PhD Research Project: CENTA NERC - Biome under attack! Understanding the processes behind Boreal la

United Kingdom
Nov 30, 2016
Jan 23, 2017
Organization Type
University and College
Full Time

Boreal forests represent a critical global biome. Home to vast sources of oil, minerals and lumber, the biome acts as a global carbon store and climate regulator. Here carbon reserves are likely to vastly exceed that of tropical forests. However, this critical biome is facing a broad range of disturbances. Such high latitudes are the fastest warming regions on the planet. They are also facing extreme droughts, increased wildfire activity, severe insect infestations as well as extensive mineral exploration and mining activities. Determining the resilience of these environments to such a broad and diverse array of compound disturbances is critical to quantify their impact on global climates, regional water resources, and to inform appropriate, effective management and reclamation strategies. However, the boreal biome is not a uniform environment, but a complex mosaic of ecosystems either competing or acting in symbiosis for limited resources (water, nutrients, light). Such interactions take place in a narrow ‘critical zone’ (CZ) between ecosystem units. Despite being largely overlooked in boreal research, this CZ is a gateway that modulates landscape stability and function. This project aims to explore the interactions between constituent ecosystems, focussing specifically on interactions between wetlands and forestlands. Through a unique transcontinental research experiment, this project will explore the hydrological interactions and how they differ between extreme boreal climate regimes, from the sub humid climate of the western boreal plain to the maritime climatic conditions of Sweden. Working at the interface of hydrological, ecology and climate sciences, the research will determine how ecosystems adapt to take advantage of this CZ to control water storage within the peatland and maximise the resilience of their carbon stocks. It will investigate how changes local and regional hydrogeology, soils and topography control these interactions and the threat to such CZs of a changing climate and increased fire severities. Knowledge gained will direct future management and catchment designs by providing the foundation for the development of resilient catchments and self-sustaining ecosystems in the next generation of reclaimed Alberta Oil Sand environments.

The field research will be undertaken within the two core study regions, URSA and Krycklan ( Research infrastructure will build on and integrate strongly with the diverse array of ecohydrological and micrometeorological monitoring equipment within these long term study sites, each extending over 10 years. Traditional measurement techniques targeted at the critical interface zones will be enhanced through the use of high-tech approaches and landscape manipulations (site drainage) to quantify and characterise its hydrological function (notably the use of stable isotopes, geophysical imaging techniques and fibre-optic monitoring systems). This will develop on the skills and interests of the prospective candidate. Where appropriate, key feedbacks and interactions will be identified and tested through experimental monoliths within the new Birmingham Environmental Change Outdoor laboratory. Knowledge gained from these field and laboratory based approaches will be integrated within state-of-the-art modelling software currently being applied within singular climatic regions to explore the sensitivity of these critical zones to the primary climatic driver.

Funding Notes

In addition to completing an online application form, you will also need to complete and submit the CENTA studentship application form available from

CENTA studentships are for 3.5 years and are funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). In addition to the full payment of their tuition fees, successful candidates will receive the following financial support.

Annual stipend, set at £14,296 for 2016/17
Research training support grant (RTSG) of £8,000

CENTA students are required to undertake from 45 days training throughout their PhD including a 10 day placement.


Devito, K., Mendoza, C., Qualizza, C. (2012). Conceptualizing water movement in the Boreal Plains. Implications for watershed reconstruction. Synthesis report prepared for the Canadian Oil Sands Network for Research and Development, Environmental and Reclamation Research Group. 164 pp.
Devito KJ, I Creed, T Gan, C Mendoza, R Petrone, U Silins, B Smerdon (2005). A framework for broad scale classification of hydrologic response units on the Boreal Plain: Is topography the last thing to consider? Invited Commentaries, HP Today, Hydrol. Process., 19:1705-1714.
Kettridge, N., Turetsky, M. R., Sherwood, J. H., Thompson, D. K., Miller, C. A., Benscoter, B. W., ... & Waddington, J. M. (2015). Moderate drop in water table increases peatland vulnerability to post-fire regime shift. Scientific reports, 5.

Laudon, H., I. Taberman, A. Ågren, M. Futter, M. Ottosson-Löfvenius, and K. Bishop (2013), The Krycklan CatchmentStudy—A flagship infrastructure for hydrology, biogeochemistry, and climate research in the boreal landscape, Water Resour. Res., 49,7154–7158, doi:10.1002/wrcr.20520.

Waddington, J. M., Morris, P. J., Kettridge, N., Granath, G., Thompson, D. K., & Moore, P. A. (2015). Hydrological feedbacks in northern peatlands. Ecohydrology, 8(1), 113-127.