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The ecology of lightning strikes: How many trees in tropical forests killed by lightning? Physical Geography PhD studentship (NERC GW4+ DTP funded) ref: 4029


College of Life and Environmental Sciences

About the Project

Location: Streatham Campus, University of Exeter, Exeter, Devon.

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 Background:

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; Yanoviak 2020) 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 direct measurement of 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 could 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.

Candidate Requirements:

This project would suit a candidate with a strong interest in tropical forest and ecology. The candidate should be excited to work in remote field stations in tropical countries for extended periods. A strong background in academic research is required.

Collaborative Partner:

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:

Training/collaborations will include international field sites and project partners in Ghana and Nigeria: 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

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

An stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,285 p.a. for 2020-21) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
Payment of university tuition fees;
A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses.
Up to £750 for travel and accomodation for compulsory cohort events.

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.

Yanoviak, S.P., E.M. Gora, P.M. Bitzer, J.C. Burchfield, H.C. Muller‐Landau, M. Detto, S. Paton, and S.P. Hubbell. 2020. Lightning is a major cause of large tree mortality in a lowland neotropical forest. New Phytologist 225:1936-1944.

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