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Physical and socio-economic drivers of changing fire dynamics in Ethiopia’s drylands and impacts on ecosystem services.

Project Description

Fire is a critical component of the ecology of African savannas and it is used by humans as a tool for rangeland management. Across much of northern Africa there has been a decreasing trend in burned area, but the drivers and impacts of these changes are not yet fully understood. These changing fire dynamics may lead to bush encroachment and changes in the extent and productivity of grasslands for livestock grazing. In the South Omo Zone, Ethiopia, fire has traditionally been used by pastoralists to rejuvenate pasture. Preliminary results have shown a reduction in burned area in the region, potentially associated with recent hydropower dam developments and commercial irrigated agriculture. The causes of these changing landscape fire dynamics and the consequences for local pastoralist communities have not yet been explored. Potential drivers include fire suppression policies, overgrazing and landscape fragmentation, and resettlement of people leading to a decrease in traditional land management practices.

The aim of this PhD would be to investigate (i) how burned area has changed in protected and unprotected areas in the South Omo Zone; (ii) the drivers of these changes; and (iii) the impact this is having on ecosystem services and livelihoods. To investigate these dynamics, this PhD will use satellite remote sensing, GIS and participatory methods. Satellite data will be analysed using the Google Earth Engine cloud computing platform to quantify changes in burned area over the last few decades. Spatial data layers such as land cover, human settlements and infrastructure will be used to explore drivers of spatial patterns in burned area. The project will incorporate traditional ecological knowledge by conducting participatory mapping with local communities to find out how peoples’ use of fire has changed and why, and the impacts of these changes on vegetation and ecosystem services (shrub cover, grassland productivity etc.). The findings of this PhD will contribute to the advancement of a wider model of human-climate-fire interaction being developed by the Leverhulme Centre for Wildfires, Environment and Society.

Studentship Overview
The studentship will be supervised by Dr Emma Tebbs, Department of Geography, King’s College London (KCL). Dr Tebbs’s research is focused on the application of remote sensing to address issues of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development. The project will also be supported by Prof Martin Wooster, KCL, and Prof Jay Mistry, Royal Holloway, both co-Director of the Leverhulme Centre.

The student will be part of the King’s Earth Observation and Wildfire Research Group and the Environmental Dynamics Research Group within the Department of Geography, King’s College London.

The student will be funded by the new Leverhulme Centre for Wildfires, Environment and Society ( established in 2019. The Centre is comprised of social and natural scientists from Imperial College, Kings College London, Royal Holloway and University of Reading, working together to create a new, integrative science of wildfire. The aim of the Centre is: to understand what factors govern wildfire regimes, including the sources, frequency, intensity, timing, and spatial pattern of fire; develop ways of predicting fire risks that include new biophysical understanding and account more reflexively for human-environment dynamics; quantify the impacts of fire on natural processes and human systems, including assessing their economic consequences and wider cultural meanings; and develop ideas for living with fire. The student will therefore join a vibrant interdisciplinary research community with a joint vision of producing evidence-based understanding of the human-fire nexus that can help inform policy and practice.

The applicant will have a good undergraduate degree in geography, environmental sciences or an allied field. They will either have, or be working towards, a masters degree or equivalent in a relevant field. The successful candidate will preferably have experience of fieldwork and skills in remote sensing and GIS. They will have experience of writing to high standards, and a willingness to work in interdisciplinary teams. Experience of coding (e.g. in Python, R or Google Earth Engine) is also desirable.

Applicants should submit:
i) A CV (max 2 A4 sides), including details of two academic references;
ii) A cover letter outlining their qualifications and interest in the studentship (max 2 A4 sides);
iii) A sample of written work up to 2000 words.

These should be sent by email to by 14/02/2020 with “Leverhulme PhD” as the subject. Interviews will take place in March 2020.

For further information on the project, please contact Emma Tebbs ().

Funding Notes

The studentship will be funded at £17,009 stipend per annum (including London allowance) paid for four years. The studentship will also cover HEU fees (with possibility of overseas fees being covered) for three years, and writing-up fees for the final year. There will be support funding for fieldwork and conference attendance. The studentship will start either in May or September 2020. Please state your start date availability within your application.

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