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Pan-tropical analysis of forest degradation and recovery - part of the SENSE Centre for Doctoral Training

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  • Full or part time
    Dr Guy Ziv
    Dr S Hancock
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

Project Description

Edge effects cause degradation of tropical forests which can significantly affect the amount of carbon these stores [Brinck, 2017]. While these have been studied in case studies in multiple continents [Harper, 2005] there is still uncertainty as to the extent of edge effects across the whole pan-tropic region. At the same time, other forests which were once cut are allowed to recover. Having a better estimate of the rate and stock of biomass in those secondary forests is also key to fully comprehend the carbon balance in tropical regions [Pan, 2011] and the impact of human actions of deforestation, fragmentation (increasing edge effects) and abandonment (allowing recovery).

This PhD project will utilize new space-borne LiDAR data coming from the GEDI mission. GEDI produces the high-resolution laser ranging point observations of the 3D structure of the Earth, making precise measurements of forest canopy height, canopy vertical structure, and surface elevation. Deployed on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2018, GEDI started in March 2019 a two-year mission to collect forest data at a global scale. Combining GEDI with forest/non-forest land cover data derived from optical satellites (e.g Sentinel-2, Landsat-8) will allow the first-ever estimate of edge effects at pan-tropic scale. Using the power of cloud computing on the Google Earth Engine, time series analysis of the whole Landsat archive is now feasible [Wang et al. 2019] and will be used to produce a map of secondary forests (and their age) across the tropics, combined with GEDI data to quantify the recovery rate and total stock of biomass in recovering tropical forests worldwide. Other satellite data may be included as part of the project, in particular, L-band radar data from PALSAR, SaoCom and NISAR. Forest degradation alerts (e.g. selective logging) from DETER-B may be used with GEDI to test if the latter can detect non-clearcut disturbance of tropical forests. Finally, auxiliary data (e.g. CORINE land use, MODIS based fire activity products, WorldClim) will be used to explain the observed spatial variability of edge degradation and forest recovery to gain better understanding of the proximate drivers controlling these in different continents and biogeographical contexts.

This PhD will be co-supervised by Dr. Guy Ziv (University of Leeds) and Dr. Steven Hancock (University of Edinburgh), benefiting from their complementary expertise in forest ecology and GEDI technology. Carbomap will be an industrial partner in the project, providing a placement opportunity in Edinburgh during the project to expose the student to commercial applications of remote-sensing biomass monitoring. The student will also spend some time in NASA and/or the University of Maryland who developed and operates the GEDI mission. This studentship will be based at the School of Geography in the University of Leeds, within the vibrant cluster of Ecology and Global Change.

Beyond the training provided to all students of the SENSE CDT, this project will give the student a deeper understanding of tropical ecology dynamics and how humans impact the tropics carbon balance. He/she will also learn to use state-of-art LiDAR product coming from recently launched GEDI mission. Finally, the PhD will master the use of Google Earth Engine to quickly analyze massive amounts of remote sensing data on the cloud, without the need to download it and using simple programming language.

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 http://www.eo-cdt.org

Funding Notes

This 3 year 9 month long NERC SENSE CDT award will provide tuition fees (£4,500 for 2019/20), tax-free stipend at the UK research council rate (£15,009 for 2019/20), and a research training and support grant to support national and international conference travel. www.eo-cdt.org/apply-now


Brinck, K., Fischer, R., Groeneveld, J. et al. High resolution analysis of tropical forest fragmentation and its impact on the global carbon cycle. Nat Commun 8, 14855 (2017)

Harper, K.A., et al. Edge influence on forest structure and composition in fragmented landscapes. Conservation Biology, 19,768–782 (2005)

Pan, Y. et al. A Large and Persistent Carbon Sink in the World’s Forests, Science 19, 988-993 (2011)

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FTE Category A staff submitted: 48.90

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