NERC Open CASE PhD studentship 2012
How will ecosystem shifts due to sea level rise affect carbon storage and greenhouse gas fluxes in floodplain fens?
Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL) and the Broads Authority (BA)
Supervised by Dr Lisa Belyea (School of Geography, QMUL), Dr Kate Heppell (School of Geography, QMUL) and Dr Andrea Kelly (Broads Authority).
The Research Project
Background: Conservation organisations have recognised in recent years that climate change adaptation has become one of their biggest challenges. Conservation of listed species (and others) and their habitats will naturally be the priority for conservation land management, but knowledge of the likely ecological and ecosystem service implications of such decisions will be extremely valuable in prioritising resources to achieve best conservation outcomes. The intertwined issues of habitat and carbon (C) management are particularly pertinent to low-lying areas of the Norfolk Broads, which are subject to increasing flooding (frequency and depth) and saline influence owing to sea-level rise. In the short-term, die-off of inundated vegetation may lead to a pulse of CO2 to the atmosphere (Henman & Poulter 2008), while sulphate enrichment may lead to a decrease in CH4 production, as sulphate reduction becomes favoured over methanogenesis (Gauci et al. 2004). In the long- term, habitat shifts will lead to changes in rates of C storage (Chmura et al. 2008), and also will have important implications for conservation in the UK.
Aims and objectives:
The overarching aim of this PhD is to deliver the new knowledge and decision-support tools required by conservation land managers in the Norfolk Broads to adapt effectively to sea-level rise, i.e., to maintain or increase the amount of C sequestered and minimize the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs), without compromising the central conservation value of managed lands. Field and laboratory studies will use a suite of sites along gradients of increasing saline influence and flooding. The resulting data will contribute to development of a GIS-based risk assessment model.
The main research objectives of the PhD will be to:
- quantify rates of C storage for habitats along gradients of flooding and saline influence;
- estimate GHG emission factors for these habitats;
- investigate controls on GHG fluxes; and
- assess trade-offs between conservation and C management under projected scenarios of sea-level rise.
For the field and lab studies, the student will sample across (a) a freshwater flooding gradient at Sutton Broad (4 sites: Phragmites/Typha reed fen - tall herb fen - low sedge fen - scrub/carr) and (b) a salinity and flooding gradient at 6 other sites in the Yare and Thurne valleys, ranging from floodplain fens that are unaffected by sea-level rise or storm surges, to brackish swamp/fen, to high saltmarsh. Site selection will be a key activity in the initial stages of the student's project, and will involve consultation with land managers including RSPB and the Broads Authority.
C storage. At each site, permanent sedimentation-erosion tables will be installed for long- term monitoring of surface elevation. Additionally, direct measurements will be made of litter production (using litter traps) and cumulative mass loss (using litter bags). Together with measurements of standing stocks of biomass and analyses of peat profiles (e.g., bulk density, C content), these measurements will allow estimation, for each habitat type, of the rate of C sequestration and potential C losses associated with ecosystem shifts (e.g., mortality and loss of existing vegetation and peat).
GHG emissions factors. It is not feasible within the scope of the PhD to measure GHG emissions for all sites directly. Instead, emissions will be estimated by developing regression models (e.g., Couwenberg et al. 2011) that relate annual fluxes of CO2, CH4 and N2O to proxies, such as vegetation and mean water-table depth, which effectively integrate the main controlling factors. Vegetation surveys and water-table monitoring will be carried out at each site. Regression models will be developed using flux data from the literature; as consortium members, we will also have access to new data from a Defra-funded project on GHG fluxes from lowland peatlands in England. The regression models will enable emissions factors to be assigned to each habitat type. Controls on GHG fluxes. Experiments will be carried out on mesocosms collected from freshwater fen, brackish fen and high saltmarsh, to explore the short-term effects of inundation and salinity pulses in controlling GHG emissions. These studies will allow refinement of the proxy-based emission estimates, particularly in relation to N2O fluxes (for which there are few data) and mineralisation pathways (methanogenesis versus sulphate reduction, which will affect CO2:CH4 production ratios).
Adaptation assessment. A GIS-based analysis will be used to assess the implications of projected sea-level rise under different options for land management. A semi-quantitative model will be developed using the Environment Agency’s flood maps and airborne LiDAR data (for finer detail), overlain on a habitat map. Habitat-specific estimates of C storage and GHG emissions will be used to assess the implications of different scenarios of sea-level rise and land management. This tool will help land managers to assess trade-offs between conservation and C management when prioritising sites for coastal protection or managed re-alignment.
References: Chmura GL et al. 2003. Global Biogeochem. Cycles 17(4), 1111, doi:10.1029/2002GB001917; Couwenberg J et al. 2011. Hydrobiologia 674, 67–89; Gauci V et al. 2004. Biogeochemistry 71, 141-162; Henman J & Poulter B. 2008. J. Geophys. Res. 113, G02022, doi : 10.1029/2006JG000395; Wells CE & Wheeler BD 1999. Holocene 9, 595-608.
As the research for this project is already clearly defined, applicants are NOT required to develop their own Research Proposal. Instead, applicants should submit a shorter (1000 word) Statement of Purpose (see ‘How to Apply’, below).
The studentship will cover university tuition fees and will provide the standard NERC maintenance award (approx. £15,590 per year for 3.5 years), an additional £1000 per year for 3 years and up to £1600 to cover transport and accommodation costs when working at the Broads Authority. NERC and the Broads Authority will provide a fixed amount of funding to cover research costs.
Training and Impact
The student will work in the School of Geography, QMUL, which was ranked joint first in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise and offers a stimulating research environment. Students’ training needs are identified, monitored and reviewed annually as part of the supervisory programme. Research training (e.g., research design) and professional and personal development (e.g., oral and written skills) are offered through formal taught courses within the School and College. The student will receive subject-specific training in field and lab techniques (QMUL), as well as habitat assessment and conservation management (Broads Authority). The student will attend postgraduate taught courses in data analysis and biogeochemical cycling (QMUL), in addition to research seminars (QMUL) and conservation meetings/workshops (Broads Authority) to engage with both academic and end-user communities.
Specific users will include conservation organisations and organisations managing lands vulnerable to sea-level rise. Knowledge will be disseminated through advocacy and policy work (via BA) and direct training of land managers. The results of the adaptation assessment will be made available over the world-wide web. Wider users will include coastal managers, environmental organisations with an interest in C management, and academics with interests in C cycling and climate change adaptation.
Essential skills, qualities and knowledge:
- A first class or upper second class honours degree in Biology, Ecology,
Environmental Science, Geography or a cognate discipline.
- Knowledge of at least one of the following research areas: wetland ecosystems,vegetation succession, biogeochemistry.
- Experience of practical work in both the field and laboratory.
- Quantitative skills in at least one of the following: statistics, GIS, modelling.
- Ability to collaborate with the Broads Authority in order to undertake research and to
participate in programmes of knowledge exchange.
- Ability to be self-motivated, well-organized and to respond to constructive criticism.
- Willingness to take a full part in the QMUL postgraduate community, and the
research activities in the School of Geography at QMUL and at the Broads Authority. Desirable skills, qualities and knowledge
- Familiarity with current scholarship and understanding of carbon storage and greenhouse gas emissions.
- Knowledge of conservation management and peatland ecosystems.
- Experience of engaging with land managers and conservation organizations.
The NERC has strict residential eligibility criteria governing the students that can be nominated for this award. If you are not a British citizen and/or not usually resident in the UK (and have not been for the past three years), please discuss this with the project supervisors so that your eligibility can be determined.
The College Charter states that our work shall be carried out in a spirit of tolerance, freedom of opinion, mutual concern and community service, and undertakes to avoid discrimination against any person on the grounds of religion, race, sex or politics. The College has a policy statement on Equal Opportunities in Employment, which we are actively implementing.
How to Apply
Step 1. Candidates should complete an official QMUL College Application form and submit it directly to College. The form may be completed on-line or as a paper based application. Forms are available here: http://www.qmul.ac.uk/postgraduate/pgrcoursefinder/index.html (click ‘Apply for Research Degrees’, then Choose ‘Geography’ in the A-Z list of research opportunities). Please ensure you complete the correct form. The School currently only accepts applications for Semester 1 starts. Please use the PhD Physical Geography Semester 1 Start form. There are two versions of this form – one for full time and one for part time study. Only applications for full-time study will be considered.
Step 2. For your application to be processed you must attach the following additional materials:
- Degree transcripts
- Two references from your previous academic institution(s) (on headed paper). If you
have left university it is acceptable to provide one academic and one employer
- Curriculum Vitae (CV)/ Resume
- Statement of Purpose (1000 words) should explain why you are interested in undertaking the programme of research and what experience and skills you would bring to the post. The statement should also include details about previous research experience and training (particularly environmental science research and any work on ecosystem development or carbon cycling) and anything else that you feel is relevant.
As the research project is already clearly defined, applicants are required to submit the statement of purpose instead of a research proposal.
Step 3. To be considered for this studentship your application must be received by QMUL’s Admissions and Recruitment Office no later than 4pm on Monday 30 April 2012.
Step 4. All short-listed applicants will be interviewed (either face-to-face or, in the case of overseas candidates, by telephone) and applicants must be available for interview on Tuesday 15 May 2012.
Step 5. Submit your documents and inform the School of your submission. Submit your application either on-line or as a paper version to: The Admissions and Recruitment Office, Queen Mary, University of London, Mile End Road, London E1 4NS, United Kingdom. When you have submitted your application to College, please let our Postgraduate Administrator Jennifer Murray (email@example.com) know that you have done so. This enables the School to keep a close eye on your application.