Deforestation, forest degradation and fire in the tropics


Contact Professor Dominick Spracklen ( to discuss this project further informally.

Project description

The aim of this PhD project is to understand the links between tropical deforestation, forest degradation and fire and to quantify the impacts on regional air quality and climate. New satellite datasets allow the interactions between fire and land-use change to be studied in detail.

This project will use these latest datasets of fire and land-use change in combination with high-resolution model simulations. The PhD will contribute to an understanding of the role of fire in tropical land-use change and the impacts on climate and air quality.

Project outline: Deforestation and forest degradation are pervasive across the tropics (Kalamandeen et al., 2018), contributing to climate change (Spracklen et al., 2018), air pollution (Reddington et al., 2015), loss of biodiversity and other ecosystem services.

Forest degradation has historically been overlooked, but recent assessments suggest substantial contribution to carbon emissions. However, the impacts of forest degradation on regional climate and air quality are poorly known. Forest degradation may lead to a reduction in moisture fluxes and an increase in regional temperatures (Baker et al., in prep.). Smoke from understorey fires results in air pollution but the impacts are very uncertain.

Attempts to reduce deforestation and increased protection of primary forests may shift land-use pressures onto secondary forests, as well as causing increased fire and forest degradation. These complex interactions between land-use and fire need to be better understood if effective policies are to be developed to protect tropical forests.

Project objectives: This PhD project aims to understand linkages between deforestation, forest degradation, secondary forest regrowth and fire. The project will exploit new remote-sensed datasets of fire and land-use change to explore these relationships in more detail than has previously been possible.

This understanding will be used to make new predictions on the impacts of deforestation and forest degradation on regional air quality and climate. The project will focus on the Brazilian Amazon, exploiting the new TerraClass and DETER land-use datasets.

The project will involve the following components: Analysis of remote sensed datasets of land-use change and fire. The project will exploit the TerraClass (Almeida et al., 2016) and DETER (Diniz et al., 2015) datasets, which use remote sensed observations to track land-use change in the Brazilian Amazon in unprecedented detail.

The dataset will be combined with remote sensed datasets on the occurrence of fire to answer key questions on the role of land-use in the frequency of fire. The project will explore the contribution of fire to forest degradation over the past decade and the link between secondary forests, forest degradation and fire.

New estimate of emissions from fire on regional atmosphere. Land-use datasets will be combined with fire data to revise estimates of the emissions of carbon and air pollutants from fire in the Brazilian Amazon. New estimate of the impacts of forest fire on regional atmosphere. The revised emissions developed above will be combined with high-resolution atmospheric models to quantify the impacts of emissions from fires on the regional atmosphere.

Training: The PhD will provide world-class training in 1) land-atmosphere interactions and climate science, 2) the analysis of large geophysical datasets, 3) numerical modelling of the atmosphere and land-surface, 4) use of high-performance computing, 5) communication of results outside academia.


  • Almeida et al., High spatial resolution land use and land cover mapping of the Brazilian Legal Amazon in 2008 using Landsat-5/TM and MODIS data, Acta Amaz., 46(3), 2016.
  • Diniz et al., DETER-B: The new Amazon near real-time deforestation detection system, IEEE, 3619-3628, 2015. Kalamandeen, M. et al., Pervasive rise of small-scale deforestation in Amazonia, Scientific Reports, 8, 1600, doi:10.1038/s41598-018-19358-2, 2018.
  • Reddington, C.L., Butt, E.W., Ridley, D.A., Artaxo, P., Morgan, W.T., Coe, H., Spracklen, D.V., Air quality and human health improvements from reductions in deforestation-related fire in Brazil, Nature Geoscience, doi:10.1038/ngeo2535, 2015.
  • Spracklen, D.V., Baker, J.C.A., Garcia-Carreras, L., Marsham, J., The effects of tropical vegetation on rainfall, Annual Review of the Environment and Resources, 42,, 2018.

Key benefits

You will collaborate closely with other PhD students and research fellows and as part of the DECAF (Deforestation – Climate – Atmospheric composition – Fire interactions and feedbacks) project, funded by the European Research Council.

You will be embedded in the Biosphere-Atmosphere Research Group (, a vibrant group of researchers working on science linking the biosphere and atmosphere. The Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Science (ICAS, has about 80 PhD students researching a wide range of topics including climate change, air pollution, and meteorology.

Atmospheric science at Leeds is ranked 9th in the Centre for World University Rankings ( The Priestley International Centre for Climate provides interdisciplinary opportunities for collaboration to help underpin robust solutions to climate change. The project is in partnership with Marcos Adami, developer of the TerraClass and DETER datasets at INPE (Brazilian National Institute for Space Research). We would expect that the student would undertake some research trips to INPE in Brazil.

Entry requirements

Applications are invited from motivated and enthusiastic candidates with an interest in environmental problems related to land-use change and climate, and a strong background in a quantitative science (minimum of a UK upper second class Honours degree (2.i) or equivalent in maths, chemistry, physics, engineering, environmental sciences). Familiarity with programming and scientific computing is an advantage but not essential.

If English is not your first language, you must provide evidence that you meet the University’s minimum English Language requirements.

How to apply

Formal applications for research degree study should be made online through the university's website. Please state clearly in the research information section that the PhD you wish to be considered for is the ‘Deforestation, forest degradation and fire in the tropics' as well as Professor Dominick Spracklen as your proposed supervisor.

If you require any further information, please contact the Graduate School Office e:, or t: +44 (0)113 343 1634.

We welcome scholarship applications from all suitably-qualified candidates, but UK black and minority ethnic (BME) researchers are currently under-represented in our Postgraduate Research community, and we would therefore particularly encourage applications from UK BME candidates. All scholarships will be awarded on the basis of merit.