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QUADRAT DTP: Understanding the spatio-temporal dynamics of global peatland fire

School of Natural and Built Environment

Monday, January 18, 2021 Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Peatlands are globally-important ecosystems, representing >30% of the global soil organic C pool. They provide key ecosystem services including drinking water, climate regulation through C storage, and food resources (e.g. fruit and fish). Peatlands often also contain important archives of past climatic and environmental change. Globally, peatlands contain stored carbon (C) "equivalent to the amount that would be emitted to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels at the 2007 annual global rate for the next 75 years". Peatlands are uniquely threatened by widespread drainage and climate change. However, one of the greatest threats to peatland ecosystems, and the C they store is fire. Surprisingly, peatlands are among the most flammable ecosystems in the world. Peatland fires are increasing in frequency and severity at an alarming rate across the globe. Extensive peat fires in Asia (e.g. the 1997 and 2019 mega-fires in Indonesia) have recently featured in the international press because they have released large quantities of greenhouse gases and caused major air pollution events with subsequent impacts on human health. In addition, peat fires are occurring more frequently in many regions, including in Arctic tundra environments including Siberia and Greenland [1]. As the return interval shortened and intensity of these fires rises, the deeper layers of peat may become increasingly vulnerable to burning [2], and the fire severity may cross thresholds of ecosystem non-recovery. The rising vulnerability of global peatlands to fire under a warming climate and increased human impacts is highly concerning. Some authors have suggested that fire will even cause some peatlands to shift from a sink to a source of carbon [3].

There is an urgent need to improve current understanding of fire in global peatlands and to examine its spatio-temporal variability. This project will quantify the long-term dynamic of peatland fire at the biome and global scale and how peatland fires have responded to climate change and human impacts through time. This work will establish baselines for fire in peatlands across different ecosystem types and biomes through analysis of charcoal data.

The project will involve the generation of new primary charcoal data from peatlands, in addition to a large meta-analysis of existing data at the global scale. The project has particular relevance for (1) research groups making projections of future climate change, based on future projections of GHG emissions; (2) local people relying on these environments for water and food resources; and (3) policy makers/advisors seeking to manage peatlands as C stores and habitats.

Hypotheses to be tested:
(H1) Peatland fires have increased over the last ~100 years;
(H2) Peatland wildfire in the Northern Hemisphere has expanded northwards over the last ~100 years;
(H3) The temporal pattern of peatland wildfires during the pre-industrial Holocene broadly reflect natural Holocene climate variability;
(H4) Tropical peatlands are not significantly affected by natural (non-anthropogenic) wildfires;
(H5) Tundra peatlands are not significantly affected by natural (non-anthropogenic) wildfires.

The student will be provided with research training in laboratory analysis, peatland ecology and palaeoecology, GIS, Programming using R, fieldwork, database construction and management, and academic publishing.

More project details are available here:

How to apply:

Please note: applications should be submitted directly to QUADRAT and not to Queen’s University Belfast.

Funding Notes

QUADRAT studentships are open to UK and international candidates (EU and non-EU). Funding will cover UK tuition fees/stipend/research & training support grant only.

Before applying please check full funding and eligibility information: View Website


[2] Flannigan et al (2009) Glob Change Biol 15, 549-560.
[3] Turetsky et al (2004) Global Biogeochem Cy 18, 1-9.

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