PhD opportunity: Long-term recovery of tropical forest carbon and diversity after fire: a cross continental comparison

Supervisors: Dr Sophie Fauset, Dr Paul Lunt

Project description

Are you looking for an exciting PhD opportunity working on globally significant research questions in tropical ecosystems?  Are you able to combine extensive fieldwork with spatial analytical techniques?  Do you want to work in collaboration with an international team?

Climate change and human impacts are causing alarming increases in the occurrence of fires inside tropical forests. As tropical moist forest trees have been virtually immune to fires at evolutionary timescales, fires cause high levels of tree mortality resulting in biomass and species losses. The extent and timescale of the recovery of forest carbon and species composition, and how this varies across different tropical regions, is hampered by a severe lack of data. This project will address this knowledge gap in the global carbon budget by:

  • carrying out field surveys of previously burnt forests to gain the longest records of tropical forest recovery from fire (Ghana and Borneo)
  • collating published datasets to supplement field data, comparing the extent of forest recovery over multiple decades at multiple locations in at least three continents (Africa, Asia, South America)
  • using remote sensing to upscale results on carbon stock lost after fire and its recovery over time.

The project will involve collaboration with researchers at the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana, Ghana Forestry Commission, Universiti Brunei Darussalam, University of Lancaster, and University of Leeds.

You will gain practical and leadership skills while carrying out international field work the tropics. You will develop high-level analytical skills working with large field and remote sensing datasets utilising state of the art integrated computing tools such as R, Google Earth Engine, and GIS. You will develop skills in project management. You will learn how to produce scientific papers of the highest quality, and will be expected to present globally important research at international conferences. You will interact with leading researchers and develop a global network of collaborators.

Although closed canopy tropical forests are historically only weakly flammable, due to fragmentation, logging, agricultural impacts, and climate change, the number of wildfires extending into closed canopy forests has increased globally (Cochrane 2003). Tropical forest tree species are not well adapted to fire, and post-fire mortality rates of up to 90 per cent have been observed. This causes a large release of carbon emissions into the atmosphere from the combustion of wood and litter, and the eventual decomposition of dead biomass. Recent fires in the Amazon are thought to have released more carbon than from all tropical deforestation combined (Aragão et al. 2018). A key question is whether these forests can regenerate in terms of biomass and species composition, and the timescale of this recovery. This is highly relevant to the carbon cycle, and therefore global climate.

A number of studies have assessed post-fire recovery, but the majority studies have very short timescales (<5 years, exceptionally 9-15 years, Slik et al. 2002, Slik et al. 2008, Barlow and Peres 2008). All of these studies show negative impacts of fire, but longer timescales are necessary to address the full impacts on biomass and species composition. An as-yet unpublished dataset collected by the primary supervisor details recovery of Ghanaian forests from fires which occurred during the 1983 El Niño event and measured 27 years later. This data showed positive signs of regeneration with a range of 15-70 years for full recovery of forest structure. Intriguingly, recent work by Silva et al. (2018) showed recovery of Amazonian burnt forests had stalled when measured up to 30 years post fire. It is possible that African forests, which may have experienced greater fire occurrence in their evolutionary history, are more resilient than Amazonian forests where the climate is generally wetter. This study will extend Ghanaian and Bornean post-fire records to reach 37 years after fire, and collate datasets from the literature to enable a multi-continental comparison of recovery with the longest records to date. These ground datasets will be used in remote sensing analyses to scale up forest carbon loss and regrowth data across much larger focal study areas.


Applicants should have as a minimum a 1st or 2:1 undergraduate degree in a relevant subject and preferably a relevant masters degree. (e.g. ecology, environmental science, biology, geography or other relevant discipline). You must have a desire to travel and capacity to work in challenging tropical field conditions. Prior field experience is required.

Experience of working in tropical environments as well as proficiency in data analysis and/or spatial analysis is desirable.

If you wish to discuss this project further, please contact Dr Sophie Fauset. However applications must be in accordance with the details below.


The studentship is supported for three years and includes full home/EU tuition fees plus a stipend of £15,009 per annum.  

Applicants normally required to cover overseas fees will have to cover the difference between the home/EU and the overseas tuition fee rates (approximately £12,285 per annum).

How to apply

General information about applying for a research degree at the University of Plymouth.

Please apply via the online application form which can be found at: and click ‘Apply’.  

Please mark it FAO Nikki King, clearly stating that you are applying for a PhD studentship within the School of Geography, Earth and Environment. Please attach a covering letter detailing your suitability for the studentship, a CV, research statement, and 2 academic references.

The closing date for applications is 12 noon on 31 May 2019. Shortlisted candidates will be invited for interview mid June. We regret that we may not be able to respond to all applications. Applicants who have not received an offer of a place by 30 June 2019 should consider their application has been unsuccessful on this occasion.


Aragão et al. 2018. 21st Century drought-related fires counteract the decline of Amazon deforestation carbon emissions. Nature Communications.

Barlow & Peres 2008. Fire-mediated dieback and compositional cascade in an Amazonian forest. Phil. Trans. Royal Society.

Cochrane 2003. Fire science for rainforests. Nature.

Silva et al. 2018. Drought-induced Amazonian wildfires instigate a decadal-scale disruption of forest carbon dynamics. Phil. Trans. Royal Society.

Slik et al. 2002. Effects of fire and selective logging on the tree species composition of lowland dipterocarp forest in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Biodiversity and Conservation.