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Optimising water use and soil carbon sequestration – can agricultural co-cropping systems provide multiple benefits to address climate change?

School of Geosciences

, , , Friday, January 08, 2021 Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This project will explore agricultural co-cropping systems as a solution for sustainable water use and soil carbon sequestration, thereby ensuring food security in the face of climate change. Despite its potential for these and other multiple benefits (e.g. biodiversity, soil health), co-cropping is still considered experimental and not yet widely practiced in Scotland and globally. What is particularly understudied is the role of water availability on competitive water use between co-existing crops and how this interacts with soil carbon. The degree to which complementary resource use (e.g. water uptake from different soil depths) occurs is controlled by factors including climate, resource availability, plant traits and management practices. The success of co-cropping systems therefore depends on hydrological, eco-physiological and biogeochemical interlinkages via plant-soil-water interactions. Associated water and carbon cycles are tightly coupled, but they are mostly studied in isolation, so that feedbacks and thresholds are poorly understood. This project focusses on disentangling these interactions to gain a better understanding of the processes underlying optimal co-cropping systems for multiple benefits, and water use and carbon sequestration in particular.

The objectives are to:

1. Identify viable co-cropping systems for Scotland, based on plant trait complementarity between crop types/varieties for optimising water use and carbon sequestration.
2. Characterise (the relationships between) water and carbon cycling in a typical co-cropping system (from O1) and their respective monocultures, and how those change under water stressed conditions
3. Based on outcomes from O2, develop a theoretical framework to test hypotheses on water-carbon interlinkages and resource complementarity in co-cropping systems and use this to explore resilience and long-term sustainability of different arable co-cropping scenarios from O1 under climate change.

The project will be fully embedded within the Centre of Sustainable Cropping of the James Hutton Institute, providing access to stakeholders as well as plant, water, carbon and nutrient databases for O1, and allowing for experimental work on co-cropping systems and their equivalent monocultures for O2. At the University, we will use stable water isotopes to explore (competitive) plant water use and additionally collect ecophysiological, carbon and yield data. These data will also serve to inform and evaluate a well-established soil carbon and biogeochemical cycling model (ECOSSE), coupled with a crop model for O3.

The multidisciplinary approach of this fully funded four-year project brings together expertise and postgraduate training in hydrology (Josie Geris) and soil biogeochemistry (Jo Smith) at the University of Aberdeen, and ecology (Cathy Hawes) and plant-soil interactions (Tracy Valentine) at the James Hutton Institute. The collaboration of supervisors across two institutions will allow state-of the art approaches from their respective disciplines. The studentship will integrate hydrological, soil and plant field monitoring with modelling studies. Strong policy and industry relevant interdisciplinary training will be provided. There will also be opportunities for (inter)national research visits and conference attendance.

The successful candidate should have or expect to receive a degree in a relevant subject (e.g. Hydrology, Ecology, Plant and Soil Science, Geosciences, Environmental Sciences, Geography, Environmental Engineering). An enthusiasm to carry out field work, laboratory experiments and analysis combined with modelling is also required. We don’t expect this for all of these aspects, but relevant experience would be useful. A driving licence is desirable.

Applicants are strongly advised to make an informal enquiry about the PhD to the primary supervisor well before the final submission deadline. Applicants must send a completed application form (available here, their Curriculum Vitae and a covering letter to the primary supervisor by the final submission deadline of 8th January.

Funding Notes

The Hydro Nation Scholars Programme is an open competition for PhD Scholars to undertake approved projects, hosted within Scottish Universities and Research Institutes. This project will be hosted at the University of Aberdeen. Full funding is available from the Scottish Government (to host institutions via the Scottish Funding Council). The funding available will be in line with the UKRI doctoral stipend levels and indicative fees. Applicants should have a first-class honours degree in a relevant subject or a 2.1 honours degree plus Masters (or equivalent). Shortlisted candidates will be interviewed on 11th or 12th February 2021.


Brooker, R.W.; Bennett, A.E.; Cong, W.F.; Daniell, T.J.; George, T.S.; Hallett, P.D.; Hawes, C.; Iannetta, P.P.M.; Jones, H.G.; Karley, A.J.; Li, L.; McKenzie, B.M.; Pakeman, R.J.; Paterson, E.; Schob, C.; Shen, J.; Squire, G.; Watson, C.A.; Zhang, C.; Zhang, J.; White, P.J. (2015) Improving intercropping: a synthesis of research in agronomy, plant physiology and ecology., New Phytologist, 206, 107-117.
Hawes, C., Alexander, C.J., Begg, G.S., Iannetta, P.P.M., Karley, A.J., Squire, G.R. and Young, M. (2018) Plant responses to an integrated cropping system designed to maintain yield whilst enhancing soil properties and biodiversity. Agronomy 8, 229.

Muñoz-Villers, LE, Geris, J, Alvarado-Barrientos, S, Holwerda, F & Dawson, TE 2020, 'Coffee and shade trees show complementary use of soil water in a traditional agroforestry ecosystem', Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 1649–1668. DOI:

Penna, D, Geris, J, Hopp, L & Scandellari, F 2020, 'Water sources for root water uptake: Using stable isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen as a research tool in agricultural and agroforestry systems', Agriculture Ecosystems & Environment, vol. 291, 106790. DOI:
Smith, J.U., Gottschalk, P., Bellarby, J., Chapman, S., Lilly, A., Towers, W., Bell, J., Coleman, K., Nayak, D.R., Richards, M.I., Hillier, J., Flynn, H.C., Wattenbach, M., Aitkenhead, M., Yeluripurti, J.B., Farmer, J., Milne, R., Thomson, A., Evans, C., Whitmore, A.P., Falloon, P., Smith, P., 2010. Estimating changes in national soil carbon stocks using ECOSSE – a new model that includes upland organic soils. Part I. Model description and uncertainty in national scale simulations of Scotland. Climate Research. 45:179-192. https://doi:10.3354/cr00899

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