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Managing ecosystem services of Andean wetlands for sustainable development

Project Description

High-elevation wetlands in the tropical Andes, locally known as bofedales, provide a wide range of ecosystem services that are critical for local livelihoods. Located in areas with topographical depressions above 3800 m, the bofedales act as natural water towers and store large amounts of carbon in the soil. They are also important as grazing areas for the cattle herds of local communities. Despite their importance, many of the ecological, hydrological and soil processes that underpin the ecosystem services provided by the bofedales are poorly understood. This is particularly important in view of global climate change.

Mountains are disproportionately exposed to climate change which will affect high-elevation wetlands and their ecosystem services. Increasing temperatures will speed up soil decomposition processes leading to less carbon accumulation, and a loss of water storage capacity. It may also negatively affect the nutritive values of forage, with implications for meat and milk production.

A previous collaboration between Imperial College London, Kew Gardens and the local NGO CONDESAN analysed the drivers of carbon accumulation and nutritional content of selected forage species in a bofedal of southern Peru. This project will build on those findings by upscaling them toward the landscape scale and across environmental gradients. The four main objectives of this project are 1) to improve understanding of the interaction between water, soil and plants in high-elevation wetlands; 2) to identify the main drivers of carbon storage and fodder provision across environmental gradients; 3) to analyse climate change impact on carbon storage and fodder provision; 4) to contribute valuable information which could influence policies to prevent the decline in the delivery of key ecosystem services in the region.

A first part will consist of fieldwork to collect water and soil data across an environmental gradient using sensors and methods developed by Imperial College London and tailored for Andean ecosystems. In addition, plant community data will be collected to identify key plant functional traits that contribute to carbon storage (e.g. leaf and root morphological characteristics) and to analyse nutritional content of native forage species. Subsequently soil, water, and plant data will be integrated in a computational model to analyse the main drivers of wetland formation and carbon storage, the potential impact of climate change on carbon storage, and changes in the nutritional content of native forage species changes along environmental gradients and seasons. Lastly the distribution of key forage species and those contributing to carbon storage will be modelled to project present and future distribution under climate change scenarios.

Project results will identify plant species that contribute to pastoralists livelihoods (e.g. highly nutritious forage species), and plant functional traits together with soil and hydrological processes that shape ecosystem functioning, which could have high economic potential. Key species and processes could be protected across the region to provide resilience to future climatic changes and increase carbon storage to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Understanding the relationship between environmental drivers and forage plant nutritive values will inform land managers planning for future climate change adaptation.

Multi-disciplinarity of the research

This proposal focuses on understanding the ecosystem functioning of the bofedales to improve the management of their ecosystem services. This requires combining hydrology, ecology, animal nutrition and spatial analysis. The three supervisors have an extensive record of working on these topics and a broad experience working in Peru. Sustainable development is also a key element of this project. To maximise the societal impact, the project will build upon a long-standing collaboration between Imperial College London and CONDESAN (Consortium for sustainable development of the Andean region) based in Peru. The participation of CONDESAN will be key to enable the necessary links with pastoralists in southern Peru and to continue the joint efforts to develop long-term monitoring programmes in the region.

Application process

The application deadline for this project is 6th January 2020. Applicants should apply directly to the lead supervisor via email with a CV, cover letter and contact information of two references.

Funding Notes

The Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet Doctoral Training Partnership (SSCP DTP). The SSCP DTP awards 14 fully funded NERC studentships every year which include home/EU tuition fees, a London-weighted stipend and an additional consumables budget.

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