NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship: The ecology of lightning strikes: How many trees in tropical forests killed by lightning?

University of Exeter - College of Life and Environmental Science

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). At least 4 fully-funded studentships that encompass the breadth of earth and environmental sciences are being offered to start in September 2017 at Exeter. The studentships will provide funding for a stipend which is currently £14,296 per annum for 2016-2017, research costs and UK/EU tuition fees at Research Council UK rates for 42 months (3.5 years) for full-time students, pro rata for part-time students.

Main supervisor:  Dr Ted Feldpausch, The University of Exeter 
(,  01392 722297)

Tropical forests are one of the most important and diverse ecosystems on Earth. However, recent research has revealed an increase in the rate of tropic tree mortality, with the consequence that the strength of the carbon sink provided by tropical forests is reducing (Brienen, 2015). It is therefore vital that we understand why tropical trees die.

Knowledge Gap
We know lightning can kill trees (Mäkelä, 2009). We also know that lightning strikes are most powerful and frequent in the tropics (Cecil, 2014, Figure 1) and, with climate change, are getting even more powerful. However, there is no information on the total number of trees in the tropics.  

If all the trees struck died, it would indicate that lightning was a major controlling factor of tropical tree mortality rates and an important control on forest dynamics and structure. Despite the potential significance, the challenges of studying lightning in the tropical forests, mean that next to nothing is known about this ecological process. 

You will join an interdisciplinary group of tropical ecologists, physicists and lightning engineers who have been recently funded to undertake the first ever systematic study into lightning induced tree mortality. The team has developed a novel sensor that allows lightning strikes on trees to be studied for the first time. You will join this team and participate in field campaigns at established field sites in Cameroon and Nigeria. Your project will address the following research questions:
Q1: Which trees are more likely to be struck by lightning?
Q2: Which trees are more likely to survive a lightning strike?
Q3: How does lightning influence the ecology and carbon balance of tropical forests?

This PhD involves a substantial amount of field work at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s research sites in Ngel Nyaki (Nigeria) and Korup (Cameroon). During your PhD you will be assisting in the installation of sensors and the collection of tree survey data, including allometry, functional traits and forest dynamics. This PhD provides the opportunity to work with a work-class research team on a genuinely novel research question and also ample opportunity to develop your own research interests.

Please see for full details and how to apply.

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South West England