list

- Fung, F., Palmer, M., Howard, T., Lowe, J., Maisey, P., Mitchell, J.F.B. (2018) UKCP18 Factsheet: Sea Level Rise and Storm Surge, Met Office Hadley Centre, Exeter.
- Henman, J., Poulter, B. (2008) Inundation of freshwater peatlands by sea level rise: Uncertainty and potential carbon cycle feedbacks. Journal of Geophysical Research, 113: 1–11.
- Schuerch, M., Spencer, T., Temmerman, S., Kirwan, M.L., Wolff, C., Lincke, D., McOwen, C.J., Pickering, M.D., Reef, R., Vafeidis, A.T., Hinkel, J., Nicholls, R.J., Brown, S. (2018) Future response of global coastal wetlands to sea-level rise. Nature, 561: 231–234.
- Whittle, A., Gallego-Sala, A. (2016) Vulnerability of the peatland carbon sink to sea-level rise. Scientific Reports, 6: 28758.

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