Project highlights

  • Support UK carbon accounting, quantifying an important and uncertain future landscape carbon loss.
  • Work to understand a key global grand challenges of the impact of wildfires on peatland ecosystems across temperate, boreal and tropical regions.
  • Strong partnership working between the University of Birmingham and Natural England.


Peatland and upland landscapes represent significant UK carbon stores, with deep peat alone accounting for 3000 million tonnes of carbon, equivalent to approximately 10 years of UK carbon emissions. These carbon stocks are potentially vulnerable to future wildfire (Davies et al., 2013). Wildfires burns not only the above ground vegetation but can also burn into the carbon rich peat soils. Evidence from boreal and tropical peatland systems (Hu et al., 2018) indicates strong spatial variations in burn depths, with hotspots of high combustion contributing substantially to the total carbon emissions from the fire (Lukenbach et al., 2015). Further the average burn depth and its variability in space results from a range of controls that vary across spatial scales. Notably, hydrogeology at the landscape scale (Hokanson et al, 2018), peat depth at the local scale (Wilkinson et al., 2020), and soil bulk densities and moisture content at the point scale (Huang and Rein 2014; Benscoter et al., 2011). Remote sensing approaches demonstrate real potential to characterise such burns at a landscape scale, but advanced approaches can rely on effective pre burn assessment (Chasmer et al., 2017).  To effectively account for carbon emissions from upland wildfires and to mitigate the most severe potential emission hotspots in future wildfire events through effective land management interventions, there is an urgent need to characterise carbon losses, their spatial variability and hierarchy of controls on these losses within temperate peatland and upland ecosystems.  Specifically, through this PhD you will work to address:

  • What is the inter and intra variability in wildfire burn depths within UK peatland systems?
  • Does burn severity differ significantly between peatlands and shallow organic soils?
  • Do hot spots of high burn severity contribute significantly to landscape scale carbon emission from upland wildfires? For national reporting on emissions and carbon purposes, is it possible to assume an average depth of burn?
  • Can hot spots of high burn severity be effectively identified at the landscape scale from remote sensing imagery?
  • Are zones of high carbon emission risk identifiable at a large spatial scale? What management strategies can be implemented to mitigate this carbon emission risk?


University of Birmingham


  • Climate and Environmental Sustainability
  • Organisms and Ecosystems


Project investigator

  •  Nick Kettridge (University of Birmingham)



  • Alistair Crowle (Natural England)
  • Sami Ullah (University of Birmingham)

How to apply


This study takes adaptive approaches to maximise learning from the episodic nature of wildfires.  Utilising the combined benefits of historical burns sites, wildfires during the PhD, and traditional remote sensing imagery to address the proposed research questions. A rapid on-the-ground burn depth assessment method will be developed and evaluated from experimental burns. Combining this with detailed measurements of peatland bulk densities used to formulate a statistical representation of carbon densities of near surface peat within UK peatlands. The rapid burn depth analysis approach will be applied across UK burned sites (and temperate European as necessary) in a randomised sampling design. This will be combined with a systematic design to assess hypothesised controls on burn depth and direct hot spot identification, identify the frequency, locations and controls on high burn depths. These assessments will be applied to calibrate remotely sensed burn severity metrics to quantify carbon losses within UK peatland systems.

Training and skills

You will also join a large, active, wildfire network both within the UK and across the EU. You will link with two recent successful large research projects that bring together academics, policy and industry partners. One such training network is composed of 15 PhD researchers across Europe. Further you will integrate with the Birmingham peatland research community that examine peatland function and their response to disturbances across the globe. This will be complemented by placements within Natural England over the course of the project, providing understanding of end user implementation, government policy, partner engagement and research impact.

Partners and collaboration

Partnership and collaboration is at the very heart of this PhD programme, with organisations protecting and restoring the UK’s peatland ecosystems directly involved in the development and supervision of the PhD programme. With direct support from Natural England, as well as engagement with a suite of national and international partners and collaborators, the project directly addresses identified knowledge gaps, aiming to develop knowledge necessary to direct local management and national policy decisions.

Further details

Applications need to be submitted via the University of Birmingham postgraduate portal,, by midnight 11.01.2021. Please first check whether the primary supervisor is within Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, or in Biosciences, and click on the corresponding PhD program on the application page.

This application should include

  • a brief cover letter, CV, and the contact details for at least two referees
  • a CENTA application form
  • the supervisor and title of the project you are applying for under the Research Information section of the application form.

Referee’s will be invited to submit their references once you submit your application, but we strongly encourage applicants to ensure referees are aware of your submission and expecting a reference request from us. Students are also encouraged to visit and explore the additional information available on the CENTA website.


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. Evaluation of burn areas from satellite imagery and assessment of burn severities and spatial distributions from traditional remote sensing approaches. Development of an approach to recording burn severity using a simple on-the-ground method of assessment of burn depths, building on current approached applied widely within boreal regions and burn severity assessments developed within the UK and temperate regions.

Year 2

Evaluation of the accuracy and precision of the measurement approach from evaluation of experimental burns undertaken as part of wide ongoing research activities. Spatially extensive measures of burn depths from near term wildfire events; targeting UK wildfires but also making use of wild fires within temperate Europe as necessary depending on the wildfire frequencies in the years preceding the measurement period. Detailed associated assessment of peat bulk densities. Extensive opportunities to supplement these core measurements with given focus of the PhD student’s own areas of interests in areas of post fire nutrient dynamics, carbon fluxes, and/or ecohydrology for example. Development of first publication from PhD outlining and evaluating the burn severity estimation methods.

Year 3

Numerical analysis of the detailed spatial data sets to address the research questions proposed above. Assessment of detailed ground truth measurements against available remote sensing methodologies and expansion of assessment to look back to project carbon losses from past wildfire events. Formulation of final publications and preparation of PhD thesis.

Further reading

Benscoter, B.W., Thompson, D.K., Waddington, J.M., Flannigan, M.D., Wotton, B.M., De Groot, W.J. and Turetsky, M.R., 2011. Interactive effects of vegetation, soil moisture and bulk density on depth of burning of thick organic soils. International Journal of Wildland Fire20(3), pp.418-429.

Chasmer, L.E., Hopkinson, C.D., Petrone, R.M. and Sitar, M., 2017. Using multitemporal and multispectral airborne lidar to assess depth of peat loss and correspondence with a new active normalized burn ratio for wildfires. Geophysical Research Letters44(23), pp.11-851.

Davies, G.M., Gray, A., Rein, G. and Legg, C.J., 2013. Peat consumption and carbon loss due to smouldering wildfire in a temperate peatland. Forest Ecology and Management308, pp.169-177.

Hokanson, K.J., Moore, P.A., Lukenbach, M.C., Devito, K.J., Kettridge, N., Petrone, R.M., Mendoza, C.A. and Waddington, J.M., 2018. A hydrogeological landscape framework to identify peatland wildfire smouldering hot spots. Ecohydrology11(4), p.e1942.

Hu, Y., Fernandez-Anez, N., Smith, T.E. and Rein, G., 2018. Review of emissions from smouldering peat fires and their contribution to regional haze episodes. International Journal of Wildland Fire27(5), pp.293-312.

Huang, X. and Rein, G., 2014. Smouldering combustion of peat in wildfires: Inverse modelling of the drying and the thermal and oxidative decomposition kinetics. Combustion and Flame161(6), pp.1633-1644.

Lukenbach, M.C., Hokanson, K.J., Moore, P.A., Devito, K.J., Kettridge, N., Thompson, D.K., Wotton, B.M., Petrone, R.M. and Waddington, J.M., 2015. Hydrological controls on deep burning in a northern forested peatland. Hydrological Processes29(18), pp.4114-4124.

Wilkinson, S.L., Tekatch, A.M., Markle, C.E., Moore, P.A. and Waddington, J.M., 2020. Shallow peat is most vulnerable to high peat burn severity during wildfire. Environmental Research Letters15(10), p.104032.


The UK nature of the PhD makes the proposed research resilient to the long term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Further, with extensive data collection already undertaken by the team on the impacts of wildfire in UK and international peatland ecosystems, a range of potential project options are available to support the PhD student during any periods where the planned activity is not feasible due to COVID19 restrictions. These projects, in addition to the remote sensing components of this work, will support the overarching goals of the project proposed and will support rapids publications by the candidate.