Project highlights

  • The project will offer the opportunity to study and work in the unique, extensive and poorly understood peatlands of the Falkland Islands.
  • It will combine an extensive programme of field measurements using state of the art analysers with in-depth analysis of peat geochemical and DNA sequencing of peat microbial communities.
  • The project aims to produce the first ever empirically-based estimate of the GHG balance of Falkland peatlands, and how this has been affected by land-use, supporting UK and Falkland Island Government policy on land-management and the future development of carbon offsetting and climate change mitigation schemes.

Overview

The Falkland Islands are the largest of the UK’s Overseas Territories, and hold some of the most carbon-rich soils on Earth. Peatlands cover almost half of the land area, and account for ~10% of the total peat area under UK jurisdiction. These peatlands developed over millenia in the absence of humans or herbivorous mammals. Since human settlement began 250 years ago, large-scale grazing and other land-use pressures have caused profound ecological changes. Around 80% of the Islands’
distinctive ‘tussac’, a tall peat-forming grass which provides habitat and shelter for wildlife including penguins and sea-lions, has been lost to grazing, and peat erosion is widespread (Figure 1). However, we do not know whether Falkland peatlands continue to sequester carbon (thus contributing to climate change mitigation) or whether human activities have converted these vast carbon stores into GHG emission sources. Working with the Falkland-based South Atlantic Environment Research Institute (SAERI, CASE Partner, who are offering significant direct commercial support to the project; see Letter of Support) and the Natural History Museum (NHM) as a CENTA2 Level 1 partner, the studentship will
offer a unique opportunity to advance scientific understanding of this exceptional, ecologically rich but poorly understood ecosystem. It will break new ground by making the first comprehensive measurements of greenhouse gas (GHG) fluxes from natural and degraded Falkland peatlands. Cutting-edge geochemical and microbiological analyses, and habitat characterisation and upscaling
using Earth Observation data, will provide new mechanistic, landscape-scale understanding of the drivers of these fluxes. The results will enhance fundamental understanding of this important ecosystem, which is close to the edge of the ‘climate envelope’ for peat formation, and may therefore help to understand the wider vulnerability of global peatlands to land-use and climate change. The
project will generate policy and public interest by quantifying the GHG emissions of the Falklands, support the UK and Falkland governments in meeting their climate change targets, and have direct practical application in the development of a Falkland carbon offsetting scheme. The involvement of members of the supervisory team in peatland research throughout the world will ensure that the project has global relevance and impact.

CENTA Flagship

This is a CENTA Flagship Project

Case funding

This project is suitable for CASE funding

Host

UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Theme

  • Climate and Environmental Sustainability
  • Organisms and Ecosystems

Supervisors

Project investigator

  • Prof Chris Evans, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology Bangor

Co-investigators

  • Prof Sue Page, University of Leicester
  • Dr Ross Morrison, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Wallingford
  • Dr Arnoud Boom, University of Leicester
  • Dr Stefanie Carter, South Atlantic Environment Research Institute,
    Falkland Islands
  • Dr Anne D. Jungblut, Natural History Museum, Life Sciences Department, London, UK

How to apply

Methodology

The PhD will measure CO2 and CH4 fluxes in situ using a Los Gatos GHG analyser, at replicated natural and modified peatland sites. Two UKCEH flux towers, planned for deployment in 2021, will provide near-continuous CO2 flux data. Samples will be collected for characterisation of peat physical, hydrological, geochemical and microbiological properties to gain mechanistic understanding of controls on GHG fluxes. Organic geochemical analyses will be undertaken at UoL, including pyrolysis
GCMS and FTIR, with comparisons to data from tropical (Congo) and temperate (UK) peats. Taxonomic richness and microbial community structure will be analysed via high-throughput DNA sequencing and bioinformatics at the NHM, and compared to existing sequencing data from sites across the Falklands collected during the DarwinPlus Soil Mapping Project. The student will also work alongside SAERI staff to analyse and interpret Earth Observation (EO) data, allowing upscaling of site-based observations in relation to large-scale land-use and habitat change.

Training and skills

The student will have full access to CEH and UoL training programmes. At the project outset they will co-develop a training plan, which will be regularly reviewed, to ensure they gain the skills required for successful PhD completion. UKCEH Bangor operates a student liaison group to enable skill-sharing, provide mutual support and ensure that generic training needs are met. The student will acquire specialist skills in GHG flux measurement (UKCEH), microbiology (NHM), organic geochemistry (UoL)
and EO data analysis (SAERI). They will also have opportunities to receive communication training and participate in public engagement events at the NHM.

Partners and collaboration

The UKCEH and UoL supervisors have collaborated for many years, including three previous CENTA PhDs and major UK/international peatland projects. The student will be embedded within this experienced team, working alongside other researchers and stakeholders (a current PhD student recently completed a 3-month secondment with Defra) and spend time working at the UoL and NHM laboratories, acquiring additional skills and experience. In the Falklands they will be based at CASE
Partner SAERI, the leading research organisation in the South Atlantic, working alongside their new DarwinPlus Wetland Project and interacting with local stakeholders. SAERI have offered £9000 support to the project.

Further details

Please contact Chris Evans (cev@ceh.ac.uk) for further information.

Possible timeline

Year 1

Literature review of science area and of previous Falkland peatland research; 2) acquisition of skills in GHG flux measurement working with UKCEH/UoL staff at UK research sites; 3) analysis of pilot GHG flux data collected during the recently-completed Darwin Plus Falkland soil mapping project; 4) geochemical analysis of initial peat samples collected by locally-based SAERI staff and shipped to UK; 5) initial analysis of EO data to identify land-use impacts on Falkland peatlands and to identify research sites; 6) experimental design and logistical planning for field campaign, including COVID contingency planning

Year 2

  1. Finalisation of field campaign planning;
  2. Extended Falkland field measurement and sampling campaign, including placement at SAERI and work with other local stakeholders (with local commercial sponsorship, SAERI are able to offer £2k/yr support for T&S in addition to the £1k/year
  3. CASE funding; analysis of geochemical samples at UoL, DNA sequencing and bioinformatics analyses of microbial communities of peat samples at NHM and comparison with DNA sequencing data collected as part of the recently-completed Darwin Plus Falkland soil mapping project
  4. Continued analysis of EO data to support upscaling of results; 5) commence preparation of manuscripts for journal submission based on analysis of existing data and/or early results.

 

Year 3

Analysis and write-up of GHG flux data (1st data chapter); 2) analysis and write-up of peat organic geochemistry data (2nd data chapter); 3) analysis and write-up of peat microbiology data (3rd data chapter); 4) analysis of relationships between land-use, peat properties and GHG emissions, including upscaling of data to enable calculation of overall Falkland peat GHG balance (synthesis chapter); 5) preparation of manuscripts for journal submission; 6) completion of PhD thesis.
Contingency plans will also be made for a 2nd Falkland field campaign during Year 3 if required.

Further reading

Evans, C.D., Ritson, J., McAdam, J., Carter, S., Stanworth, A., Ross, K., 2020. A scoping study for a potential community-based carbon offsetting scheme in the Falkland Islands. Report to Falklands Conservation, Stanley. Available at: https://falklandsconservation.com/downloads/.

Evans, C., Artz, R., Moxley, J., Smyth, M-A., Taylor, E., Archer, N., Burden, A., Williamson, J., Donnelly,
D., Thomson, A., Buys, G., Malcolm, H., Wilson, D., Renou-Wilson, F. (2017). Implementation of an emission inventory for UK peatlands. Report to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Bangor, 88pp. Available at:
https://naei.beis.gov.uk/reports/reports?report_id=980.

Lin, X., Green, S., Tfaily, M.M., Prakash, O., Konstantinidis, K.T., Corbett, J.E., Chanton, J.P., Cooper,
W.T. and Kostka, J.E., 2012. Microbial community structure and activity linked to contrasting biogeochemical gradients in bog and fen environments of the Glacial Lake Agassiz Peatland. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 78, 7023-7031.

Payne, R.J., Ring-Hrubesh, F., Rush, G., Sloan, T.J., Evans, C.D. and Mauquoy, D., 2019. Peatland
initiation and carbon accumulation in the Falkland Islands. Quaternary Science Reviews, 212, 213-218.

Schellekens, J., Buurman, P. and Pontevedra-Pombal, X., 2009. Selecting parameters for the environmental interpretation of peat molecular chemistry–a pyrolysis-GC/MS study. Organic Geochemistry, 40, 678-691

Ritson, J., Evans, C.D., Restoring unique Falkland Island peatlands could mean the islands store more carbon than they produce. Green Alliance Inside Track blog, available at:
https://greenallianceblog.org.uk/2020/08/27/restoring-unique-falkland-island-peatlandscould-mean-the-islands-store-more-carbon-than-they-produce/

COVID-19

The Falklands have been COVID-free since April 2020, and local restrictions have been removed, offering a rare opportunity for unconstrained international research. The MOD’s Airbridge flights are subject to strong infection control measures, and all arrivals required to self-quarantine for two weeks. We will carefully risk-assess all activities, and if quarantine measures still apply we will mitigate their impacts by scheduling fewer, longer field campaigns. Supervisory meetings will be held online and the student equipped with a laptop and other facilities for home working. Travel between UKCEH, UoL and NHM labs will be planned according to conditions at the time.