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.

The boreal biome is a complex mosaic of ecosystems (forests, wetlands, lakes) either competing or acting in symbiosis for limited resources. The interactions between these hydrological units control catchment scale function and the associated response of the landscape to disturbance. However, our capability to assess the bidirectional nature of interactions between mosaic units over floods and droughts and their impact of catchment biogeochemical processes is limited by the multi-decade time period over which these climatic conditions occur. Utilizing unique experimental catchment manipulations, this project will explore such interactions within one such catchment within northern Sweden. It will assess how drought and flood conditions induce flow reversals across forestland, wetland and pond interface in response to catchment scale manipulations and the resultant formation of biogeochemical hotspots and hot moments. Further, through a transcontinental paired experimental design, it will assess how these hydrological interactions differ between boreal climatic extremes; from the maritime climatic conditions of Sweden to sub humid climate of the western boreal plain. Integrating with million pound European and industrial research projects, knowledge gained will direct future catchment management and inform the design 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 study regions, Krycklan (http://www.slu.se/Krycklan) and URSA.  Research infrastructure will build on and integrate strongly with the diverse array of hydrological, biogeochemistry and micro meteorological monitoring equipment within these long term study sites, each extending over 10 years. Traditional measurement techniques targeted at the interface zones will be enhanced through the use of high-tech approaches 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, you will integrate within the active and diverse Physical Geography research group and Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR). You will also 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 INTERFACES, HypoTRAIN, and HEAD3, research programmes.  This will provide you with a wide range of hydrological, biogeochemical, ecological and meteorological measurement skills as well as field work, statistical, information technology, modelling, data handling and project management skills.



Year 1: Analysis of preliminary data already collected through the 2017 field season to inform experimental design. Three month placement at the Krycklan catchment. Installation of hydrological monitoring network across forest, wetland, lake regions. Manipulation of lake level outputs and the associated flow dynamics through the regulation of river outflow. Assessment of carbon dynamics, targeted at ecosystem interfaces. Measures of pore water CO2 and CH4 concentrations and gas exchanges through diffusion and ebullition.    

Year 2: Analysis of findings from Y1 and production of first paper for publication. Numerical simulations of system hydrological dynamics. Implementation of novel instrumentation approaches based on Y1 findings and numerical simulations to target hotpot biochemistry (low costs sensors, high frequency monitoring networks) across critical interface zones. Implementation of approaches through a second three month field placement at Krycklan.

Year 3: Formulation of conceptual framework of boreal ecosystem interface biogeochemistry. Two month placement at the University of Alberta, Canada. Comparison of maritime biogeochemical responses to flow reversal over short term manipulations within continental boreal systems over long term climate cycles utilizing the long term data set or URSA.  Writing of papers for publication. 

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, the project closely aligns 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