Overview

Project Highlights:

  • Study the impacts of past management on peatland recovery from wildfire to develop strategies for future restoration.
  • Research a high-profile major national incident (Saddleworth Moor wildfire) with globally leading researchers and world class facilities.
  • Working with, and receiving training from, key conservation organisations to produce research with real-world applications.

Overview

The recent Saddleworth Moor fire burned over 1000 hectares of UK upland, instigated a major national incident, led to the evacuation of 100 homes and placed considerable strain on UK emergency services, with even the army activated to support fire suppression. Such large-scale high-severity wildfires are projected to become more frequent across the UK as climate change results in enhanced meteorological extremes.

The Saddleworth fire burned areas of globally significant carbon-rich peatlands that dominate large areas of UK upland landscapes. Despite the intensity of such fires, peatlands across the globe are resilient to wildfire. This is because their high moisture content protects the peat from extreme temperatures. Ecological and hydrological processes also support the recovery of the ecosystem post-fire.

However, within the UK, peatland ecosystems have been exposed to a range of additional disturbances for centuries: atmospheric deposition, drainage, grazing, managed burns and historical wildfires. These disturbances can compound the impact of wildfire and leave peatlands vulnerable to intense fires. As such, there is a renewed need to restore degraded peatlands to increase their resilience to future extreme events. Despite this, the evidence-base to support the implementation of such restoration practises to enhance peatland resilience to wildfire is poor.

The Saddleworth fire offers an exceptional opportunity to enhance this evidence-base. The PhD aims, i) to determine the impact of the intense wildfire on peatlands under different levels of degradation and ii) assess the extent to which restoration approaches protect peatlands from intense fires and enhance ecosystem stability. The PhD project will achieve this goal through close collaboration with key non-academic partners involved in the management and restoration of UK peatlands, characterising the recovery trajectories of degraded and restored peatland regions within the Saddleworth fire.

Understanding the nature of wildfire impacts on UK peatlands needs a multidisciplinary approach requiring understanding of ecological, hydrological, biogeochemical and micrometeorological processes. We are looking for a motivated geography, environmental science or ecology graduate to take on this challenging project, working with government, NGO and private sector stakeholders to produce high quality science that will have real, applied impact beyond academia.

Figure 1. Copernicus map of Saddleworth Moor wildfire, insert burning in the head water of the Dove stone reservoir. Image Alan Yates.

Methodology

This field based study will utilise the unique opportunity provided by the Saddleworth wildfire. You will initiate the onsite instrumentation and monitoring of plots across the burned and unburned peatland. Measurements will specifically target ecological processes (such as vegetation cover, composition, and structure), hydrological processes (evapotranspiration, ground water dynamics) and/or geomorphic processes (such as erosion). Plots will cover a diverse range of pre-fire management and restoration strategies. Further the project will instigate and assess post-fire manipulation experiments that aim to promote active peat initiation, e.g. moss inoculation (planting). You will also manipulate the thermal behaviour and moisture content of sections of the peatland to replicate warmer climates and drought conditions to observe their impact on recovery trajectories. Knowledge gained from these measurements will determine the potential for resilience of UK peatlands under a range of compound disturbances and restoration strategies to changes in the wildfire regime.

Training and Skills

You will also receive specific training in hydrological monitoring, wildfire severity assessment, plant identification, statistical modelling, soil and hydro-chemical analysis, and surveying. This will develop some key skills identified by NERC as ‘most wanted’ for jobs in the environment sector such as multi-disciplinarily, translating research into practice, fieldwork and numeracy. Further, you will join a large, active, peatland research community at Birmingham and Loughborough which examine peatland function and their response to disturbances across the globe. This will be complemented by placements within Natural England, providing understanding of end user implementation, government policy, partner engagement and research impact.

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. Assessment of pre disturbance vegetation from implemented management interventions, preburn monitoring, remote sensing imagery and in-field interpretation. Formulation of project sampling strategy and demarcation of study plots. Quantification of burn severities and measurement of ecological diversity and abundance within study plots. Installation of small scale manipulations to limit available rainfall and promote higher surface temperatures combined with inoculation (planting) of moss species in line with current restoration guidelines.

Year 2: Detailed physical and biogeochemical assessment of study plots. The specific focus of these measurements will be directed by both the spatiotemporal scales and ecohydrological processes of interest to the PhD student. However, measurements will target the primary hydrological conditions that promote the recovery of the systems towards an active carbon accumulating peatland; notably the growth of moss species. Further it will target an understanding of the ecohydrological feedback mechanisms that support such conditions (controls on peatland evapotranspiration and near surface moisture content) and the strength of these feedback responses to maintain peatland development trajectories under warmer and drier post fire periods. Development of first publication from PhD exploring the control of upland management activities on burn severity and initial post fire vegetation recovery.

Year 3: Measurement of ecological diversity and abundance of upland species and associated environmental conditions four years post disturbance. Detailed statistical modelling, with potential to develop numerical modelling component in order to simulate longer term trajectories and/or a greater range of post fire climatic conditions. Formulation of final publications and preparation of PhD thesis.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

Partnership and collaboration is at the very heart of this PhD programme, with organisations implementing and overseeing the ongoing restoration of the UK’s peatland ecosystems directly involved in the development and supervision of the PhD. The research will be undertaken within areas of the upland landscape managed by the RSPB and exploring the impact of their restoration efforts. This will be supported by the Moors for the Future Partnership that aims to develop knowledge and expertise in the sustainable management of UK uplands. The research project will both advise, but also be directly informed by, UK Government through the support from Natural England.

Further Details

https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/staff/profiles/gees/kettridge-nick.aspx

https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/physical-geography/index.aspx

http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/geography/staff/jonathon-millett/

http://www.moorsforthefuture.org.uk/