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Quadrat DTP CASE: Soils as an effective carbon sink? Rates of carbon sequestration and long-term storage in soils across Northern Ireland

   School of Natural and Built Environment

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  Dr M Blaauw, Dr D Mauquoy  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Global climate change caused by anthropogenic carbon emissions is of major concern, and more information on how much carbon is being stored within and emitted from different ecosystems is urgently required, both to enhance future climate predictions and to implement robust carbon mitigation measures. With 75% of Northern Ireland’s area being covered by farmland, farm soils could potentially form a large carbon sink. However, reliable data on how fast carbon is being buried in soils of farms compared to other types of land use such as urban parks or gold course land, and on how long C is buried for, remain lacking. Moreover, existing 14C-based estimates (e.g., Fornara et al. 2020) often contradict those based on Earth system models (Shi et al. 2020).This research project will investigate how different land uses affect carbon burial rates and its long-term retention.

The student will take radiocarbon measurements on multiple soil levels in a range of Northern Irish fields, to assess the long-term burial of different forms of carbon within soils. Different soil components (e.g. bulk, homogenized, mechanically vs. chemically separated, and any identifiable plant remains) will be subjected to a range of pretreatments and 14C dated in order to assess how long ‘mobile’ and ‘recalcitrant’ forms of carbon persist in different types of soils. This project is part of a wider large-scale project led by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute of Northern Ireland (AFBI-NI), which will sample and analyse soils from thousands of farms across Northern Ireland to produce tailored management plans regarding nutrients, water quality, air quality and carbon (see and

This project will make heavy use of laboratory techniques. The student will receive training in the preparation and measurement of soil samples, which will be performed on the latest generation IonPlus MICADAS 14C accelerator mass spectrometer. Depending on student interests and on the project development, different techniques will be applied to the soil samples, and this could include the pretreatment (in AFBI and/or at the 14CHRONO Centre, Queen’s University Belfast) use of recently installed equipment for the graphitization of samples pretreated using a range of protocols, gas 14C counting of small samples, ramped pyrolysis/oxidation to separate thermally labile carbon fractions from more stable ones based on the temperature at which they are released, IRMS measurement of stable isotopes, and/or 210Pb dating of vertical sequences of samples through alpha counting. Experience with fieldwork and laboratory techniques would be an advantage, but training in the usage of the above techniques will be provided as necessary.

This project will provide exciting opportunities for research students to use the latest laboratory techniques in order to help answer essential questions regarding carbon sequestration rates in soils across Northern Ireland, and as part of the larger project make real contributions toward understanding the effect of land use on C sequestration and burial rates, and to promote approaches that will enhance land use.

Candidate Background: The successful candidate should have a good background in either Geography, Palaeoecology, Ecology, Biochemistry, Geology or Civil and Environmental Engineering. Previous experience with laboratory and fieldwork is desirable, but not essential.

More project details are available here:

How to apply: 

Funding Notes

QUADRAT studentships are open to UK and overseas candidates. Funding covers:
• A monthly stipend for accommodation and living costs, based on UKRI rates (currently £17,668 pa for 2022/23, updated annually)
• Fees (home rate tuition fees and/or fee waiver for overseas fees, where applicable)
• Research and training costs
For further information before applying please check full funding and eligibility information:


Fornara, D., Olave, R., Higgins, A., 2020. Evidence of low response of soil carbon stocks to grassland intensification. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 287, 106705.
Shi, S., Allison, S.D., He, Y., Levine, O.A., Hoyt, A.M., Beem-Miller, J., Zhu, Q., Wieder, W.R., Trubmore, S., Randerson, J.T., 2020. The age distribution of global soil carbon inferred from radiocarbon measurements. Nature Geoscience 13, 555–559.
Trumbore, S., 2009. Radiocarbon and soil carbon dynamics. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 37–66.

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