Peatlands and climate change: from the past to the future (PhD in Environmental Geography)

Dr Richard Payne

Lead supervisor: Dr Richard Payne, Environment Department, University of York
Co-supervisors: Professor Simon Caporn (Manchester Metropolitan University), Dr James Rowson (Edge Hill University), Professor Nancy Dise (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology).
To discuss your suitability for this project please email:

Application deadline: 14/5/2017

With atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continuing to rise it is more important than ever to understand the global carbon cycle and its response to human activity. Some of the biggest uncertainties concern the future fate of carbon locked away in peat. Peatlands store more carbon than all the world’s vegetation and have steadily cooled climate since the last glaciation However, the future of peatlands and the fate of the carbon they store is in doubt. Climate change is causing peatlands to change with the net result of these changes unclear. Amazingly, we do not even know whether peatlands will store more or less carbon in the future.

Two contrasting research approaches have been widely used to address this issue: experimental studies have simulated future climates in the field or laboratory, whereas palaeoecological studies have aimed to predict the future by analogy to the past. These two approaches have been used by different researchers in different disciplines, often reaching differing conclusions. To surmount this gap this project will take an innovative approach by combining palaeoecological and ecological methods using a long-term climate change field experiment.

Through multiple phases of fieldwork in west Wales, the student will quantify the impact of ten years of experimental drought and warming on peatland carbon fluxes. To place this record in a palaeoecological context the student will take cores and calculate long-term carbon accumulation rates. To understand how the experimental climate changes would be represented in the palaeoecological record the student will analyse surface and near-surface samples for a range of methods (testate amoeba analysis, C/N ratios, isotopes and colorimetric humification). To compare the responses observed in the experiment with the response of the site to real climatic changes such as the Medieval Climate Anomaly the student will produce a high resolution reconstruction of climate change and peatland response.

This is an exciting and innovative project with the potential to make a big contribution to one of the most significant outstanding questions in climate change science. The project will be challenging but the student will be very well-supported. This PhD project is part of a larger research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The appointed student will benefit from a strong support network including a four-person supervisory team with expertise in all aspects of the project. The student will have access to the training and laboratory resources of four institutions and will work in close partnership with a dedicated research assistant. Our experimental site is managed by Natural Resources Wales and the student will work closely with NRW staff to help them plan for the impacts of future climate change. There is also the possibility for the student to gain experience by participating in overseas fieldwork for other projects and to gain some teaching experience.

The student will receive training in all methods to be used in the project. The project is open to students with at least a 2i degree in Geography, Environmental Science, Biology or a closely-related subject and interests in palaeoecology, biogeochemistry or ecology. A master’s degree and previous experience working on peatlands would be a distinct advantage. Interested students are encouraged to contact the first supervisor to discuss the project and for further information.

Funding Notes

Fully funded for 3.5 years, the studentship will cover: (i) a tax-free stipend at the standard Research Council rate (£14,553 for 2017-2018), (ii) research costs, and (iii) tuition fees at the UK/EU rate.  The studentships is available to UK and EU/EEA students.

Requirements: At least a 2:1 honours degree, or equivalent.  There are language requirements for international students.

Selection Process: Shortlisting will take place as soon as possible after the closing date and successful applicants will be notified promptly.  Shortlisted applicants will be invited for an interview to take place at the University of York. 

Tue, 07/04/2017 (All day)