PhD Studentship: Reducing the Environmental Impacts of Oil Palm Production in Malaysia - Environmental Sciences, PhD (NERC GW4+ DTP Funded)

University of Exeter - College of Life and Environmental Sciences

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership.  The GW4+ DTP consists of the GW4 Alliance of the Universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter plus six Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Met Office, Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

The studentships will provide funding for a stipend which is currently £14,553 per annum for 2017-2018, research costs and UK/EU tuition fees at Research Council UK rates for 42 months for full-time students, pro rata for part-time students.


Lead supervisor: Dr Iain Hartley
Co-Supervisor: Dr Tim Hill
Co-Supervisor: Prof Chris Evans (CEH)
Co-Supervisor: Dr Kho Lip Khoon

Project description:

Tropical peatlands store 89 GtC and are a vital component of the global carbon cycle (Page 2011). The rapid increase in the rate of conversion of tropical peatlands, mostly to oil palm, means that by 2015, 50% of tropical peatlands had been converted (Miettinen 2016). These conversions result in emissions of carbon dioxide. It is therefore vital that the oil palm industry improves the management of plantations to reduce their ongoing environmental impact, and to assess the restoration of degraded tropical peatlands. This project aims to determine whether careful control of water-table dynamics can minimize carbon emissions, while increasing oil palm production. Field measurements will be used to tackle fundamental science questions related to how carbon and nutrient cycling are controlled in tropical peat soils, and, through the collaboration with the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, the knowledge gained will be used to guide management practices.

Project Aims and Methods

During conversion to oil palm, peatlands are drained. The depth of the resulting water-table has been shown to control carbon emissions (Hooijer, 2010). However, data from our study site show that an annual mean water-table depth (as used in the Hooijer study) does not capture the actual dynamics. Rather seasonal variations in water-table depth (0 to 1m) appear to be important.

The aim of this PhD is to test the hypothesis that reducing annual variation in water-table depth will both reduce carbon emissions from drained peatlands and increase palm oil production. This will be achieved through a linked programme of small and large-scale experiments. The former will focus on manipulating water-table depths in peat cores and determining whether constant or fluctuating water-tables result in the greatest emissions, testing fundamental hypotheses related to controls over decomposition in tropical peats. In situ, the project will establish and control sluice gate systems to manipulate water-tables. The effects on carbon emission and oil palm production can then be determined.


We are looking for a highly-motivated student with an excellent understanding of terrestrial ecosystem dynamics, especially carbon and nutrient cycling. A strong background in academic research is required. Additionally, the successful candidate must be prepared to spend extended time periods in Malaysia establishing field experiments.

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South West England