Project highlights

  • Fires in Arctic peatlands in the summer of 2020 resulted in large losses of carbon and this is an area of exciting and high-profile key climate science.
  • Will evaluate state-of-the-art developments within the JULES land-surface model (the land surface scheme within the UK Earth System Model) using the latest Earth Observation satellite data.
  • Provides an opportunity to contribute to a large multi-disciplinary international project ( and collaborate very closely with scientists within the UK Met Office.


Peatlands play a vital role in the long-term storage of permafrost carbon that would otherwise be released to the atmosphere. In addition, water-logged peatlands are significant producers of methane, a potent greenhouse gas contributing to climate change.

For these reasons, it is important that we understand both the present-day behaviour of peatlands and their potential feedback on future climate change but also, vitally, how vulnerable these ecosystems may be to climate-driven disturbances such as fire. This is becoming an increasingly high-profile scientific challenge due to recent Arctic fire events and the need to better understand their significance on climate.

Recent model developments within the JULES land surface model include the inclusion of disturbances such as fire, a microbial model of CH4 production and the ability to build soil carbon within the soil layers.

We are entering a period with an unprecedented wealth of satellite missions measuring the planet. The growth in the quantity and capability of satellite observations offers an excellent opportunity to evaluate and constrain these processes and their feedbacks on the climate.

There has also been a recent step-change in the areas of machine learning and data assimilation. This project will explore these state-of-the-art methods for bringing together large volumes of satellite observations with highly complex climate model output, leading to opportunities for developing novel analysis.

This project would suit a highly-motivated candidate who is interested in contributing to a high-profile and exciting area of climate science with the opportunity to work closely with national and international collaborators.


National Centre for Earth Observation


  • Climate and Environmental Sustainability


Project investigator

  • Dr Robert Parker, NCEO University of Leicester


  • Dr Eleanor Burke, Met Office
  • Prof. Hartmut Boesch, NCEO University of Leicester

How to apply


The student will adapt existing analysis and investigate new methods for analysing satellite observations in order to evaluate and constrain peatland climate feedbacks.

The student will perform state-of-the-art simulations with JULES carried out using the ISIMIP framework to evaluate the ability to represent northern high latitudes peatland, fires and carbon emissions.

They will also have access to results from a wide variety of models. This will be done in close collaboration with the UK Met Office (via Dr Eleanor Burke, co-supervisor).

Modern numerical techniques such as machine learning/data assimilation will be adopted to confront the model with remote sensing data.

The student will use the constrained version of JULES to make future projections of the climate impacts and climate feedbacks of peatland disturbances in the northern high latitudes. This will be done using the ISIMIP framework and the results submitted to the ISIMP data archive for use by others.

Training and skills

NCEO will provide access to its Researcher Forum, staff conferences/workshops and national-level training.

There will be opportunity for the student to receive training at the UK Met Office related to using and analysing the UK Earth System Model and the JULES land-surface model component.

Training will be provided to the student by NCEO on the Earth System Model Evaluation Tool (ESMValTool).

The student will be trained in processing on the ALICE (University of Leicester) and JASMIN (NERC) supercomputer facilities.

The student will have access to Masters-level modules (e.g. GY7709 – Satellite Data Analysis in Python).

Partners and collaboration

This project has been developed in collaboration with the UK Met Office who will co-supervise the project.

In addition, a variety of other collaborations are expected:

  • NERC UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (via Dr Doug Kelley, UKESM team and Fire-modelling expert)
  • European Space Agency – Climate Change Initiative (via Prof H Boesch, ESA Greenhouse Gas CCI and R Parker, ESA CCI Climate Modelling User Group)
  • NCEO collaborators working on JULES/UKESM analysis (at University of Leicester, University of Reading, University of Oxford, University of Leeds)
  • Collaborations expected with wider JULES land surface modelling (via HEIs and NERC Centres)

Further details

We would very strongly encourage anyone considering an application to get in touch with us in advance for an informal chat about the project. We would expect this to significantly help the candidate with the preparation of their application.

Please contact us at:
Dr Robert Parker
NCEO University of Leicester

Please visit the University of Leicester website for application guidance:

Possible timeline

Year 1

Literature review and refinement of research questions. Training and familiarisation with JULES land surface mode, initial JULES simulations using the ISMIP framework. Training regarding techniques for incorporating observations and model output.

Year 2

Development of code and analysis to incorporate new satellite observations and JULES output into ESMValTool. Journal publication aimed at evaluation of JULES output using range of Earth Observation data.

Year 3

Analysis of JULES driven with ISIMIP future climate scenarios. Journal publication aimed at climate impacts related to key science questions.

Further reading

McCarty, J.L., et al., (2020),, Arctic fires re-emerging. Nat. Geosci. 13, 658–660 (2020).

Witze, A. (2020) The Arctic is burning like never before — and that’s bad news for climate change,  Available at (Accessed: 16th October 2020)

Turetsky, M.R., et al., (2020), Carbon release through abrupt permafrost thaw. Nat. Geosci. 13, 138–143 (2020).

Burke, E. J., et al., (2020), Evaluating permafrost physics in the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project 6 (CMIP6) models and their sensitivity to climate change, The Cryosphere, 14, 3155–3174,

Burton, C. et al., (2019), Representation of fire, land-use change and vegetation dynamics in the Joint UK Land Environment Simulator vn4.9 (JULES), Geosci. Model Dev., 12, 179–193,



There is no expectation that future COVID-19 restrictions would adversely affect this PhD in any significant way. Ideally, training would be delivered in-person (e.g. at the UK Met Office) but we now have substantial experience of delivering this training remotely should restrictions remain. Furthermore, this project will work closely with a wide team of participants (e.g. UoL Greenhouse-Gas Remote Sensing Group, UKESM Core Group, UK JULES Science Community, ISIMIP Community) who have been successfully collaborating remotely for the past year. We are confident that the arrangements in place would fully support the student throughout their PhD, regardless of any future restrictions.