Project highlights

  • Address air quality concern of UK significance, whilst developing scientific knowledge and understanding to address a global grand challenge of critical concern.
  • Training in the operation of state-of-the-art air quality instrumentation and advanced data analysis modelling.
  • Work within a large interdisciplinary team, connecting across a range of air quality and wildfire research projects within the University of Birmingham, and directly supported by Natural England.


Air pollution is the most significant environmental risk in the UK, leading to economic costs of £20b per annum, and is responsible for significant health inequalities. Poor air quality is synonymous with wildfires across the globe, with landscape fires responsible for the deaths of 339,000 people per year (Johnston et al., 2012), and notably in response to the combustion of peatlands through South East Asia. Particulate matter is of primary importance in terms of the health consequences of smoke as it penetrates deep into peoples’ lungs. However, elevated levels of contaminates within wildfire smoke has been observed and is also of concern for human health. Substantially elevated levels of zinc, calcium and iron were observed within smoke both from the USA Camp Fire (CARB, 2021) and wildfires across Australia (Isley and Taylor, 2020). Whilst elevated mercury is evident within boreal fires (Relsen et al., 2015), and concerns have been expressed of the potential resuspension of radio nuclides in Chernobyl (Ager et al., 2019).

Within temperate regions the wildfire risk is changing (Belcher et al., 2021), in part in response to our changing climate. At the same time the threat posed from such fires to human health in poorly recognised and understood (Graham et al., 2020).

Peatlands across the UK have been subject to high level of industrial contamination since the beginning of the industrial revolution. To date these contaminants have remained largely locked within the accumulations of organic matter (peat). Increasing wildfire disturbance is exposing these carbon stocks and their associated contaminants, potentially incorporating them within the associated smoke. Whilst this offers the opportunity to spread such legacy contaminants over vast distances, the intersection of extensive and sustained wildfires with legacy contaminates is most critical in regions where high populations and peatlands intersect at the rural urban interface; as was evident during the 2018 Saddleworth wildfire. Although concerns remain in remote regions for those responsible for the suppression of such events.

This project through a combination of field and laboratory research will assess the capacity of wildfires on contaminated peatlands to remobilised legacy contaminates deposited since the industrial resolution over significant distances within smoke plumes.

CENTA Flagship

This is a CENTA Flagship Project

Case funding

This project is suitable for CASE funding


University of Birmingham


  • Climate and Environmental Sustainability


Project investigator


How to apply


This PhD will assess the magnitude of the threat posed both directly to people, but also to the wider environment, from temperate peatland wildfire smoke through the application of state-of-the-art air quality instrumentation purchased through a recent successful >£1M NERC equipment grant. UK-Air Quality Super Site Triplets (AQST) includes two mobile “supersites” that are located on sustainable mobile platforms. The supersites are not traditional monitoring stations – they comprise highly sophisticated instruments which monitor key species in atmospheric processes such as ammonia, VOCs, as well as trace metals, nanoparticles and particle composition in near-real time, in addition to regulated gas pollutants. The mobile supersite will be deployed downwind of the air pollution plume from the wildfires, whether natural or controlled. Combining wildfire measurements undertaken opportunistically during the course of the PhD with field based experimental burns, and supplemented with additional laboratory-based measurements.

Training and skills

You will also join a large, active, wildfire and air quality network both within the UK, the EU and beyond. You will be trained to operate advanced air quality instrumentations, including gas analysers, Aerosol Chemical Speciation Monitor, online X-ray Fluorescence (XRF), Scanning Mobility Particle Sizer as well as black carbon monitor. You will also be trained to carry out advanced data analysis using statistical and machine learning models. You will link with recent large research projects that bring together academics, policy and industry partners in wildfire and air quality, and complemented by placements within Natural England.

Partners and collaboration

Partnership and collaboration is at the very heart of this PhD programme. With direct support from the CASE partner Natural England, as well as engagement with a suite of national and international partners and collaborators, the project directly address identified knowledge gaps, aiming to develop knowledge necessary to direct local management and national policy decisions.

Further details

If you wish to apply to the project please visit:

Possible timeline

Year 1

Refinement of research project and development of research aims and objectives both in line with the expertise and interests of the student and the needs of the external stake holders. Training in instrumentation setup and application. Site identification and initial sampling. Opportunistic application of the AQST to wildfire events and the planning and preparation for experimental burns.

Year 2

Baseline assessment of UK carbon and air pollution emissions through laboratory based smouldering combustion of peat samples across a gradient of industrial contamination, peat degradation and fire severity, assessing the potential the reasonable worst-case scenario for atmospheric peatland contamination during severe impacts. This will provide the parameter space in which to integrate field-based measurements of air quality in response to active wild fire events or planned experimental burns.  Application of the AQST within experimental burns.

Year 3

Through advanced statistical and machine learning modelling of the observational data, the impacts of atmospheric processing on the physical and chemical properties of fire aerosols will be evaluated. Combining laboratory and field observation data with those from the national air quality network and satellite remote sensing, the total emissions of air pollutants (such as black carbon, organic aerosol, VOCs) and carbon will be estimated, and impacts of the wildfires on regional air quality will be quantified. Furthermore, the air pollution–mediated health and economics impacts could also be evaluated.

Further reading

Ager, A.A., Lasko, R., Myroniuk, V., Zibtsev, S., Day, M.A., Usenia, U., Bogomolov, V., Kovalets, I. and Evers, C.R., 2019. The wildfire problem in areas contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster. Science of the Total Environment696, p.133954.

Belcher, C., Brown, I., Clay, G., Doerr, S., Elliott, A., Gazzard, R., Kettridge, N., Morison, J., Perry, M., Santin, C. and Smith, T., 2021. UK wildfires and their climate challenges: Expert Led Report Prepared for the third Climate Change Risk Assessment.

Graham, A.M., Pope, R.J., Pringle, K.P., Arnold, S., Chipperfield, M.P., Conibear, L.A., Butt, E.W., Kiely, L., Knote, C. and McQuaid, J.B., 2020. Impact on air quality and health due to the Saddleworth Moor fire in northern England. Environmental Research Letters15(7), p.074018.

Hu, Y., Christensen, E.G., Amin, H.M., Smith, T.E. and Rein, G., 2019. Experimental study of moisture content effects on the transient gas and particle emissions from peat fires. Combustion and Flame209, pp.408-417.

Isley, C.F. and Taylor, M.P., 2020. Atmospheric remobilization of natural and anthropogenic contaminants during wildfires. Environmental Pollution267, p.115400.

Johnston, F.H., Henderson, S.B., Chen, Y., Randerson, J.T., Marlier, M., DeFries, R.S., Kinney, P., Bowman, D.M. and Brauer, M., 2012. Estimated global mortality attributable to smoke from landscape fires. Environmental health perspectives120(5), pp.695-701.

Reisen, F., Duran, S.M., Flannigan, M., Elliott, C. and Rideout, K., 2015. Wildfire smoke and public health risk. International Journal of Wildland Fire24(8), pp.1029-1044.

Roulston, C., Paton‐Walsh, C., Smith, T.E.L., Guérette, É.A., Evers, S., Yule, C.M., Rein, G. and Van der Werf, G.R., 2018. Fine particle emissions from tropical peat fires decrease rapidly with time since ignition. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres123(10), pp.5607-5617.

Shi, Z., Song C., Liu, B., Lu, G., Xu, J., Vu, T.V., Elliot, R. J.R., Li, W., Bloss, W.J., Harrison, R.M., 2021. Abrupt but smaller than expected changes in surface air quality attributable to COVID-19 lockdowns. Science Advances, 7, eabd6696