Quantifying and understanding tropical peatland spatial distribution and carbon storage in Central Africa

Largely anecdotal evidence suggests that sub-Saharan Africa may contain large areas of peatlands, several times the extent of those in the UK, with peat thickness reports of 30-60 m in the Congo Basin. If correct, this indicates that these areas, on a per area basis, are some of the world's densest carbon stores. Discovering and quantifying the carbon stored in such peatlands, and the environmental controls on their extent and distribution, is therefore critical to (1) improving our understanding of carbon cycling in Africa, the least well-understood continent from this perspective, (2) modelling future climate change impacts and (3) managing this resource. In addition, the description of previously unknown and/or unquantified peat deposits may provide direct benefits for Central African governments and local people in the form of access to payments to reduce carbon emissions from land-use change. This has the potential to have a clear societal impact in terms of alleviating poverty in one of the world's most income-poor regions. Therefore the project will describe, map and quantify the peatlands and their carbon storage across the Republic of Congo.

The project has been developed with the CASE partner Wildlife Conservation Society-Congo, the largest conservation NGO in Congo, who monitor and co-manage, with the Congolese government, 2.8 million ha of forest and wetland habitat in Congo, which is likely to include major peat deposits (storing 2.4 Pg C by one recent estimate).

The project enables possibly policy-framing research - as belowground carbon stores are currently not considered in most discussions of payments for ecosystem services - that ordinarily WCS-Congo would not have the expertise to undertake alone.

The student will (1) utilise remote sensing products and local on-the-ground knowledge to identify the most likely areas of peat accumulation, (2) visit some of these in the field to discover how much peat exists and characterise the overlying vegetation, (3) combine remotely sensed and field data to calculate the carbon stored in the visited sites, (4) utilise this data to prediction the local geographic conditions and environmental relationships that favour peat genesis and accumulation to then estimate the locations and total carbon stored in WCS-managed areas across Congo.  

The student will benefit from five supervisors, three at Leeds, specialising in African carbon dynamics (Lewis), peat ecology (Lawson, Baird), African landscape management (CASE Partner Telfer), and tropical peatlands (Page, University of Leicester), who collectively are the authors of over 150 papers, including seven in Science/Nature.  The interdisciplinary nature of this project will provide the student with skills that will be of great value to their future scientific career.