Project Highlights:

  • Integration of globally leading researchers and world class facilities plus intercontinental field sites.
  • Research questions of global reach and significance linked with industrial partners and stake holders.
  • Working across hydrology-ecology-climate science interfaces


Boreal forests represent a critical global biome. Home to vast sources of oil, minerals and lumber, the biome acts as a global carbon store and climate regulator. Here carbon reserves are likely to vastly exceed that of tropical forests. However, this critical biome is facing a broad range of disturbances. Such high latitudes are the fastest warming regions on the planet. They are also facing extreme droughts, increased wildfire activity, severe insect infestations as well as extensive mineral exploration and mining activities. Determining the resilience of these environments to such a broad and diverse array of compound disturbances is critical to quantify their impact on global climates, regional water resources, and to inform appropriate, effective management and reclamation strategies. However, the boreal biome is not a uniform environment, but a complex mosaic of ecosystems either competing or acting in symbiosis for limited resources (water, nutrients, light). Such interactions take place in a narrow ‘critical zone’ (CZ) between ecosystem units. Despite being largely overlooked in boreal research, this CZ is a gateway that modulates landscape stability and function. This project aims to explore the interactions between constituent ecosystems, focussing specifically on interactions between wetlands and forestlands. Through a unique transcontinental research experiment, this project will explore the hydrological interactions and how they differ between extreme boreal climate regimes, from the sub humid climate of the western boreal plain to the maritime climatic conditions of Sweden. Working at the interface of hydrological, ecology and climate sciences, the research will determine how ecosystems adapt to take advantage of this CZ to control water storage within the peatland and maximise the resilience of their carbon stocks. It will investigate how changes local and regional hydrogeology, soils and topography control these interactions and the threat to such CZs of a changing climate and increased fire severities. Knowledge gained will direct future management and catchment designs by providing the foundation for the development of resilient catchments and self-sustaining ecosystems in the next generation of reclaimed Alberta Oil Sand environments.

Location of the three world-leading boreal hydrological and ecological research centres which form the foundation of this project.


The field research will be undertaken within the two core study regions, URSA and Krycklan (http://www.slu.se/Krycklan).  Research infrastructure will build on and integrate strongly with the diverse array of ecohydrological and micrometeorological monitoring equipment within these long term study sites, each extending over 10 years. Traditional measurement techniques targeted at the critical interface zones will be enhanced through the use of high-tech approaches and landscape manipulations (site drainage) to quantify and characterise its hydrological function (notably the use of stable isotopes, geophysical imaging techniques and fibre-optic monitoring systems). This will develop on the skills and interests of the prospective candidate. Where appropriate, key feedbacks and interactions will be identified and tested through experimental monoliths within the new Birmingham Environmental Change Outdoor laboratory.  Knowledge gained from these field and laboratory based approaches will be integrated within state-of-the-art modelling software currently being applied within singular climatic regions to explore the sensitivity of these critical zones to the primary climatic driver.

Training and Skills

CENTA students are required to complete 45 days training throughout their PhD including a 10 day placement. In the first year, students will be trained as a single cohort on environmental science, research methods and core skills. Throughout the PhD, training will progress from core skills sets to master classes specific to the student's projects and themes. 

In addition to the CENTA training, and your integration within the active and diverse Water Science group and Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR), you will join a core team of researchers and academics from five different universities from around the world providing detailed and targeted training to meet the specific needs through the project. There is also the opportunity to participate in Canadian and European wide training courses of the HEAD3, INTERFACES and HypoTRAIN research programmes.  This will provide you with a wide range of hydrological, ecological, biogeochemical and meteorological measurement skills as well as field work, statistical, information technology, modelling, data handling and project management skills.


Year 1: Identification of critical zones for detailed instrumentation and larger scale rapid assessment for synoptic characterisation and contextualisation. Development of current long-term monitoring networks with targeted installation of instrumentation within the critical zone.  

Year 2: Identification of key feedbacks and the development of high resolution monitoring approaches to quantify the important water and dissolved organic carbon transport and storage processes across the critical zone. Formulation and implementation of associated monolith experimentation within ECOLAB to enhance understanding of key interactions and feedbacks.

Year 3: Use of field based measurements and laboratory studies to inform the conceptual understanding of the ecohydrological function of wetland-forestland interface and the control of climate. Development of modelling approaches to explore the diversity of response within the targeted study regions and across the breadth of the boreal region. 

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

This CASE studentship will be undertaken in collaboration industrial partners (and associated projects) within the Alberta Oil Sands (Syncrude and Canadian Natural Resources ltd). As a result, knowledge from this research will inform the reclamation of oil sand landscapes through the development of appropriate conceptual understanding of ecosystem function.  The research will also be undertaken in close collaboration with a range of academic partners within the UK, Canada, Sweden and beyond that are world leaders in the field of boreal ecohydrology. Further it  aligns closely with i) the Interfaces ITN which examines ecohydrological interfaces as critical hotspots for transformations of ecosystem exchange fluxes and ii) the recent funded RISE project that applies smart high frequency sensor networks to quantify nonlinear hydrological processes dynamics. (http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/generic/interfaces/index.aspx)

Further Details

For further information about the project or the CENTA PhD programme, please do not hesitate to contact the supervisory team by email under the addresses given above. Further details of research groups can be found at:

Birmingham Water Sciences:


Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR):


Krycklan field station: http://www.slu.se/Krycklan