Project highlights:

  • New methods using digital technology to determine and illustrate high resolution carbon storage within a landscape to contribute to natural capital assessments.
  • Synthesis and use of recent UK experimental research on the effects of trees, hedgerows and land management interventions on above- and below-carbon storage at different depths.
  • Comparison of land management scenarios to increase carbon storage.
  • Synergies with the NERC Energyscapes and Ecosystem Services Project.

The UK is seeking to minimise climate change by reducing net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by storing higher levels of carbon on agricultural and forest land. GHG emissions are the greatest negative environmental effect of rural land use in the UK, carbon storage is a form of natural capital, and maps of soil and above-ground carbon storage have been produced for England at 1 km resolution (CEH 2018). Whilst national maps exist, most land management decisions are taken at a farm- or landscape-level, and a 1 km resolution is insufficient to examine the effect of management options such as tree planting, hedgerow expansion, and conservation tillage (Upson et al. 2016; Axe et al., 2017; Giannitsopoulos et al. 2019). Hence the aim of this PhD is to develop and evaluate procedures for developing high resolution 3D map/models of below- and above ground carbon that uses innovations in digital technology and recent research results, and which can be applied at farm- and landscape scale (Fig 1). The anticipated model will build on a vertical resolution for soil C model of 10 cm (as used by Veronesi et al. 2014), but increase the horizontal resolution to allow the examination of the effect of changes in field management and landscape features such as hedgerows. Such a map/model will be useful in i) high-resolution assessments of natural capital, ii) assessments of the effect of different farm practices on carbon storage, and iii) could help inform future agri-environment regulations.

The research builds on recent UK experimental research, much involving the PI, on determining the effect of landscape features such as trees (Upson and Burgess 2013, Upson, 2014; Upson et al., 2016; Fornara et al. 2018, García de Jalón et al. 2018) and hedgerows (Axe et al. 2016) on above- and below-ground carbon storage at different depth increments (Fig. 1). The proposed case study region of 16 km2 in Bedfordshire has been used to pilot previous NERC landscape-scale research (Howard et al. 2012; Burgess et al. 2012; Rivas-Casado et al. 2014). The research also builds on recent improvements in digital image provision.


Figure 1: The objective is to increase the resolution of above- and below-ground carbon storage maps


1) To synthesise research on the effect of UK-relevant farm management on above- and below-ground carbon.

2) To synthesise existing spatial data related to the above for the case study of Marston Vale, used in a previous NERC project on ecosystem services (Burgess et al. 2012). The Vale comprises a 16000 ha water catchment with 70% agricultural cover. Historic land cover, hedgerow and soil layers have been derived.

3) To use i) aerial images and ii) farmer interviews to determine current and historic land cover/use in the case study, and iii) selected stratified measurements of carbon to create and validate a high resolution 3D map of carbon storage of sufficient horizontal resolution to allow examination of in-field management and landscape features such as hedgerows.

4) To develop algorithms to produce updated 3-D maps to determine the effect of contrasting management innovations (e.g. hedgerow width; tillage) on carbon storage.


Training and Skills

Depending on the existing skills set of the successful student, she/he will accrue 100 CTCs across the three years. Possible training at Cranfield include modules (20 credits each) in: i) “Principles of Sustainability” which provides a basis for natural capital and ecosystem service assessment; ii) “Soil Systems” which describes soil carbon management, and iii) “Financial and Economic Appraisal” which describes the bio-economic modelling of tree growth and carbon storage, iv) “Spatial Data Management” including database structure and INSPIRE protocols, and v) “Modelling Environmental Processes” which covers spatial model design.


Year 1: Recruitment of PhD student. A systematic review of relevant research on the effect of rural land use (e.g. conservation tillage, ploughing, drainage, tree planting, hedgerow management) on the storage of carbon at different soil depths and heights above ground in agricultural and woodland systems. Collation of existing data in a GIS on soil and land cover, use and management in the Marston Vale case study area. Determination of i) how to make use of IACS data and ii) how to address the temporal nature of carbon storage e.g. growth of trees, dynamics of soil carbon, in the maps.

Year 2: Completion of interviews with farmers regarding land management practices such as a history of conservation tillage that may not be apparent from aerial images. Completion of an updated GIS of the study area with carbon storage layers of a resolution of 10 cm soil depths, and sufficient horizontal resolution to describe the effect of hedgerows. Completion of supplementary carbon and dimensional measurements to evaluate the results. Agreement on potential management interventions (e.g. hedgerow width, tree planting) to increase carbon storage.

Year 3: Completion of scenario analysis of management options. Submission of paper on mapping of below- and above-ground carbon storage for the study area. Submission of PhD.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

The previous Marston Vale Ecosystem Services project (Howard et al. 2012) was a collaborative project involving researchers from Cranfield, CEH, and the University of Birmingham, and the project will build on these links and the resources of the Soil Survey held at Cranfield. The Marston Vale Trust has indicated support for the project and the PI has had positive initial responses from the Bedfordshire Local Nature Partnership. The PI will also seek support from Central Bedfordshire Council, SEMLEP, land-use consultancies, developers within the Oxford-Cambridge Growth Area, and national stakeholders such Natural England and the UK Natural Capital Committee.

Further Details

Paul Burgess,

Reader in Crop Ecology and Management, Cranfield Soil and Agrifood Institute, School of Water, Energy and Environment, Building 52a, Cranfield University, Cranfield, Bedfordshire, MK43 0AL, UK

Tel: +44 (0) 1234 754291 - E-mail: P.Burgess@cranfield.ac.uk


The student will be based at the Cranfield campus at Cranfield in Bedfordshire - https://www.cranfield.ac.uk/About/How-to-find-Cranfield