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The ecology of lightning strikes: How many trees in tropical forests are killed by lightning?


Project Description

Location: University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, Exeter EX4 4QJ

Main Information

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see http://nercgw4plus.ac.uk/


Project details

Tropical forests are one of the most important and diverse ecosystems on Earth. However, recent research has revealed an increase in the rate of tropic tree mortality, with the consequence that the strength of the carbon sink provided by tropical forests is reducing (Brienen, 2015). It is therefore vital that we understand why tropical trees die.

We know lightning kills trees (Mäkelä, 2009) and is most powerful and frequent in the tropics (Cecil, 2014). Furthermore, with climate change, lightning strikes are likely to get more powerful and frequent. If all the trees struck by lightning died, it would indicate that lightning was a major factor controlling tropical tree mortality rates and an important control on forest dynamics and structure. However, there is no information on lightning induced tree mortality in the tropics.

Working in tropical forests in Ghana, you will help address this huge knowledge gap.


Project Aims and Methods

AIMS: In this project, you will join an interdisciplinary group of tropical ecologists, physicists and electrical engineers who have been recently funded to undertake the first ever systematic study into lightning induced tree mortality. The team has developed a novel sensor that allows lightning strikes on trees to be studied for the first time. You will join this team and participate in field campaigns at tropical forest field sites in Ankasa (Ghana).

Your project aims will address the following research questions:

Q1: Which trees are more likely to be struck by lightning?

Q2: Which trees are more likely to survive a lightning strike?

Q3: How does lightning influence the ecology and carbon balance of tropical forests?

METHODS: This PhD involves a substantial amount of field work in Ankasa, Ghana. During your PhD you will be assisting in the installation of sensors and the collection of tree survey data, including allometry, functional traits, soil properties and forest dynamics. This PhD provides the unique opportunity to work with a world-class research team on a genuinely novel research question of global importance and also ample opportunity to develop your own research interests.

Training

The student will be given training opportunities within a highly collaborative and interdisciplinary team to build a unique research capability, including Cardiff’s unique high current lightning laboratory. Training/collaborations will including international field sites and project partners in Ghana: ecological measurements and experimental design, fieldwork planning/coordination, ecological statistics (R/Matlab), scientific writing/theory, Fieldwork first aid, Science communication skills. The student will be embedded in the Land and Ecosystem Dynamics group in Exeter’s Physical Geography department, and will benefit from our strong collaborative links across the University (fire lab, biomass burning aerosols), and with the Met Office Hadley Centre.

Funding Notes

“NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2019 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £14,777 per annum for 2018-19.

Eligibility;

Students from EU countries who do not meet the residency requirements may still be eligible for a fees-only award but no stipend. Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.”

References

Brienen RJW, Phillips OL, Feldpausch TR et al. (2015) Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink. Nature, 519, 344.

Cecil DJ, Buechler DE, Blakeslee RJ (2014) Gridded lightning climatology from TRMM-LIS and OTD: Dataset description. Atmospheric Research, 135, 404-414.

Mäkelä J, Karvinen E, Porjo N, Mäkelä A, Tuomi T (2009) Attachment of Natural Lightning Flashes to Trees: Preliminary Statistical Characteristics. Journal of Lightning Research, 1, 9-21.

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