Project highlights

  • Will contribute to addressing significant knowledge gaps in tropical peatland geochemistry and contemporary functioning for a large, newly discovered peatland in the Congo Basin; opportunity for field work.
  • Multi-disciplinary supervisory team, including collaboration with the British Geological Survey; all supervisors have a strong publication track record in high impact journals.
  • Opportunity to gain training and experience of a range of cutting-edge field, analytical and data synthesis techniques.

Overview

Tropical peatlands are dense, long-term stores of carbon (C) that are vital components of global C soil-atmosphere exchange processes. They contain ~130 Gt C (20% of global peat C; Page et al. 2011, Dargie et al. 2017) but are very vulnerable to destabilisation through human- and climate-induced changes, including deforestation, drainage, drought and fire, which enhance peat oxidation and convert long-term CO2 sinks into globally significant CO2 sources. The peatlands of the Cuvette Centrale in the Congo Basin have only recently been known to science; they are the largest peatland complex in the tropics, occupying some 145,500 km2, an area slightly larger than England, and storing 30.6 Pg C (Dargie et al. 2017). These peatlands appear to form shallow domes with a well-marked zonation of different vegetation types from dome edge to centre. Controls on peat and carbon accumulation rates will likely depend on factors that limit the decomposition rates of organic matter (i.e. waterlogging, low pH), as well as those that limit the availability of resources for decomposer microorganisms (i.e. poor quality plant litter and deficiency of nutrients).

Initial measurements indicate that Congo peats have a higher C density than other tropical peats, possibly due to low net accumulation rates, and indicating that these peatlands may be vulnerable to even modest changes in environmental conditions that could cause the system to transition from a C sink to a C source. This project will investigate surface peat and peat water geochemistry in relation to vegetation, hydrology and geomorphological setting in order to explore the relative importance of environmental controls on peat formation, decomposition and contemporary ecosystem functioning, including production of greenhouse gases (CO2, CH4). A range of geochemical techniques could be employed (including stable isotopes and organic geochemical analyses). The data will provide an improved knowledge of the controls on peat and greenhouse gases production rates, as well as delivering inputs for parameterisation of models of peatland development, and the formulation of practical and policy-focused measures aimed at ensuring responsible peatland management.

 

Host

University of Leicester

Theme

  • Climate and Environmental Sustainability
  • Organisms and Ecosystems

Supervisors

Project investigator

  • Dr Arnoud Boom

 

Co-investigators

  • Prof Susan Page
  • Dr. Nick Girkin

How to apply

Methodology

Samples for this project are available and additional samples may be collected as part of our ongoing Large NERC grant; Congo Peat, the Past, Present and Future of the Peatlands of the Central Congo Basin (see: https://congopeat.net).

The proposed methodology is based on well-established organic geochemical procedures. You will study the nature of the organic matter using pyrolysis gas chromatography mass spectrometry (py-GC/MS), RockEval,  Fourier transform infra-red (FTIR) spectroscopy and explore peat formation processes through biomarkers and stable isotopes. This will result in detailed knowledge of the structure and nature of the organic matter and will allow us to explore the driving environmental factors that account for spatial variation in fundamental peat properties. In order to further understand biogeochemical processes such as methane oxidation we will extract lipids, which we will analyse using GC/MS and compound specific stable isotope measurements.

By characterising environmental controls over peat organic geochemistry, you will identify potential controls over greenhouse gas production, and assess the vulnerability of carbon to land use and climate change, with outputs likely to directly inform policy and management in the region.

Training and skills

The student will acquire a wide range of biogeochemical, hydrological, ecological and modelling skills at the Universities of Leicester and Cranfield, including the possibility for optional field work in a tropical setting. Through training and their PhD research, they will gain transferable skills in research design and planning, writing peer-reviewed articles and presenting, including at conferences. They will benefit from a collaboration with the BGS, where additional training in complementary techniques can be obtained. Research objectives will be met using a mix of fieldwork, physical and chemical analyses, including cutting edge geochemical techniques, and modelling. The student will benefit from joining a multidisciplinary team with a strong track record of publication and end-user engagement.

 

Partners and collaboration

The student will be part of the NERC-funded CongoPeat project (2018-2023) research community and will attend project seminars and meetings. The research will be carried out in close collaboration with the scientists collaborating on the project and, in particular, with Prof Sofie Sjogersten and Dr Jonay Jovani Sancho at the University of Nottingham, and Dr. Chris Vane from the BGS. The student will also interact with a network of UK and international researchers who are using the same study sites (e.g. to investigate the developmental history of the Congo peatlands), and policy-makers from leading environmental NGOs, including the Global Peatlands Initiative and the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

Further details

Contact details: Prof Susan Page (sep5@le.ac.uk); Dr Arnoud Boom (ab269@le.ac.uk), both in School of Geography, Geology & the Environment, University of Leicester (https://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/geoggeolenv)

https://le.ac.uk/study/research-degrees/funded-opportunities/centa-phd-studentships

Possible timeline

Year 1

Undertake literature searches; define research plan & research questions; undertake basic research training; research and define methodologies; design analytical framework; visit field sites; carry out a relevant work placement (e.g. with a knowledge end-user organisation).

Year 2

Undertake range of analyses at Leicester, Cranfield and BGS to provide initial results; carry out data analysis and interpretation; use models as a framework for data interpretation; undertake iterative changes to research design, as required, and design additional analyses to address follow-on questions. Present initial results at a conference.

Year 3

Complete research programme, data collection, analysis and modelling; start writing research chapters & first journal paper; present results at an international conference; complete thesis.

Further reading

Journal:

Dargie, G. …. Page, S.E., et al. (2018) Congo Basin peatlands: threats and conservation priorities. Mitig. & Adapt. Strats Global Change. doi.org/10.007/s11027-017-9774-8

Dargie, G., Lewis, S., Lawson, I, Page, S.E. et al. (2017) Age, extent, and carbon storage of the central Congo Basin peatland complex. Nature, 542, 86-90. doi:10.1038/nature21048

Hoyos-Santillan, J., Lomax, B.H., Large, D., Turner, B.L., Boom, A., Lopez, O.R. & Sjögersten, S. (2015) Getting to the root of the problem: litter decomposition and peat formation in lowland neotropical peatlands. Biogeochemistry, 126, 115-129.

Page S.E. et al. (2011) Global and regional importance of the tropical peatland carbon pool. Glob. Change Biol., 17, 798-818

Web page:

https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/environment-and-conservation/2019/10/inside-search-africas-carbon-time-bomb

https://congopeat.net/

COVID-19

As the PhD student will be a part of the ongoing NERC funded Congo Peat project, the impact of COVID-19 will be minimal. All field work in the Republic of Congo is an option but is not essential to the project, which builds on the large volume of samples that are currently in the UK. The only type of analysis that cannot be done in-house is 14C AMS. In case of a long term closure of national AMS facilities the project can rely on a large number of predated cores. In case of a long term closure of the University of Leicester’s laboratories, the project will focus on writing instead, as no laboratory work is required until the second year.