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School of Geography

Ecohydrological response of peatlands to climate change

Supervisors: Professor Joseph Holden, Dr Wolfgang Buermann

Email: j.holden(at) 

This global scale and ambitious project seeks to investigate how peatlands will respond to climate change over the next 200 years. Such knowledge is vital because: i) large land surface areas are dominated by peatlands; ii) large populations currently rely on peatlands for ecosystem services such as drinking water, food etc and iii) peatlands provide a potentially huge feedback to climate (both as a potentially vast sink and source of greenhouse gases) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledge that we need to better incorporate peatlands into future models of global climate change.

Peatlands can be strongly affected by changes in both the hydrological cycle and the temperature regime as these factors act as dominant controls on the uptake, store and release of carbon from peatlands. However, vegetation cover in peatlands acts as a potential mediator of climate and there are large feedback effects between vegetation, the hydrology and the net carbon release or uptake. Therefore it will be important to understand how these interactions might occur under future climates.

There are likely to be large spatial differences in how peatlands respond to climate change. Cold northern peatlands may warm and become ‘greener’ with more sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere. On the other hand, warmer low latitude peatlands may be subject to enhanced methane release due to warming or in some places enhanced droughtiness and more rapid evapotranspiration may result in more frequent desiccation events which could alter the vegetation dynamics and carbon cycle of the peatland.

This project, supervised by two leading researchers with complimentary expertise, will produce global and regional maps quantifying recent changes in peatlands and their process-based climate drivers. The project will also produce maps, for climate change scenarios, where peatlands will become net sinks or sources of carbon and where they will have a net positive or negative radiative forcing impact. Note that the two maps will not be the same as it is possible for a peatland to be a net sink of carbon but have a net radiative forcing effect on climate (e.g. if it releases lots of methane).

The student will modify models to encapsulate relevant peatland processes. For example, many dynamic global vegetation models are suited to vascular plant processes but many peatlands have a cover of Sphagnum moss which functions (in terms of hydrological and carbon uptake behaviour) in a very different way due to its physiology. The student will access datasets from long-term monitoring programmes on peatlands around the world which the University of Leeds is in the process of assembling on behalf of a global peatland monitoring network. The student will also use remote sensing data, peat models, and climate change projections for peatland locations. The project will suit a student interested in a largely desk-based study, developing a global scale research agenda, with high quality publications in leading international journals.

Training in modelling and peatland processes will be provided and the supervisors can provide a network of international collaborators who can provide data and support to the project.

The student would join one of the world’s largest groups of peatland researchers in the world. The group regularly attracts international visitors and the group holds weekly sessions providing training, open discussion and an active forum for debate in which all PhD students, postdoctoral staff, technicians and academics are welcome. Thomson-Reuters recently showed that the papers produced by the Leeds peatland group were world class with the 2nd highest mean citation rate per paper for any of the top 10 peatland groups in the world who produce the greatest volume of papers. In addition the student would become joint members of the River Basin Processes and Management Research Cluster in Geography and the Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences in the School of Earth and Environment. The student would therefore have access to a wide support network.

Entry requirements/necessary background for students

Relevant undergraduate course in environmental or physical sciences with minimum 2.1 or equivalent Masters degree or equivalent.  Modelling experience would be desirable.


This project can be applied for in conjunction with Leeds Anniversary Scholarship (LARS) funding. For further information, please click here

For further information about PICC visit