Keeping above the waves? The response of coastal freshwater peatlands to sea-level rise

Theme: Environmental Hazards & Pollution

Primary Supervisor:

Alice Milner

Department of Geography, RHUL

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Secondary Supervisor:

Lisa Belyea

School of Geography, QMUL

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Additional Supervisor(s):

Kate Heppell (QMUL)
Andy Baird (University of Leeds)

Project Description:

There is considerable interest in how coastal saltwater ecosystems might adjust to sea-level rise and whether they will accrete rapidly enough to maintain their relative position in the tidal prism. This interest has arisen because of the importance of salt marshes and mangroves as natural coastal defences and as regionally- and globally-important (blue) carbon stores. Significantly less attention has been given to coastal freshwater wetlands, in particular peatlands such as floodplain fens. Sea-level rise caused by climate change is a potential major threat to these coastal freshwater wetlands. The ingress of saline water or higher groundwater could destroy their existing plant communities and their carbon sink function. In addition, inland areas currently protected by these wetlands may become more prone to flooding. There is some evidence that such wetlands have in the past increased their rates of peat accumulation in response to rising sea levels. However, the mechanisms involved are poorly understood, and without that understanding we cannot predict their response to future, rapid, increases in sea level. To address this critical research gap, this project will use a past-present-future approach, combining palaeoecological, process-based, and modelling work on two contrasting UK sites. The studentship is part of a larger project of the same name involving a national team of scientists at the University of Leeds, University of Exeter, RHUL and QMUL and there is considerable flexibility within the general topic to tailor your research to your main interests.

Policy Impact of Research:

Understanding freshwater wetland response to sea level rise is a priority for policymakers and land managers as they adapt for a warmer world. The work has international relevance, with a large number of at-risk low-lying wetlands around the world, and will help indicate where to prioritise management efforts.

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