Overview

Northern peatlands play a crucial role in terrestrial carbon storage and sequestration. They cover only 3% of the Earth’s land surface, but contain around 33% (500 billion tonnes) of total soil carbon. If this carbon were released, atmospheric CO2 concentrations would increase by ⅔. Ecosystem processes such as carbon cycling are dependent on plant community composition and function. Peatland plant communities, therefore, play a key role in carbon sequestration and the impact of environmental change on carbon storage.

Within peatlands, plant community composition and structure vary substantially at a variety of scales. For example, patterned bogs have a distinctive microtopography of hummocks and hollows, with associated small-scale variability in hydrological conditions (dryer hummocks, wet hollows and standing water in pools), and vegetation composition (Fig. 1). Understanding the spatial pattern of this variation is important to link between small-scale processes and the operation of those processes at bog, regional and global scales. Mapping vegetation and other features across bogs is, however, very challenging due to the difficult nature of the terrain.

Small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS; drones) are a transformative technology in ecology. They provide the unique ability to obtain extremely high-resolution aerial imagery at spatial scales of c. 1 km2, on-demand and at low cost. This project will use sUAS to map vegetation and other features on peatlands. The aim is to use these data to upscale patterns and processes to whole-bog, between-bog and regional scales.

We are looking for an applicant with a degree/MSc in Ecology, Environmental Science, Biology or similar discipline, and experience in, or a desire to learn, plant identification skills. Enthusiasm for undertaking fieldwork and learning how to fly sUAS and use mapping software (e.g. ArcGIS) is also essential. There are a variety of potential approaches to this project. These include (but are not limited to) assessing the extent, population size and pattern of invasion of the non-native carnivorous plant Sarracenia purpurea; determining the effectiveness of peatland restoration; and understanding bioclimatic impacts on bog plant community patterns. There is, therefore, a large amount of scope for the student to determine the direction of the study.

Aerial photo of Hällabomossen, Sweden. This photo is derived from photos taken from an sUAS.

Methodology

Emerging technologies such as sUAS (small Unmanned Aircraft Systems) and SfM-MVS (Structure-from-Motion with Multi-View Stereo) are beginning to revolutionise data collection in both ecology and the geosciences (e.g. Anderson & Gaston 3013). Loughborough University is well placed to be at the forefront of this revolution by capitalising on our expertise in terrestrial ecology, geospatial technologies and sUAS.

The project will involve detailed surveys of plant communities, plant populations, and/or ecological processes and possibly their relation to microtopography (aspect, slope angle, substrate type), hydrological conditions and micro-climatology over small areas. These will be combined with data from sUAS and SfM-MVS to map habitats and processes at bog-scale with unprecedented precision (horizontal/vertical accuracies of a few cm). These data will allow us to build high-resolution maps of bogs, which will be used to investigate spatial processes, and will then be validated at other sites before being applied more widely.

Site choice will depend on the exact research question, but the supervisory team have extensive experience and knowledge of bogs across Europe.

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 CENTA research themes.

In addition to this the student will receive sUAS flight training, use of GIS, plus training in plant identification skills. The project will, therefore, develop some key skills identified by NERC as ‘most wanted’ for jobs in the environment sector such as, fieldwork, sampling techniques, field observation and modelling.

Timeline

Year 1: A significant part of this year will be spent on question development, based on reviews of existing literature and learning key skills. The student will undertake sUAV flight training and plant identification training. This will be followed by initial field campaign and pilot study designed to test and refine vegetation mapping procedures form aerial photos.

Year 2: Further question development, informed by the results from year 1. The majority of the fieldwork will be undertaken in this year.

Year 3: This year will be spent addressing the key questions identified, with the potential for final smaller scale field experimentation. This year is the ideal year for attending an international conference.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

This project provides excellent opportunities for collaborating with other organisations. The exact nature of these partnerships depends on the exact nature of the final research question. There is real potential for close collaboration with national and local conservation organisations such as Natural England, Natural Resources Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage, Local Wildlife Trusts, RSPB.

Further Details

For further information, or to discuss the project, please contact Dr Jonathan Millett (J.Millett@lboro.ac.uk). For enquiries about the application process, please contact the School of Social, Political and Geographical Sciences Research (spgsresearch@lboro.ac.uk). Please quote CENTA when completing the application form: http://www.lboro.ac.uk/study/apply/research/.