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School of Geography

Masters by Research Projects (Ecology and Global Change)

Project 1: Understanding underground biomass in Japanese knotweed
Supervisors: Dr Karen Bacon (, Dr Mark Smith (m.w.smith(at), University of Leeds & Mark Fennell (Aecom)

Understanding the extent of the underground biomass and rhizome/seed longevity in the soil is crucial to managing invasive non-native species. Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) is suspected to have a large rhizome network that remains viable in the soil long after herbicide treatment has ceased. This has led to the frequently cited 7 m rule being used as a reason to deny mortgage applications on properties with infestations. However, this distance is not based on experimentation and requires further investigation. Depending on student’s interests, the project could (i) use ground penetrating radar to determine the extent of the rhizome network across a range of soil types and stand maturities; (ii) investigate the rate at which Japanese knotweed rhizome extends using historical and current satellite imagery and site investigation across a range of habitat types; (iii) investigate the longevity of buried rhizome material using herbicide treatment, burial and exhumation experiments; (iv) calculate cell death rate microscopically over the period of the research project to determine half-life and to model longevity; (v) investigate the depth that seeds/rhizomes of the each species are found across a range of soil types and conditions for a range of distances from parent plants.

Dr Bacon is happy to supervise projects relating to plant functional ecology; palaeoecology; plant–atmosphere interactions; invasive plants

Project 2: Tree zone ecology: Investigate and evaluate the ecological benefits of long grass zones under park trees
Supervisors: Dr Julie Peacock (j.peacock(at) and Dr Karen Bacon

As places of outstanding beauty and cultural significance, historic parks and gardens are important to society today in providing a stimulating and healthy environment for outdoor activities and social wellbeing. Many of the trees integral to these landscapes are of great age and, as independent ecosystems, they are naturally inclined to produce dead wood and shed branches. One of the accepted methods of discouraging access by people to the ground beneath large trees is to adopt a parkland mowing regime that allows long grass to grow under the trees. Rather than merely serving as a compromise these long grass zones may well be beneficial to the tree, such as in reducing soil compaction, protecting roots and supporting a greater range of biological communities beneficial to the tree, which in turn could improve the health and prolong the life of the tree. The exact direction of the research could be driven by the research interests of the student. Information derived from research into the ecological benefits of establishing managed long grass zones under park trees will be fed into tree management policy of the study site: Harewood House.

Project 3: Peatland response to recent climate warming in the Alaskan North Slope
Supervisors: Dr Graeme Swindles (g.t.swindles(at) and Dr Paul Morris.

There is much concern about the effects of climate warming on permafrost peatlands. This project will focus on developing new multi-proxy palaeoecological records from frozen peatlands in northern Alaska. The data will be used to evaluate the influence of recent climate change on vegetation communities, carbon accumulation, permafrost dynamics and hydrology.

Dr Swindles welcomes enquires for MSc by Research in the following areas:  Environmental change; Quaternary science; climate change and palaeoclimate; palaeoecology and palaeoenvironmental reconstruction; Arctic, temperate and tropical peatlands; microbial ecology and micropalaeontology (testate amoebae); volcanic ash and volcano-climate interactions.

Project 4: Drought-induced tree mortality: a methodologic perspective to assess embolism formation
Supervisors: Dr David Galbraith, Prof. Emanuel Gloor, and Julia Tavares (gyjvt(at)

Hydraulic failure has been shown as the most likely cause of drought-induced tree mortality around the world. To better predict how forests will be affected by climate change, it is fundamentally important to find the best approach to assess embolism formation and characterize tree vulnerability and resistance to drought. The central aim of the proposed project is to compare two different approaches to assess hydraulic failures in plants. To do so, the student will induce drought conditions in a range of different tree species and evaluate their response to water stress. The findings from this project will be help to better understand causes of tree mortality in Amazonian forests.

Project 5: Using smartphones to crowdsource meteorological data
Supervisor: Dr Guy Ziv (g.ziv(at)

Development of climate-related early warning systems (EWS) requires accurate, frequent and fine resolution meteorological data on temperature, wind, pressure, rainfall and humidity. The proliferation of Internet-connected mobile devices has created an opportunity for crowdsourcing smartphone sensor data for environmental research and EWS. For example, previous research (Overeem et al. Geophys. Res. Let. 40, 4081–4085) showed how battery temperature predicts daily averaged air temperatures. This project aims to explore further applications of crowdsourced mobile sensor data, collected via the WeatherSignal App. The project is suited for a student with good computational/statistical skills and ideally some programming experience, with an interest in Big Data use for environmental research.

Project 6: Climate effects on tropical tree growth: light vs. drought limitations
Supervisor: Dr Roel Brienen (r.brienen(at)

Tropical forests are an important component of the global water and carbon cycles. Despite their importance very little is known on tropical tree responses to variation in climate. Specifically, it has been suggested that tropical tree productivity may be limited by water at drier sites and light at wetter sites, but few observational data exist. In this project you will use tree rings and isotopes to unravel the effects of drought and light limitations on tropical tree growth and photosynthesis. You will make use of existing tree ring samples from various different sites in the Amazon basin and Central America, and analyse ring width and carbon isotopes to understand growth responses to light and drought. The work involves an exciting combination of dendrochronology (tree ring analysis) and advanced state of the art isotope analysis.

Project 7: Diversity and traits of tropical nitrogen-fixing trees
Supervisor: Dr Sarah Batterman (s.a.batterman(at)

Details TBA.

Dr Batterman welcomes any enquiries to undertake a Masters by Research on this broad topic.